With the playoffs on the line, Francisco Liriano should be pitching the Wild Card game for the Blue Jays
The Jays are fortunate to have two solid options to start the wild card game on Tuesday. Both Marcus Stroman and Francisco Liriano have been pitching well, and both have the potential to pitch the dominating game on Tuesday that the Jays might need.
Many writers believe that the frontrunner is Marcus. It is his turn in the rotation, and John Gibbons did have Liriano warming up in the bullpen on Sunday.
But that could be a mistake.
Baltimore hates left-handers
Liriano is a left-handed pitcher, while Stroman is a righty. This would ordinarily not be a major decision factor – but the Orioles are not an ordinary team. In 2016, against right-handers, the O’s have 204 HRs (one every 22 PAs), a .263/.322/.461 batting line, and a 107 team wRC+. Pretty scary! But against lefties, they have 49 HRs (one every 31 PAs), a .234/.301/.391 line and a wRC+ of 83. To put that in Blue Jays terms, against righties their average hitter is Troy Tulowitzki and against lefties they are Kevin Pillar.
Marcus has struggled against BAL
Yes, I know – Marcus has only four starts against the O’s this year, and it is hard to draw conclusions from such a small sample. But he has a 7.04 ERA over those four games, and he did not hold Baltimore to less than three runs in any of those four starts. Even his last game, when he held the O’s to four runs over seven innings, still translates to an ERA over five.
It is possible that these stats mean nothing, and that Marcus could throw a no-hitter. But is also possible that Baltimore “sees” Stroman better than average, and a Wild Card game is not the place to find out.
Liriano is a stud. Stroman is not – yet.
From 2013-2015, Liriano had an xFIP of 3.22, 23rd best in the majors. Better than Hamels, better than Cueto, better than Zimmerman. His ERA over that period was 3.26. In his eight starts since coming to Toronto, Frankie’s ERA is 2.92. As good as Stroman is – or perhaps will be – it is hard to sit a starter with this pedigree in his favour.
The fatigue factor
Stroman pitched 204 innings in 2016, 70+ more than his previous high of 130 in 2014. Marcus’ average game score (a statistic used to measure the quality of a pitcher’s starts) in September was 55, as compared to 61 in August, and 58 in July. Could he be tiring?
Liriano is currently at 163 IP, 23 innings less than he pitched in 2015.
The bottom line
I can’t think of another team who could have their top three starters unavailable for a Wild Card game and still have two excellent options. The Jays are lucky. But in a win-or-go-home game like this one, the Jays need to ensure that the odds are in their favour. And those odds favour Francisco Liriano.