The Toronto Blue Jays front office has had a recent history of gambling on under-performing pitchers such as Jason Grilli and Joaquin Benoit in 2016. In the off-season, they continued that trend with the signings of Joe Smith and J.P. Howell. They also took a chance on Francisco Liriano last season and the results were good. Though the sample size was small, it bodes well for the Blue Jays going into 2017, where they may have the MLB’s best 5th starter.
The Blue Jays acquired Liriano from the Pittsburgh Pirates at the last minute of the trade deadline. In the deal, they got prospects Harold Ramirez and Reese McGuire, two prospects who are shooting up the Blue Jays rankings. Those three pieces were acquired for next to nothing in 6th starter Drew Hutchison. Pretty good trade, wouldn’t you say?
At the time of the trade, Liriano was struggling. Struggling is a bit of an understatement as he was below replacement level at -0.3 fWAR. Old problems came back to haunt Liriano, those being base on balls. Liriano has so much movement on all of his pitches that at times, it can be very difficult for him to keep it in the strike-zone. He had a 5.46 BB/9 (13.2 BB%) when he came over to Toronto but that changed drastically once he hooked up with old battery mate Russell Martin.
With the Blue Jays, Liriano threw a total of 49.1 innings across 8 starts and 2 relief appearances. He was a part of a 6 man rotation to help limit the innings thrown by Aaron Sanchez to help keep him as a starter into the playoffs. It paid off for the most part. Over those 49.1 innings, Liriano’s BB/9 was 2.92 (7.7 BB%) and a lot of it can be credited to his confidence with Martin behind the plate.
Liriano and Martin were teammates with Pittsburgh in 2013 and 2014, when Frankie was at his best since his 2010 season with the Minnesota Twins. With Russell Martin for 2 years and the Pirates for 3, his seasons broke down as follows:
- 2013 – 161.0 IP, 16-8, 3.02 ERA, 2.92 FIP, 3.12 xFIP, 24.5 K%, 9.5 BB%, 3.3 fWAR
- 2014 – 162.1 IP, 7-10, 3.38 ERA, 3.59 FIP, 3.40 xFIP, 25.3 K%, 11.7 BB%, 1.8 fWAR
- 2015 – 186.2 IP, 12-7, 3.38 ERA, 3.19 FIP, 3.16 xFIP, 26.5 K%, 9.1 BB%, 3.6 fWAR (with Francisco Cervelli)
In 2016, Liriano got off to a decent start with Cervelli behind the plate. In April, Liriano posted a 3.86 ERA but there were warning signs that he wasn’t the same dominant Liriano like his 13.5 BB% and 5.43 FIP. It only got worse with a 5.34 ERA in May. When Francisco Cervelli got hurt in late May, he posted a whopping 7.03 ERA in June. In July, he had a 5.81 ERA and was then shipped to Toronto.
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After coming to Toronto, he threw up a 3.97 ERA in August and was dominant in September with a 2.02 ERA. In his dominant September, his BB% was 5.6 and struck out 26.9% of batters faced. A lot of Liriano’s success the past few seasons always seems to be when he’s hooked up with a good defensive catcher that he can trust to catch his pitches. That has been the trend and I see no reason why it cannot continue into 2017.
Part of the reason for Liriano’s success since 2013 has been the way he mixes up his pitches and that can be accredited to Russell Martin and Francisco Cervelli. From 2013 to 2016 he mixed his pitches quite well where he threw his fastball an average of 43.6% of the time, his slider 33.6% of the time, and his changeup 22.7% of the time. With the Pirates in 2016 his fastball was thrown 51.0%, slider at 31.1%, and changeup just 17.9%. With the Blue Jays, it was 51.1% fastball, 26.1% slider, and 22.8% changeup. Mixing in that changeup has been key the past few seasons.
While it can’t all be contributed to the breakdown of pitches thrown and who’s catching Liriano, it all comes down to execution and throwing quality pitches. What a surprise! That’s like every pitcher but a guy like Liriano who has wicked movement on all of his pitches, it’s extra paramount. That can call for a catcher that he can trust to catch his stuff and he once again has that in Russell Martin.
If Liriano’s second half with the Blue Jays is a sign of things to come, look out. He looked much similar to the ace he was with the Pirates. He might have the most electric sliders in all of baseball. His stuff is so good and moves a ton. He may challenge Aaron Sanchez for best stuff on the team. For a full report on stuff, take a look at this website from Mike Sonne, a local writer from Toronto.
A full season of Francisco Liriano and Russell Martin is trending in a very good direction for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2017.