With Astros’ ace Roy Oswalt wanting out of a bad situation, and the increasing likelihood that Cliff Lee will be dealt at the trade deadline, Twins fans have quite understandably been inquiring about the chances the front office will land either one. While the starting rotation has been pretty solid for the past couple of seasons, it has lacked a prototypical number one starter since Johan Santana was traded to the Mets. Whether it’s really wise to deal for a mid-season rental (Doyle Alexander, anyone?), even if that rental is Cliff Lee, is certainly debatable. However, lost in all of the excitement over Lee and Oswalt is that the Twins don’t really need to pull off any blockbuster deals for a front-line starter: they already have one in Francisco Liriano. (Continued, after the jump)
Right now, Francisco Liriano is one of the top three pitchers in the American League, and easily in the top 5 in all of baseball. He’s second only to Cliff Lee in fWAR, though just barely, 2.7 to Lee’s 2.9, and fifth in major-league baseball. His 9.41 K/9 rate is the third-best in the AL, behind Brandon Morrow (10.41) and Jered Weaver (9.87). His 2.60 BB/9 rate is also very good, though it doesn’t compare to teammates Carl Pavano (1.37) and Nick Blackburn (1.87; hey, it’s the one thing Blackbeard does well). Liriano is second only to Cliff Lee in xFIP in the AL, with a fantastic 3.12 mark. If you prefer plain old FIP over smaller sample sizes, Liriano is again, second only to Lee in the AL with an even more fantastic 2.28 mark. Heck, even if you don’t trust all of these newfangled stats, you would have to admit his 3.10 ERA is pretty ace-like.
Barring injury (which is always a concern for someone with Liriano’s health history), there isn’t any real reason to think that F-Bomb won’t continue to pitch this well the rest of the season. There isn’t anything to suggest these numbers are fluky in any way. His .349 batting average on balls in play is around league-average, but one cannot judge whether a pitcher is simply getting lucky on BABIP alone. Stuff-wise, Liriano really is an entirely different pitcher this year than last. His fastball has gained a few mph in velocity, up to an average 93.5 mph (and topping out at 95 mph) from the 91.7 mph it averaged last year. It’s also had a lot more movement and, unlike last year, he’s actually been able to throw it for strikes (64.6% of his fastballs have been strikes). His vastly-improved heater has been inducing a lot more ground balls, 49.5% for a 1.56 ground-ball/fly-ball rate. Subsequently, his home run rate has decreased significantly since last year, from a career-high 1.83 HR/9 down to 0.25. That rate probably isn’t sustainable, but it shouldn’t increase by much. Combined with his nasty 85-mph slider (which has a 24% whiff rate), hitters have simply been overmatched at the plate.
So, why has Liriano been overlooked as the Twins’ ace? I don’t think it’s so much that he’s overlooked; I think most Twins fans are absolutely thrilled with his performance thus far. It’s more that nobody is quite sure if they can believe in him just yet. The last time F-Bomb performed anywhere close to this level, his arm blew up. He did show some flashes of brilliance in his first season back from Tommy John surgery, but his overall performance was pretty mediocre. And he is coming off of the worst season of his career, in which he posted a 5.80 ERA, 4.55 xFIP, a 4.28 BB/9 rate nearly as high as his xFIP (though his 8.03 K/9 rate was still very good and likely the reason the organization wasn’t ready to give up on him), and ultimately lost his starting job to Brian Duensing. Twins fans would like to believe this current version of Liriano is for real, but who knows what he’ll do next year? Maybe he’ll contend for the Cy Young like he’s doing right now, or maybe he’ll struggle like the best pitchers in baseball last year, Zack Greinke and Tim Lincecum, are doing right now. With Oswalt and Lee there’s a lot more certainty, a much larger body of greatness to draw upon. Oswalt is declining, but he’s never been worth less than 2.7 fWAR, even in the worst seasons of his career. Lee isn’t quite as established as Oswalt, but he’s been the best left-handed pitcher in baseball since 2008. Still, it’s hard to justify mortgaging the future to fill a hole the team doesn’t really have, especially when there are more pressing needs.