By Wesley James
Blue Jays from Away
Now that the season is over, the crew at Blue Jays from Away will take a look at the Blue Jays one by one and review how each player’s season went, whether he met expectations (or not) and look at how he fits into (what we think of) the Blue Jays’ plans going forward.
In his first start of 2017, Francisco Liriano looked into the Tampa Bay crowd with a quizzical look on his face. Like a Jedi whose powers were working against him, Liriano couldn’t find the strike zone. Every pitch approached the plate and then veered off, sometimes well off the plate. After four walks, five hits, and one strike out, the Blue Jays mercifully pulled him. His ERA for the day stood at 135.00. The rest of his season was better - but that’s not saying much.
Liriano is as unpredictable as his pitches. When the 2017 season started, some had Liriano as a possible American League Cy Young winner. He ended the season in the bullpen as a lefty specialist for the Houston Astros - with a World Series ring he didn’t do much to earn. But even that fact highlights the contradictory nature of Lirano’s career.
Liriano treated Blue Jays fans to every side of his pitching style during his time in Toronto. After he was traded to Toronto in 2016 from the Pittsburgh Pirates, he was exceptional, arriving just as Toronto was attempting to curtail the number of innings they wanted Aaron Sanchez to pitch. Liriano stepped in and clocked a 2.92 ERA with a 1.17 WHIP over eight starts, topping it off with a clean 1 2/3 innings in relief of Marcus Stroman in the 2016 AL Wild Card game.
In 2017, Liriano traded in that 147 ERA+ performance for a below average 80 ERA+ while pitching to a 5.66 ERA and a WHIP just north of 1.60. As a result he was traded to the Houston Astros for Teoscar Hernandez. In Houston, he fared only slightly better, pitching to a 4.40 ERA in 20 games, entirely out of the bullpen.
Twice in his career Liriano has won the Major League Baseball Comeback Player of the Year Award. The first time was in 2010 while with the Minnesota Twins, following a long road back from Tommy John surgery. The second time was in 2013 while with the Pittsburgh Pirates, following a long battle with control. Liriano primarily throws a sinker/slider combination with a changeup. And those pitches are electric with a lot of late movement, whether he finds the strike zone or not.
Despite the ups and downs in his career there was a lot of hope in the spring of 2017 that Liriano’s control issues were behind him. In 2013, Pittsburgh Pirate pitching coach Ray Searage - who has made a name for himself reviving pitching careers and mechanics, including those of J.A. Happ, A.J. Burnett, Charlie Morton, Edinson Volquez and others - adjusted Lirano’s delivery. For the next three seasons Liriano was a key piece of the Pirates’ rotation, never pitching above a 3.50 ERA. But in 2016 something went wrong and by the end of July 2016 Liriano sported an ERA of 5.46, over 2 points higher than the previous three years. As a result he was traded to the Blue Jays, along with prospects Reese McGuire and Harold Ramirez, in exchange for Drew Hutchison. Liriano improved almost immediately and credit was handed out to both Russell Martin - both for his framing and pitch calling - and pitching coach Pete Walker. Between spring of 2013 and the 2016 playoffs there was only that four month stretch of inconsistency in early 2016. Optimism was palpable for a career season in 2017.
So, why was 2017 so bad?
That’s a tricky one. At 34 years old his body might just be on the wrong side of the aging curve. But a more interesting explanation could be the use of a pitch he’s not known for throwing.
In 2016, Liriano threw a lot more four-seam fastballs. Following his arrival in Toronto, his four-seam fastball use increased from 1.9 percent in 0-0 counts to 7.2 percent, peaking at almost 13 percent in September. With all the movement on his breaking pitches it made sense to revert to a four-seam fastball that breaks little, especially in certain counts and if he was struggling with control. This also set up the rest of his pitches differently as he increased the use of his changeup and decreased the use of his sinker. In 2017 he threw only five four-seam fastballs total for the entire year and reduced the use of his changeup. For some reason he didn’t feel that his fastball was part of the solution.
Whatever the magic potion is for Liriano’s control issues moving forward, it won’t be found in a single answer. The Astros have apparently discussed re-signing him but it might take a lot of injuries for him to get another long term look as a starter. His career numbers against lefties are impressive and with a 222/.297/.306 slash line against south paws he might see the latter end of his career as primarily a bullpen piece.
2017 Regular Season Grades
Jay Blue: C-
Wesley James: C-
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The 2017 Toronto Blue Jays Minor League Handbook is now available! Visit the Handbook page for more information!