Few fans were excited to see the Detroit Tigers pick up Francisco Liriano during the offseason, even if expectations were limited. Though the contract was a bargain and the team is likely going nowhere, Liriano posted a combined 5.05 ERA over the past two seasons and represented a threat to the starting time of younger pitchers such as Daniel Norris.
In his first two starts with the Tigers, though, Liriano has been on a mission to prove his worth. The southpaw has conceded just three earned runs in over 12 innings pitched, and he has looked worthy of his spot in the rotation. Both by the eye and the box score, Liriano appears to have turned a page from his last couple seasons, but perhaps it would be wise to pump the brakes.
What has gone right
Before investigating potential fool’s gold, Liriano deserves some credit for his first two outings, which come with a fairly impressive stat line: 12 2⁄3 innings pitched, three earned runs on seven hits, seven strikeouts, and five walks. Though his strikeouts are down, so are his walks. Only three of the hits he has allowed have gone for extra bases. The Tigers will certainly take six innings from him every time out as well.
Liriano’s early success is partly due to a newfound ability to prevent home runs. He has surrendered just one so far in 2018. His 5.9 percent home run to fly ball rate is well below his career average, and it is vital given his fly ball rate of almost 50 percent this season. If his strategy is to make opponents put the ball in play and let his defense take care of the rest, it seems to be working. It’s also very unlikely to last.
Recipe for disaster
Despite all of the positives surrounding Liriano’s beginning of the season, it does feel like it is a bit of a mirage. The obvious caveat here is that two starts — against teams that rank in the bottom eight in both runs scored and wRC+ — are not enough to draw many meaningful conclusions. Of the assessments that can be made so far, most are not positive.
The biggest red flag for Liriano is his fly ball rate. At 47.7 percent, he ranks in the top 25 of all starters. This is substantially higher than his career average and a steep incline from recent seasons. Perhaps this is due to the fly ball revolution surrounding baseball, but if that is the case, the results could get ugly quickly.
Though he has given up many fly balls, Liriano has recorded zero — yes, zero — infield pop-ups. This is due to the absurd 44.4 percent hard contact rate his is currently enduring. With a soft contact rate less than 13.9 percent, it is amazing his numbers have stayed so clean, and that opponents have not displayed any power.
Undoubtedly his .171 BABIP (well off his .300 career mark) will jump up, as will his home run per fly ball percentage, which is almost half of his career average rate. With a 14.9 percent strikeout rate which is currently on pace for a career low, batters are making plenty of quality contact against Liriano, they just do not have the results to show for it.
Water finds its level
Something is going to give. It definitely is possible that Liriano has made real improvements ahead of this season and that he is doing something to keep hitters off balance. Watching him through his first two starts has not led to any alarms being sounded, and he does look like a better pitcher than he did last season.
However, the numbers do not lie. Liriano has been getting drilled constantly and has not paid for it. There is simply no way his BABIP and home run rate can remain this good throughout the whole year.
It is possible that Liriano is trending in the right direction, but it is also likely that his early success is mostly due to very cold weather suppressing fly balls (both starts came during temperatures under 40 degrees) and two offenses who have looked lifeless this season. It’s also possible that we’ll see Liriano’s typically solid strikeout rates return as the weather warms and pitchers can once again feel their fingers on the mound. The question is whether that factor will improve enough to minimize the damage as fly balls start riding warmer air out of the ballpark. The box scores could look much different come this summer.