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Entries in Francisco Liriano (10)

Friday
Feb212014

Gerrit Cole Stays Strong in Late Frames

Last year, the Pittsburgh Pirates rode a high-strikeout, homer-preventing starting rotation to the club's first playoff appearance since 1992. The Bucs' 2014 rotation, however, is far from a lock to post another top-five ERA. A.J. Burnett took his National League-leading strikeout rate and wicked curve to Philly. Francisco Liriano eviscerated hitters last year, but has yet to log back-to-back great seasons during his eight-year career. Charlie Morton mauls righties with his turbo sinker, but turns every lefty he faces into Shin-Soo Choo. Wandy Rodriguez is 35 and has an arthritic left elbow. Jeff Locke walks hitters like Liriano, without the strikeout stuff. By comparison, Edinson Volquez makes Liriano and Locke look like Greg Maddux.

With Burnett gone and the rest of the rotation volatile, the Pirates desperately need Gerrit Cole build upon his excellent rookie year and become a dominant, durable ace. The first overall pick in the 2011 draft looks up to the challenge. Cole quickly progressed from a guy who chucked little more than mid-to-high-90s fastballs in the over the plate to a pitcher capable of expanding hitters' zones with a pair of sinister breaking pitches. Cole struck out just 10.9% of batters faced in June, but he nearly tripled that whiff rate by September (31.2%) and earned a win-or-go-home start over Burnett in Game 5 of the NLDS against the Cardinals.

At 6-foot-4 and 240-plus pounds, Cole looks the part of a workhorse. But, more importantly, he performed like one during his rookie season. Most starters get hit harder while facing hitters for the second and third time during a game, losing zip on their pitches and no longer fooling opponents now familiar with their stuff. Not Cole, though. The 23-year-old tasked with leading the Pirates back to the playoffs in 2014 didn't waver in the late innings:

Opponent OPS 1st time through the lineup: .713 (.699 MLB average)

Opponent OPS 2nd time through the lineup: .550 (.730 MLB average)

Opponent OPS 3rd time through the lineup: .612 (.760 MLB average)

Cole started a little slow, with an opponent OPS about two percent worse than the major league average for starters while facing hitters the first time. But then, when lots of guys tail off, Cole smothered hitters. His opponent OPS was 25 percent better than average while facing batters the second time during a start, and 20 percent above average while taking on the lineup a third time.

How does Cole stay strong as his pitch count piles up? He never loses his top-flight fastball. Cole threw his fastball an average of 95.6 MPH in 2013, trailing only Miami's Nathan Eovaldi (96.1 MPH) among all starters. Check out his heat by inning:

1st: 95.7

2nd: 95.5

3rd: 95.7

4th: 95.3

5th: 95.6

6th: 95.7

7th: 95.1

8th: 94.8

When hitters face Cole, they're getting mid-90s gas from beginning to end. And as the game progresses, his fastball gets nastier. Cole got swings and misses 15.2% of the time during the first three innings of his starts. In innings 6-8, he induced whiffs 23% of the time. That's seventh-best among starters throwing at least 200 fastballs during those frames, just behind Yu Darvish and ahead of Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer.

His command of the pitch improves, too: Cole threw 27.2% of his fastballs to the horizontal middle of the strike zone in innings 1-3, but just 18.2% in innings 6-8. That matters because fastballs left over the middle of the plate get plastered (hitters slugged a collective .496 versus middle fastballs last year).

The Pirates surrendered the second-fewest runs (577) in the majors last season, but all of Clint Hurdle's defensive shifts and Ray Searage's reclamation work with broken starters likely won't be enough to keep them at that level (Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA, for instance, expects them to give up 678 runs next year). If Pittsburgh has any prayer of another Buctober in 2014, they'll need to ride Cole's resilient right arm deep into games.

Wednesday
Dec182013

Believing in Edinson Volquez

Poorly as Edinson Volquez pitches, teams just keep coming back for more. It has been half a decade since Volquez vanquished hitters with premium heat and a tumbling changeup, making the All-Star team and finishing fourth in NL Rookie of the Year voting with the Reds in 2008. Since then, he has arguably been the lousiest pitcher in baseball not booted out of the rotation. Once you account for park factors and league run-scoring levels, Volquez had the worst ERA (25 percent below average) among starters tossing at least 500 innings from 2009-13.

Despite all of that aggravation -- Tommy John surgery, LaLoosh-like control, quick hooks aplenty -- Volquez continues to get opportunities. The Pirates are the latest club hoping to channel Volquez's '08 form, signing him to a one-year, $5 million free agent deal for rotation depth in case A.J. Burnett retires or refuses to take a below-market deal to remain in Pittsburgh. Let's be honest: Expecting Burnett and ending up with Volquez is kind of like asking Santa for an XBox One and instead unwrapping a Cosby sweater on Christmas morning.

Those who still believe in Volquez point out that he bears some resemblance to the Bucs' 2012 reclamation project, Francisco Liriano -- lots of strikeouts, ground ball tendencies and a fielding-independent ERA (4.24) far lower than his actual ERA (5.71), suggesting better days are ahead. Of course, Volquez could just climb the ranks of starters who continue to get the ball despite getting their heads handed to them on a regular basis (during the Expansion Era, only Jimmy Haynes and Randy Lerch have made more starts while posting a worse adjusted ERA).

If Volquez is ever going to succeed again in the majors, Pittsburgh may be the place. Pitching coach Ray Searage has helped resuscitate the careers of Liriano, Burnett and Charlie Morton. The 30-year-old righty will also benefit from working with two of the best pitch-framing catchers in the business, and a collection of rangy fielders who gobble up grounders and fly balls.

Martin, Stewart steal strikes

Volquez deserves plenty of blame for issuing 4.8 free passes per nine frames during his career, ninth-highest among Expansion Era starters throwing at least 850 innings. But it doesn't help that he also gets squeezed by umps on pitches located on the edges of the zone, and he rarely gets calls on pitches thrown a bit off the plate. Over the past three years, Volquez has a slightly lower called strike rate on pitches thrown within the strike zone (80 percent) than the MLB average (81 percent). On pitches thrown outside of the zone, Volquez has gotten called strikes just 7.7 percent of the time, well below the 9.7 percent average.

Luckily for Volquez, his new battery mates excel at getting strikes on close calls. Russell Martin has an 82.5 percent called strike rate on in-zone pitches since 2011, while backup Chris Stewart (84.3 percent) has fared even better. Both steal strikes on out-of-zone pitches, too (10.9 percent called strike rate for Martin, and 11.1 percent for Stewart). Searage and Volquez have countless video screenings and bullpen sessions ahead of them to address the pitcher's control woes, but the Bucs' catchers give them a head start.

The power of quality D

Part of the reason why Volquez underachieved last year was his .330 batting average on balls in play, fourth-highest among qualified starters and 24 points above his career average. In particular, his BABIP on fly balls (.231) was dead last among starters and over 100 points above the MLB average (.128). With Starling Marte and Andrew McCutchen chasing down fly balls in Pittsburgh (and graceful right field prospect Gregory Polanco not far away), Volquez should see fewer pitches reaching the gaps in 2015.

Collectively, Bucs pitchers had a .121 BABIP on fly balls last season. Overall, Pittsburgh converted balls put in play into outs at the fifth-best clip in the majors. By comparison, the Padres and Dodgers (Volquez's 2013 teams) ranked near the middle of the pack. Better luck and better defense should help Volquez get his ERA out of the high fives.

Volquez has some built-in advantages in Pittsburgh, though the same was said in San Diego, where he pitched in spacious Petco Park under the tutelage of Bud Black. His top-tier stuff could be waning, given that he lost a tick on his fastball (from 93.4 MPH in 2012 to 92.4 MPH in 2013) and struck out a career-low 7.5 batters per nine innings last year.

Maybe he is the second coming of Liriano, erasing years of disappointment with a dominant season. But for every Liriano, there are a dozen Kyle Davies who just never figure it out. Volquez keeps getting chances, with pitching coaches thinking he's a few mechanical tweaks away from turning back the clock to 2008. Past promise counts for less with each passing day, though. If Volquez can't make it with the Pirates, he might not get another chance.

Friday
Nov222013

Josh Johnson: This Winter's Francisco Liriano?

When it comes to joining baseball's uber-rich via free agency, timing is everything. Hit the market after a career year, and you might just land a $100 million deal despite a longer track record suggesting you're more league-average innings muncher than ace (hello, Ervin Santana). But enter the bidding after a season defined more by DL stints and quick hooks than quality starts, and you're staring at the prospect of a one-year, "prove it" contract that pays a fraction of what you used to make.

Case in point: Josh Johnson. While the former Marlin and Blue Jay hasn't proven near as durable as Santana, Johnson easily bests him on a per-inning basis (Johnson's career park-and-league adjusted ERA is 23 percent above average, compared to exactly average for Santana). But Johnson, who recently agreed to a one-year, $8 million deal with the Padres, reached free agency at the worst possible moment. He's coming off a 2013 campaign in which he tossed just 81.1 innings due to triceps, knee, forearm and elbow injuries. And those innings were terrible: His 66 ERA+ was sixth-worst in the majors among starting pitchers throwing 80+ frames, ahead of just Barry Zito, Ryan Vogelsong, Brandon Maurer, Edinson Volquez and Joe Blanton.

Johnson, who raked in $13.75 million during his first and last season in Toronto, will take a sizeable pay cut in 2014 despite teams throwing around cash like Kenny Powers on a bender. But health permitting, Johnson may prove to be a major bargain. Here are three reasons why the 29-year-old could be this winter's version of Francisco Liriano, reclaiming ace status through a combination of better luck and knockout breaking stuff.

He was ridiculously unlucky in 2013

During his nine-year career, Johnson has surrendered hits on balls in play at a league average clip (.302 BABIP). But his .356 BABIP last season was second-highest among pitchers making at least 15 starts, with only Wade Davis (.362 BABIP) suffering from more bloops and bleeders. Johnson has typically given up fewer home runs on fly balls hit (8.2 percent of the time) than the MLB average (around 11 percent). Last year, though, his HR/FB rate more than doubled to 18.5 percent -- fourth highest among starters. Johnson wasn't giving up lots of towering shots, as opponents' average distance on fly balls hit against him (269 feet) was about league average (266 feet). It's doesn't look like he suddenly turned into a pinata. Rather, Johnson had lousy luck on balls in play and gave up some wall-scraping homers.

He missed bats, especially with his breaking stuff

Johnson's stuff didn't suffer as he endured one ailment after another, as he struck out a career-high 9.2 batters per nine innings. He punched out hitters at the 14th-best clip among starters, sandwiched between a former Sugarland Skeeter who revived his career (Scott Kazmir) and Liriano. Johnson induced about a league average number of swings and misses with his fastball (14.4 percent), but his breaking stuff was wicked. He got whiffs 39.6 percent of the time with his slider, easily topping the 30.9 percent MLB average for starters. His curveball was even harder to square up: Johnson's 49.4 percent miss rate with the pitch bested all starters except AL Cy Young finalist Yu Darvish (50 percent). High ERA aside, Johnson shouldn't be mentioned in the same sentence as soft-tossing, strikeout challenged guys like Blanton and Zito.

He located his pitches

Some might argue that Johnson gave up so many hits on balls in play because missed his spots, hanging pitches over the middle of the plate for hitters to pulverize. That wasn't really the case, though, as he actually threw fewer pitches to the vertical middle of the strike zone (31.1 percent) than the MLB average (32 percent). Johnson was particularly adept at keeping his breaking stuff out of the middle of the zone:

Johnson's pitch location with his slider and curveball in 2013

Johnson threw an MLB-high 77.7 percent of his sliders and curveballs to the lower third of the strike zone, far above the 55.2 percent average for starters. Why does that matter? Hitters rarely make hard contact against low breaking pitches (.253 slugging percentage), but they reach the gaps or clear the fence far more often on belt-high curves and sliders (.475 slugging percentage). Johnson's sky-high BABIP and homer rate look more the product of bad bounces than bad command.

While the ace-turned-scrapheap sign didn't land a fat contract this winter, Johnson could well be in a position to do so next year. He still possesses the talent to evade lumber and spot his stuff, and he'll have the benefit of making home starts at Petco Park, which StatCorner says decreased run-scoring by 15 percent compared to a neutral stadium in 2013. If you're in search of a favorite for 2014 NL Comeback Player of the Year, Johnson tops the list.