Player highlight: Francisco Liriano

I got a lot of positive feedback on the Geovany Soto profile, so thanks to everyone who e-mailed me. I promised a few of you over the past couple of months that I would profile Twins starter Francisco Liriano once I learned a little more about his injury and recovery. I have, so, as promised, here is my take on Liriano for 2008. As always, we’ll check out his numbers first.

Numbers

YEARAGELASTFIRSTTEAMLGGGSIPERALIPS ERAWHIPDIPS WHIPK/9BB/9K/BBxGB%LOB%BABIPHR/FBLD%
200521LirianoFranciscoTwinsAA131376.73.64N/A1.26N/A10.853.073.5460.474.80.33512.210.2
200521LirianoFranciscoTwinsAAA1414911.78N/A0.88N/A11.082.374.6754.983.30.2596.15.3
200622LirianoFranciscoTwinsAL28161212.162.771.001.0610.712.384.5056.785.00.28513.221.0
200723LirianoFranciscoTwinsALTommy John Surgery Recovery — Did Not Play

Note: Minor league stats came from Jeff Sackmann’s excellent website MinorLeagueSplits.com.
*For minor league numbers, straight ground ball rate is given instead of expected ground ball rate.

In case you didn’t realize looking at the above table, Francisco Liriano is good. Really good. Or at least he was in the minors in 2005 and for the Twins in 2006. Before we dig too deep into the numbers, though, let’s check out his injury situation.

Injury concerns

First, an enormous thanks to Rick Wilton of Baseball Injury Report for this information. I spent a lot of time talking to Rick in Arizona. On top of being a great guy, he has an immense knowledge of injuries and how they affect baseball players. If you are going to subscribe to one fantasy baseball service this year, make it Baseball Injury Report.

Now let’s talk about Liriano. Lirano underwent Tommy John surgery on November 6, 2006. In Rick’s presentation in Arizona, he cited a study conducted by Dr. James R. Andrews and Dr. Laura A. Timmerman that found 82% of pitchers who undergo Tommy John surgery return to their previous form at a mean return time of 18.5 months. I searched for the study online but had difficulty finding it, although I am certain it is out there. I found this study that came to the exact same conclusions.

So, where will Liriano be at the 18.5 month mark? Well, that would be the middle of May 2008. Rick said that everything he’s heard about his recovery has been great, and that he is right on track for a full recovery. It would seem that Liriano might have a somewhat rocky start to the season, but should cruise through the final four months.

I’d next like to take minute to talk about a few myths related to Tommy John surgery and how the savvy fantasy owner can take advantage of them.

I’ve commonly heard people say that pitchers who undergo Tommy John surgery don’t bounce back to their previous form until their second season back (meaning 2009, for Liriano). The studies mentioned above show that this doesn’t seem to be the case.

I also think that Tommy John surgery sounds like a much scarier procedure than it actually is. People hear it and know that the pitcher will be out for a long time. Subconsciously, they think that such a major procedure must have consequences for the pitcher, either with a decrease in stats or with a large chance of a relapse. Again, this isn’t really the case. I think this can be explained simply by looking at what Tommy John surgery actually is.

When a pitcher undergoes Tommy John surgery, a ligament in the elbow is replaced by a tendon that is taken out of the back of the knee. After the surgery, the pitcher is, for all intents and purposes, brand new. Because of the nature of the surgery, it seems as though the pitcher doesn’t really have any greater of a chance of re-injury as he had of sustaining the injury in the first place. There are certainly pitchers who have undergone two of these procedures, but it doesn’t seem that this is because they had a relapse.

When you take these things into account, I think a lot of fantasy players tend to stay away from guys coming off Tommy John surgery, or at least push them down on their boards. You should do the opposite. Liriano figures to be fine, and we should value him accordingly.

2007 Twins defense

While Liriano didn’t pitch in 2007, we can still look at the Twins defense to try and figure out the help he’ll have behind him in 2008.

TEAM+/-RKRZRRKOOZRKIF RZRRKIF OOZRKOF RZRRKOF OOZRKBABIP
Twins 2 7 0.812 7 354 8 0.771 8 202 6 0.867 8 190 1 0.306

The Twins were decidedly average in 2007 in all aspects except outfield range, where they topped the league. Let’s look at the individual players, now color-coded to easily see the strengths and weaknesses.

POSLASTFIRSTINNINGSRZRLG AVGOOZOOZ/(BIZ+OOZ)LG AVG
1BMorneau Justin 12590.7670.741180.0750.135
2BCastillo Luis 7260.8010.830270.1210.104
2BCasilla Alexi 4210.7840.830130.0880.104
SSBartlett Jason A 11940.8040.816670.1520.128
3BPunto Nick 8280.7080.680290.1310.139
LFKubel Jason J 7000.8730.855210.1170.147
LFTyner Jason 3110.9010.855160.1650.147
LFFord Lew 2330.9270.85580.1630.147
CFHunter Torii 13140.8910.888470.1090.137
RFCuddyer Michael 12240.8230.877380.1250.141

Not a whole lot to cheer about. The good news is that most of these guys are young and have room to improve. It’ll be interesting to see what they do with third base and centerfield, but overall the Twins defense looks to be pretty neutral. Liriano is good enough, though, to not be reliant upon it.

2008 outlook

Francisco Liriano could very easily be the first pitcher drafted in 2009. He was fantastic in 2006, and — as we said — should be in top form in the second-half of the season.

Before we start drawing conclusions, though, there’s one more thing I want to check out. The table in the “Numbers” section is a little misleading, because Liriano split time in 2006 as a starter and a reliever. Let’s see how his peripherals break down, to make sure that his numbers as a starter were actually as good as that LIPS ERA indicates.

YEARAGELASTFIRSTTEAMLGPOSGGSIPK/9BB/9K/BBxGB%
200622LirianoFranciscoTwinsALSP161698.710.222.554.0056.3
200622LirianoFranciscoTwinsALRP12022.312.901.618.0056.6

While he was absolutely amazing as a reliever, he was still excellent as a starter. That 2.77 LIPS ERA doesn’t look like it was simply a product of the relief innings.

So where does this leave him for 2008? Well, he only threw 121 innings in 2006, and I’m sure the Twins will be careful not to ride him too hard, so I think maybe 160 innings is a good guess for him.

As far as the strikeout rate goes, I don’t know if it will be above 10 if he’s not 100% for the first two months. A 9.50 strikeout rate on the year seems like a reasonable guess. For walks, let’s put him down for a 2.70 BB/9. The ground ball rate will be great, likely above 55%. This is one of the reasons I love Liriano so much. How many players can strike out 10 batters per game, walk under 3, and have a nearly elite ground ball rate? Umm… one. Francisco Liriano.

Put all of this together, and you get an LIPS ERA around 3.15 and a DIPS WHIP around 1.10. The Twins defense figures to be at least neutral, if not better, so there should serve as a pretty good guide for his actual ERA and WHIP. The low innings count takes away some of this value, but those are still some amazing raw stats.

While his strikeout rate is elite, with 160 innings he would only get 169 strikeouts. It’s good, but not elite fantasy production. As far as wins go, Liriano will be pitching for a team that was 12th in the league in runs scored. They will be losing Torii Hunter, but Joe Mauer only played 109 games last year and the young guys like Jason Bartlett, Jason Kubel, and Alexi Casilla could improve. With 160 innings, Liriano should grab himself 13 or so wins.

If Liriano does somehow manage to approach 200 innings, he could easily be the top fantasy starter next year. Even with only 160 innings, though, Francisco Liriano could still find his way into my top 10 starters on draft day.

Market Value

CBS Sportsline: 28th Starting Pitcher
CBS Sportsline Draft: 29th Starting Pitcher (Round 10)
FOX Sports: 43rd Starting Pitcher
MLB 411: Not in Top 20 Starting Pitchers

So far, it looks like Liriano is set up to be a great bargain on draft day. Everyone seems to be a little wary because he’s been out for a year, but the truth of the matter is that had he not gotten injured in the first place, he would have been #1 on every single board in 2007 and quite likely again in 2008.

I would feel comfortable taking Liriano higher than any of these slots, and I’d feel like I was getting an absolute steal if I took him as the 20th starting pitcher. As Spring Training approaches, though, and more positive news comes out about his recovery, we could see him shoot up some boards.

Concluding thoughts

Essentially, Liriano is a fantastic pitcher coming off an injury that really shouldn’t be an issue for the majority of the 2008 season, yet because of the perception of the injury he is being undervalued.

I really wouldn’t have any problem taking Liriano as the first pitcher in a keeper league. For two sub-par months (by his standards), you could get years of the most dominating pitcher in baseball for a small price in comparison to his talent. I’m sure he’ll be valued much more highly in keeper league than in redraft leagues, but I’d still bid aggressively for him.

I have a feeling that by this time next year Liriano will be the consensus first pitcher off the board and might even be talked about by some people as a Top 3 pick in mixed leagues. If you can get him for a reasonable price, you should absolutely do it.

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