The Pittsburgh Pirates have reportedly agreed to sign Francisco Liriano to a two year, $14 million contract. It’s an interesting deal, and we’ll talk about the specifics of Liriano and the Pirates in a second, but I first want to look at where this deal fits into an interesting off-season trend.
From a runs allowed perspective, Francisco Liriano was terrible last year. Just like he was the year before, too. By RA9-wins, Liriano has basically been a replacement level pitcher for the last two years, putting up an ERA- of 127 over that span. Of the 109 pitchers who have thrown 250 or more innings since the start of the 2011 season, Liriano’s ERA- ranks 104th. In terms of preventing runs, he’s been better than only Chris Volstad, J.A. Happ, Derek Lowe, Josh Tomlin, and Brian Duensing.
From a FIP perspective, though, Liriano has been a bit better. Not good, but better. We’ve got his WAR (based on walks, strikeouts, and home runs allowed) over the last two years at +2.9, making him a below average — but not abysmal — starter. Liriano’s stuff and peripherals suggest that he should get better results going forward than he’s gotten in the past. And if his stuff and peripherals are right, then 2/14 for Liriano could easily be a bargain for the Pirates.
But here’s the thing; Liriano’s stuff and peripherals have been saying this for a while, and he’s been underperforming his FIP for nearly his entire career.
With the exception of his remarkable 2006 season and a half year comeback in 2008, Liriano’s ERA hasn’t been anywhere close to his FIP or xFIP. In 2009, 2011, and 2012, xFIP suggests that Liriano has been something like league average. In 2009, 2011, and 2012, ERA suggests that Liriano has been one of the worst pitchers in baseball. Even in 2010, when his results were good, they weren’t nearly as good as his BB/K/HR rates suggested that they should be. The last time Liriano’s results matched his peripherals, Lou Piniella won Manager of the Year, Geovany Soto was Rookie of the Year, and Randy Johnson was still a member of the Diamondbacks rotation.
This is the kind of track record that gets a pitcher described as an outlier. For whatever reason, Liriano has been consistently terrible at stranding runners, and while it’s easy to write that off as a fluke over a year or even two, it gets a bit tougher to believe that this is all just random variance in sequencing when he’s at 840 innings pitched and has a career LOB% under 70%.
But yet, here are the Pirates, paying Liriano for a performance that requires his FIP to be the more predictive aspect, not his his strand rate and ERA. This deal follows on the heels of the Angels giving Joe Blanton essentially the same contract for the same kind of paradox. And it follows Zack Greinke getting paid like an ace, even though you have to disbelieve in the predictive power of ERA to believe that Zack Greinke is an ace. And it follows Anibal Sanchez signing an $80 million contract coming off a couple of seasons where his ERA- (96) had him as a decent starter but his FIP (87) had him as one of the better starters in baseball. Toss in Scott Feldman getting $6 million from the Cubs, and this has been a pretty profitable winter for starting pitchers who posted much better FIPs than ERAs over the last few years.
Meanwhile, Kyle Lohse and his 74 ERA- are still sitting on the market, with no real rumors to suggest that any team is actively pursuing him in a serious way. Joe Saunders, who had a better ERA than Edwin Jackson last year and has a better career ERA as well, is still on the market after watching Jackson sign a $52 million contract with the Cubs yesterday. Brandon McCarthy, who has an 83 ERA- over the last three years — the best total of any free agent starter this winter — signed a contract that pays him basically the same total as Liriano and Blanton. Obviously, there’s extenuating factors related to McCarthy’s health, but it’s interesting that the guy who posted the best three-year-ERA of the entire class signed the same deal as two guys who were well below average in terms of runs allowed since 2010.
Not every pitching acquisition has followed this trend, of course. Jeremy Guthrie got paid for his history of run prevention, even though FIP and xFIP hate him. The Angels offset their Blanton acquisition by trading for Jason Vargas, whose value is reliant upon low BABIPs and HR/FB rates. Teams don’t appear to be beating down Roy Oswalt‘s door, even though his peripherals suggest that he could still be a pretty effective pitcher for someone next year. I’m not saying that teams don’t care about ERA anymore. But they certainly appear to be caring about it less, or at the least, giving more credit to pitchers who have given them reason to think that maybe their future ERA will be better than their past ERA.
That’s what the Pirates are betting on with Liriano. They made this exact same bet with A.J. Burnett last year — he was coming off two roughly replacement level seasons by RA9, but had been just a bit below average by FIP — and it paid off big time, as he gave them 200 excellent innings for a bargain price. But Burnett had a better track record than Liriano, had been healthier than Liriano, and hadn’t seen the same wild velocity fluctuations as Liriano, and they still only had to pick up $13 million of the $33 million he was owed in 2012-2013 when they acquired him from New York. A year later, they’re paying $14 million for Liriano, a worse version of the same idea.
It’s a bet that’s probably worth making, especially for a team that isn’t going to be landing any frontline starters at frontline starter prices, but it’s worth noting that the price for these kinds of pitchers seems to be going up pretty quickly. Guys like Liriano used to have to settle for one year deals, but now, teams are betting multi-year contracts on their peripherals being more predictive than their ERAs.
After years of overpaying for unsustainable results, it seems like MLB teams have made adjustments, and are now better identifying which pitchers to go after in free agency. A high ERA no longer means that you’re not getting paid. That’s what I call progress.