Francisco Liriano pitches with a certain violence to his delivery, as if he's trying to prove that you can, indeed, give 105 percent effort. He pitches from the third-base side of the rubber and falls off the mound, his left leg swinging across his body to his right as he lands with a little skip, his back nearly turning 180 degrees to the batter's box. If you watch from behind home plate, it looks like he's throwing everything at you -- ball, body and uniform.
The delivery has led to injuries and control problems throughout his career, and when the Pirates signed him in the offseason, his rookie year of 2006 when he went 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA and 144 strikeouts in 121 innings for the Twins seemed like a distant memory. This was the small-market Pirates doing what the Pirates do: Scraping the bottom of the fridge for the free-agent leftovers.
In fact, after the sides initially agreed to a two-year, $12.75 million contract, the deal had to be reworked when Liriano broke the humerus bone in his non-throwing arm before signing the contract. The reworked contract included just $1 million in guaranteed salary for 2013, with incentives that could bring the new deal back to the original total.
Let's just say that the Pirates will be very happy to pay those earned incentives next season if Liriano keeps pitching like this.
Liriano is proving to be the best bargain of the winter, running his record to 11-4 and lowering his ERA to 2.16 after dominating the Cardinals for seven innings in a 9-2 victory on Monday. Liriano retired the first 10 batters, receiving a four-run cushion in the bottom of the first thanks to Pedro Alvarez's three-run homer off Jake Westbrook. He got two big outs in the fourth after Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday had singled, striking out Allen Craig on four straight sliders and Yadier Molina on another vicious 0-2 slider. Tiring in the seventh and pitching with a 4-1 lead, he got Pete Kozma to fly out with two runners on, Kozma proving unable to do much with an 88 mph slider at the knees.
It wasn't necessarily a statement game for the Pirates, but it was an important game, the first of a big five-game series between the two teams in Pittsburgh, with over 32,000 loud Pirates fans in attendance. Everybody seems to want to hand the division title to the Cardinals, but the Pirates continue to hang in there, refusing to go away, and are now just a half-game out of first. Liriano is one of the big reasons why.
In fact, he's been so good that he's become a possible Cy Young candidate, even though he didn't make his first start until May 11. He would rank fourth in the NL in ERA if he had enough innings to qualify, is two wins behind league leader Adam Wainwright, and is fifth among NL starters in OPS allowed. In 15 starts, he's allowed no runs or one run 10 times. When A.J. Burnett missed a month, and with Wandy Rodriguez out since early June, Liriano has been the glue to the rotation.
I talked to Reds first baseman Joey Votto about Liriano at the All-Star Game and he had high praise for Liriano -- and the Pirates.
"They're 100 percent legitimate," Votto said. "For all the complaining people do about player contracts and players getting hammered for bad one-year deals or bad 10-year deals or whatever, there isn't enough being written about Francisco Liriano. That guy is so valuable to them. ... I'm sure if you ask those [starting pitchers], they'll say they're competing with each other and Francisco is a handful. He knows how to pitch, he throws hard. I don't think what they've done this year is going to stop. All five starters are a matchup."
Votto thinks the big key for Liriano is that he's simply been "more aggressive with his fastball. Typically, I think young players think that having multiple skills and throwing them all out there is going to work, but eventually you just chop away at all the BS and every day just come out with your best. What's the best I have?"
Liriano is actually throwing his fastball less often this year -- 42 percent of the time versus 50 percent last year and 52 percent in 2011. But as Votto suggests, he seems to be trusting it more, letting its natural movement work its magic. As a result, his walks are down from last year. Liriano's fastball can run away from right-handed batters or sink; he's done a good job keeping the ball down in the strike zone and has allowed just four home runs. When he gets to two strikes, he usually goes to his slider -- 73 of his 100 strikeouts have come on the slider and left-handed batters are helpless against it, going 2-for-38 with 19 strikeouts.
OK, the Cy Young thing is a long shot -- after all, there's this guy named Clayton Kershaw in the league. But don't be surprised if Liriano is on the mound when the Pirates play their first postseason game since 1992.