As you know, Francisco Liriano took the hill on Sunday's opener against the Cardinals. Liriano has been a good, nay, great pitcher the last few years, but he's not quite as great as the man that should have started on Opening Day for the Pirates, Gerrit Cole. Cole was called up in 2013, which was also the first year Liriano pitched for the Pirates. From 2013 to 2015, Cole has been worth about 1.5 fWAR more than Liriano depite throwing about 50 innings less. Cole ranks 19th among qualified pitchers over that time frame in fWAR (Liriano comes in at 28th, inside the top 10%), and only two pitchers with higher WAR totals over those years have thrown less innings, Matt Harvey and Jake Arrieta. He's 14th in FIP-, and everyone ahead of him is a who's who of the best pitchers in baseball. However, due to a rib injury, Cole was not ready for Sunday's start.
So, it should have been a good thing for the Cardinals that Cole wasn't starting and Liriano was, but I couldn't shake the feeling that I just didn't like the Cardinals facing Liriano. He seemed to be that pitcher to me that I always dread having the Cardinals hit against, and shuts them down every time. Let's look at his stats against the Cardinals in the regular season, excluding his 2009 start as a Twin, as he as a different pitcher then. That comprises 12 starts, and a total of 75 2/3 innings:
The Cardinals have actually managed to avoid striking out as much as average against Liriano, while matching his walk rate. Liriano has suffered a worse HR/FB rate than he's accustomed to, but the difference is entirely due to one homer. Literally, if he give he gave up four homers instead of five it would exactly match his career rate over that time frame of 10.5. Over a sample of 75 2/3 innings that's a more than acceptable amount of variance. The biggest difference by far, is the BABIP against. While Liriano managed a better than average .288 BABIP against from 2013 to Sunday, it's been just .238 when facing the Cards. Liriano has shown some ability to limit quality of contract over his career, but we should expect regression when looking forward in the Cardinals BABIP when facing him.
Let's look at each individual game:
Some good games, some bad games for Liriano, but more good than bad. If you notice the last column, that certainly explains the grief that I, and I'm sure others, have had from facing Liriano: The Cards are just 4-8 when facing Liriano, and that doesn't even include Game 3 of the NLDS, which the Pirates also won. Of course, a sample of 13 games doesn't mean much, but seeing the Pirates win the large majority of the time Liriano takes the mound against the Cardinals can certainly condition one to feel negatively about facing him.
2013 wasn't a good season for the Birds against Liriano. He struck out 20 Cards and issued just four free passes over 24 innings in the regular season, and the Cardinals managed just two runs over those three starts. Including the postseason, all four times Liriano faced the Cardinals, they went home unhappy.
2014 was better, as the Cardinals took two of the four matchups against Liriano, working 11 walks over 19 innings. Liriano struck out one Cardinal for each inning, but the Cardinals managed two homers, which were two more than they had the previous year. In the final game against the Cards in 2014, he pitched a good game, going six innings, striking out eight, walking three, and giving up no runs while scattering four hits. The Cards got to the very next pitcher though, scoring three runs (two earned) off of Jared Hughes in the seventh with three hits and a walk. That was enough to secure the win, 3-2.
Some games aren't as clear cut, such as the second game of 2015 when he racked up 10 K's and just one BB, but the Cardinals slugged two homers and four other hits en route to a 8-5 Cards' win. Right-handers Jhonny Peralta and Matt Holliday supplied the homers off Liriano, with Wong adding a third off Arquimedes Caminero in the seventh. In the middle of July, Cardinals hitters again had a mixed day against Liriano, with another homer, four walks, and four other hits against him in six and a third innings. That only meant two runs for the Birds though, and they lost 6-5.
The latest chapter in the battle too was a mixed bag, with Liriano reaching double digit K's and no dingers, but also handing out five free passes to Cardinals hitters. The Cards had their chances, but just couldn't come through with runners in scoring position.
Over the previous three years, Liriano had the lowest qualified Zone% with 36.4%, and it's not particularly close. Kyle Gibson's 39.4% in second place is the same distance away from Liriano's number as it to James Shields' 42.4% in...21st place. His calling card is how good he is despite throwing so few pitches in the zone. So what I wanted to do was see how the Cardinals have done against Liriano in terms of plate discipline. Compiling each game's plate disciple numbers and pitch count was painstaking, but it allowed me to compare the Cardinals' plate discipline stats vs. Liriano, and compare it to the Cardinals' and Liriano's own numbers. The hope was that the Cardinals would have laid off more pitches over time, getting more used to Liriano as they've seen him more. Of course, the players on the team changes a bit each year (and during each year), but the team has also been relatively stable. Here's the results:
There's nothing drastic here, but the Cardinals have forced Liriano to be less-Liriano than usual. The Cardinals chased at a lower rate than avearge vs. Liriano, despite ranking very nearly league average in the stat every year. Generally, the Cards managed less chases, more contact, and saw more pitches in the zone than the average team against him. The Cards have actually done better against him than expected. Although not counted in the data, here's the Plate Discipline numbers from Sunday:
Not a great night for the Cards, as we all know, but it's also only one game, and the first of the year, when they might still be a bit rusty. And while it seemed like a night filled with swinging at balls outside of the zone, the Cards actually did exceptionally well at laying off outside pitches.
The Cards have struggled against Liriano, but a lot of teams are going to struggle against him, that's just the nature of the fact that he's a great pitcher. Throw in a lot of BABIP luck going the other way, and things can get frustrating. Generally, when a team works five walks in six innings, good things are going to happen. It just didn't work that way on Sunday for the Cardinals. While it may not feel like it (certainly not to me anyway), the Cardinals have actually kept Liriano in check better than average. It just hasn't looked that way, due to some terrible luck on balls in play.