Is Francisco Liriano the Best Pitcher in the American League?

By Tommy Rancel //

Similar to the recently profiled Josh Johnson, Francisco Liriano captivated the major leagues as a rookie in 2006. As the understudy to staff ace Johan Santana on the Minnesota Twins’ staff, Liriano went 12-3 with a 2.15 ERA in 28 appearances.

In an unfortunate similarity to Johnson, Liriano blew out his arm, and would miss all of 2007. He tossed just 76 innings in 2008 and struggled in his full-time return in 2009. That said, he continues to parallel Johnson. This time, in a good way.

Through 14 turns in the rotation, Liriano is just 6-5. His 3.11 ERA ranks among the league leaders, but still doesn’t fully convey how well he has pitched in 2010. For that, we look to fielding independent metrics like FIP and xFIP. By now you know FIP and xFIP measure events a pitcher can control: strikeouts, walks and home runs. xFIP drills still further down by normalizing the pitcher’s home run rate to league average.

According to FIP, Liriano has been the major league’s best pitcher not named Cliff Lee. His 2.16 FIP in 2010 is even better than the 2.55 he posted as a rookie in ’06. Looking at his 2.99 xFIP compared to Lee’s 3.11, one could argue that Liriano has been the American League’s best pitcher.

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So how does arguably the best pitcher in the league have just six wins? Run support and bad luck are to blame.

Of qualified starters in the AL, Liriano owns the 10th-lowest run support, according to ESPN.com. For comparison, the Yankees have scored nearly twice as many runs when Phil Hughes toes the rubber as the Twins have Liriano pitches.

In addition to the lack of run support, Liriano has been one of the league’s unluckiest pitchers in terms of batting average on balls in play. The .348 BABIP carried by Liriano in 2010 is the third-highest in the AL; league average BABIP is .302. And while his personal BABIP has always been a bit above the norm (.316 career), his current total is by far the highest of his career.

The large BABIP number is a bit odd given the fact that the Twins employ an above-average defense, especially in the infield. I note the infield defense because 49.8% of the balls hit against Liriano this year have been groundballs, another excellent skill. Even in the absences of J.J. Hardy and Orlando Hudson, Minnesota’s backup infielders posted positive UZR (ultimate zone rating) marks*.

*Defensive statistics such as UZR usually take years of data to show true talent levels.

As noted, when looking at factors Liriano can control, he has done a wonderful job. His strikeouts per nine innings rate (K/9) of 9.71 ranks among the game’s elite. His walks per nine innings rate (BB/9) of just 2.43 suggests that his control is back to where it was pre-injury. The one category that may regress in a negative manner is home runs allowed (just two home runs allowed in 92.2 innings). But xFIP suggests that even with regression he is still among the game’s best.

Because his win total and ERA aren’t as fantasy friendly as some other starters, Liriano might be available in trade at a slight discount compared to his true worth – that of an elite starter. He’s been about as good as Ubaldo Jimenez, for instance, but with much less hype. If you own Jimenez and can land a deal that nets you Liriano and, say, a solid bat or half-decent closer, jump on it.

For more on Francisco Liriano and other underrated aces, check out Bloomberg Sports’ fantasy kits

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