The Watering Hole: Hello, Francisco. Meet regression

By Michael Waterloo
Of The Spirit

Spring training is here, and I can't explain the excitement that I have knowing that baseball is right around the corner.

The Pirates broke to Bradenton, Fla., last week, as they plan to embark on another long, 162-game journey.

Pirates' manager Clint Hurdle named Francisco Liriano the Pirates' opening day starter, and with A.J. Burnett out of the way and Gerrit Cole having only 19 career regular season starts, it really comes as no surprise.

What was a surprise, however, was Liriano's year last season for the Pirates: an effort that earned him N.L. Comeback Player of the Year.

Now, not to rain on anyone's parade or anything like that, but I don't quite think Liriano will come close to being the pitcher that he was last year.

I'm a big believer in sample size and track record.

To me, Liriano's track record over the course of his career shows that he is as inconsistent as they come, and betting on a season like he had last season is a bet you're sure to lose.

Let me introduce you to my friend regression, Francisco.

Some regression is to be expected, even by the biggest Pirates supporters out there.

In fact, many will argue that Liriano doesn't need to be the ace this year, with Cole entering his first full season with the Pirates and
prospect Jameson Taillon on his way in June or July.

I get the idea behind that, but June or July are a long way off.

I also get the argument that the Pirates rotation is much better to start the year this year than it was to begin last year, especially with Jonathan "Selfie" Sanchez taking up the No. 5 spot a year ago.

But we aren't comparing the two staffs — we're looking simply at Liriano.

Liriano finished last year with a career high in wins (16) and complete games (two), and he finished with his second-best numbers in ERA (3.02), innings pitched (161), WHIP (1.224) and hits per nine innings (7.5).

However, last year was Liriano's first year of his career pitching in the National League against a lot of hitters who have never faced him before.

Not only that, but Liriano is just two years removed now from a dreadful season in which he went 6-12 with a 5.34 ERA, a 1.468 WHIP and a -0.4 WAR.

Why the confidence in a man that is that far removed from being horrible?

And it wasn't just his 2012 that was bad, it was 2011 and 2009, as well.

Sandwiched in between his otherwise mediocre careers have been good performances — not quite as good as last year, but still good — in 2006 (12-3, 2.16 ERA, 1.00 WHIP) and 2010 (14-10, 3.62 ERA, 1.263 WHIP) which show his inconsistencies as a pitcher.

My friend, Jon, pointed out that Liriano had to play his games in the American League Central, in hitter-friendly environments of the Hubert.
H. Humphrey Metrodome and Comerica Park, which explains his inflated numbers.

But does it?

Why are the good seasons mixed in with the bad seasons then?

Even last season, where people threw his name around lightly for Cy Young consideration, Liriano had his inconsistencies.

First off, his home and away splits are the Jekyll and Hyde of baseball stats.

Liriano enjoyed an 8-1 record, with a 1.47 ERA and 0.964 WHIP in the confines of PNC Park last year, allowing just 12 earned runs in his 11 starts.

No matter how great the Pirates' defense is or how much of a pitcher's park PNC Park is, thinking Liriano will come close to duplicating those numbers isn't realistic.

Then, you have Liriano on the road.

He featured an 8-7 record, with a 4.33 ERA, 1.443 WHIP and 42 earned runs in 15 starts.

Granted, 17 of those runs came in two games against Colorado and Milwaukee, which skews the numbers slightly.

Even if you take those starts out of the equation, you have 25 earned runs given up over 13 starts, which is two times as many as his home

It's fair to say that if he regresses at home, that he can improve on the road.

But what about what happened in the second half of last season?
Liriano posted a 7-5 record, compared to a 9-3 record in the first half, while his 3.95 ERA is almost double what it was in the first half (2.00).

In two more starts in the second half, Liriano allowed eight more hits, 20 more earned runs, seven more walks and saw both his strikeouts per nine innings and strikeout-to-walk ratio decrease.

This isn't to say that Liriano is going to be as bad as he was in 2012, but if the really bad Liriano showed his face again, I wouldn't at all be shocked.

My projections have him at 11-10, with a 3.96 ERA, 1.346 WHIP and 157 strikeouts.

Still good, and still better than the opening day starters of year's past — Ron Villone, Kip Wells, Todd Ritchie, Zach Duke, Ian Snell, etc. — but if the Pirates are looking to improve on their 94-win season, it might not be good enough.