Last year when the Pittsburgh Pirates were in the Wild Card game, there was some debate over who should start that game. The debate was warranted in 2013. Francisco Liriano was looking like a top of the rotation pitcher all year, but so were A.J. Burnett and Gerrit Cole by the end of the season. Still, it wasn’t hard to see that Liriano was the best of the bunch, and the best pitcher to get the start.
This time around there are similar questions, although this time, the questions aren’t as valid. This year, Liriano is once again the best option, and the choice is clear.
Liriano has a 3.32 ERA on the season, with a 3.34 xFIP to support that number going forward. By comparison, Gerrit Cole has a 3.78 ERA and a 3.40 xFIP. If you go by the advanced metrics, it’s close, with Liriano having a very slight edge. Meanwhile, Vance Worley and Edinson Volquez have better ERAs, but their advanced metrics say they should be expected to be worse than Liriano going forward.
Those are the season stats. And the season numbers are distorted for Liriano, as he struggled during the early part of the year. During the second half of the season, Liriano posted a 2.00 ERA and a 2.98 xFIP. Gerrit Cole was once again right behind him in the advanced metric department, with a 3.13 xFIP, although he was underperforming those metrics with a 3.77 ERA. Once again, Vance Worley and Edinson Volquez had strong numbers, but the advanced metrics don’t support those numbers going forward.
Liriano has not only been the best starter with the Pirates in the second half, but he has also been one of the best in baseball. His xFIP ranks 14th out of 104 qualified starters in the second half. His ERA ranks 6th. The guys ahead of him are Alex Cobb, Clayton Kershaw, Corey Kluber, Cole Hamels, and Matt Shoemaker.
There’s no reason to over-think this decision. Liriano starting the Wild Card game is simple. He’s been the best pitcher in the rotation all year, the best pitcher in the second half, and he has been one of the best in the game in the second half. Gerrit Cole has been good, but not great, and the fact that he has underperformed his advanced metrics all year is a knock against him. Still, it’s not a big enough knock to the point where he’d be a bad option to start twice in the divisional series. I’d start Volquez and Worley in the LDS, but neither pitcher would be better options than Liriano in a one game series.
Liriano starting the Wild Card game is about as simple of a decision as you can make.
Links and Notes
Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.