First Pitch: Francisco Liriano is the Easy Choice For the Wild Card Game

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

**Playoff Race Update: Pirates Could Clinch Home Field in the Wild Card Tomorrow

**2014 West Virginia Power Season Recap and Top 10 Prospects

**Morning Report: The GCL Prospect List Offers No Guarantees

  • Volquez, not Liriano, has been their best pitcher all season and has a 1.36 ERA over his last ten starts. He would be working on five days’ rest to Liriano’s three. You only bring back a guy on short rest for an elimination game if he’s far and away the better pitcher, if you have a Wainright or a Kershaw.

    If there is a one-game playoff against the Cardinals Monday, which is still a possibility, that game is NOT an elimination game so Locke, the only rested pitcher, should start. The Pirates would only have to win one of the two games on Monday and Wednesday, so it doesn’t make sense to play them both in desperation mode by starting Volquez and Liriano both on short rest.

    It’s likely that Volquez is in fact the Pirates’ plan for the wild card game, as that game has looked like the Pirates’ destiny for a while now so I have to think they would have reordered their rotation if they weren’t happy with that option.

  • After throwing 96 pitches today, and not particularly well, Frankie doesn’t make any sense to pitch the WC. Cole will have to pitch tomorrow IF St Louis loses today to try for the divisional tie. Then we are sure to get Volquez, who might be the best pick anyway. We saw today how much relying on advanced metrics can get you into trouble. Volquez has been our best pitcher this season wire to wire. I’m good with him to pitch the WC. Worley too, that’s how freaking good this rotation is. If we make it past the play in game we might be the best team in this tournament.

  • If the Pirates end up tied for the Division, I wouldn’t have a problem with them starting Jeff Locke against St. Louis. Locke has a career ERA against the Cards of about 3.76 in four starts, 11 ER in 26 1/3 Innings. Even if the Pirates lose, Worley / Liriano could then pitch the Wild Card Game against San Fran. And I would much rather have the Pirates facing the Nationals in the opening round and let St. Louis deal with a double dose of Kershaw in a 5 game series.

    Against San Fran, in a Wild Card game, there is no way Locke should start. Career ERA is almost 9.00, 9 ER in 9 1/3 Innings.

  • It’s all about matchups at this point. How has Worley performed against the guys in the Giants lineup? We know he can pitch deep into games and be efficient. He’s unlikely to put guys on base with free passes which will also be huge in a one-game playoff.

    • Worley has pretty good numbers against San Fran even from his Philly days. Current Giants lineup is batting .230 AVE, .609 OPS career against him. During that time (31 IP), Worley is 3-1 giving up 10 ER (2.90 ERA).

      Don’t forget, this year Worley has a 4 hit, 1 walk CG shutout against the Giants on July 28. And San Francisco’s starting pitcher for that game was Bumgarner.

      • That was my point. If it’s about the matchup and the Pirates had to play a 163rd game…I would pitch Worley over Locke against the Giants easily. Hurdle is saying Locke would go in that scenario…I hope he’s posturing bc that would be an awful decision. Worley’ career numbers and recent history against the Giants beg for him to get the start.

  • If there is a tiebreaker game, it would be Locke’s turn in the rotation. I don’t think that they would pitch Locke on Monday. So do you pitch Volquez on Monday (on short rest) and then Liriano (assuming he’s pulled on Saturday) in the WC game? …or pitch Liriano on Monday (on full rest) and pitch Volquez in the WC game? I think the pirates would want their best pitcher, Liriano, to pitch in an elimination game (WC game). However, I think they should go for the divisional title and pitch Liriano on Monday.

  • If the Pirates lose 2 in a row to the Reds, decisions will be easy to make, if they win 2 in a row decisions really get tough to make.
    IMO, there are pro’s and con’s for any pitcher the Pirates use, one big
    story will be Sunday’s game, will Bochy use Bumgarden if home field is
    still on the line? Will Hurdle use Liriano if home field is still on the
    line? Preferring to use these pitchers in a one game wild card where
    ever it is. Since the Pirates might still be in the pennant race, do
    they use Liriano knowing that the Cards will be a heavy favorite with
    Wainwright going.
    I don’t believe the Giants-Pirates game would be a
    one run game, I believe the Pirates are set up better at this point in
    time to handle left handed pitching than they have all year and they
    knocked Bumgarden around the last time he pitched.

  • Locke’s awful start on Wednesday b/w Getting swept by the Cards earlier this month is why we’re in the situation we’re in right now.

    Also Charlie rejoining the rotation briefly threw everything off.

    • I blame those three consecutive one run loses to the Nationals mid-August.

    • Hasn’t the team credited the extra rest Worley got as a result of Morton rejoining the rotation for Vance’s improvement last start?

  • I keep waiting for a change to the pitching schedule tonight. If Liriano and Cole pitch Sat and Sun, respectively, can either pitch in the WC game? Maybe LIriano can go Sat to Weds, but he certainly can’t pitch for the division if we have to go to St Louis. If that’s the case, who pitches that game? Volquez, I guess. Not terrible option, but that whole idea of the one gamer against the Cards might be a black hole we want to just skip, go right to home game in WC. Only way we have to do it is if they lose one and we win out, right? I don’t see Cards losing more than one, if that, down in AZ.

  • Cards have lost two straight to the Cubs. I said last week they looked like they were starting to stumble, having to work extremely hard to win against poor competition. I wonder if they’ve fallen into an all-out stumble? This might be a great time to catch them in a one-game playoff.

    • I expected them to lose to Kendricks and/or Arietta, both of whom are very good pitchers. They got to Kendricks, but couldn’t neutralize Rizzo late in that game. And Arietta performed as expected. So not really a huge surprise there, IMO. Lucky for us, Cubs had their only two decent starters going in that series.

  • Anyone but Locke!

  • I’m surprised they didn’t move Liriano up to start today vs Reds so he can be on full rest to start if needed on Wednesday. Otherwise, they either go w Liriano on 3 days rest, skip Cole on Sunday to go on Wed, or go w Volquez. None of those options are as good as Liriano on full rest, IMO.

    • Liriano pitched an excellent game in the WC last year against Cincy, but the best pitcher in the 2013 playoffs, IMO, was Gerrit Cole. I do not see the Pirates making any adjustments in the Rotation on this short of notice. They pitch the Rotation tonight and Saturday because we still have a chance at the Division Championship, and still want a home game in the Wild Card if we cannot win the Division. And, if we go into Sunday and still have the Division Championship or the WC Home Game alive, Gerrit Cole is going. If not, he will be skipped to pitch the WC Game. This team is 16-4 down the stretch to get to this point – they are not going to do anything different than just keep playing ball.

      Earlier this month, the Pirates made a change when they thought that Charlie Morton should replace Worley in the Rotation. Who ended up pitching one of the most important games for us and giving us one of the best outings of the year for 8 innings? Sometimes it pays not to outthink the situation and just play it like it comes. And, Edinson Volquez could be the SP in the WC – he’s been as effective as anyone in our Rotation down the stretch, and is carrying a hot bat!

  • you have to treat a 1 game series like football – it’s all about matchups. Focusing on Posey, Pence, and Sandoval, Cole may be the better matchup. Volquez is definitely out – has over 1.1 OPS against all 3 of those guys (and beyond SSS for 2 of them from when he pitched for the Pads).

    • I think this is the approach I would take as well sense the analysis above only slightly favors liriano.

    • Everything is SSS when it comes to analyzing a one-game playoff vs a team you don’t play regularly. That said, one of the more ominous things about SF is that they’ve done exceptionally well vs Bucs’ pen, and especially Wilson/Watson/Melancon.

      Using the football analogy, if looking at it as who is that one guy you don’t want to let beat you, right now that’s Posey. And Posey handles LHP well (and has hit Liriano well in the 3 games he’s faced him). The other guys who have been hot for SF are Crawford, Susac, Blanco and perhaps the hottest of all, Bumgarner. Pence has slumped all September and Sandoval might just now be coming out of a slump. Cole/Volquez bests Posey and Pence, Liriano bests Sandoval and Crawford, the other guys have barely faced Bucs’ pitching.

      But, going back to the bullpen, IMO, it would behoove Clint to get length out of his starter. So I’d be very comfortable with either Cole and perhaps even moreso Volquez as I think they can go deeper. Frankie has the stats, but despite his shutout innings in ATL, his command didn’t look very good against a team that can’t hit. And as usual his pitch count was high. I’ll trust Hurdle on this, but I’m squirming thinking about Frankie having another 6 inning/100 pitch outing despite his microscopic September ERA and not neutralizing Posey.

      • My thoughts exactly. I’m still not quite ready to hand the ball to Volquez in an elimination game, but I can’t get past the fact that Liriano’s control lately hasn’t been as good as his bottom line numbers would suggest. In his last start against the Braves, he walked two batters in the first inning but neither scored. In his previous start against Boston, he walked three in the first, but again, none scored. I get very nervous at the thought of him doing that against a decent offensive team. The last thing you need in a one-and-done game is to fall behind by a couple of runs early.

      • In a one game playoff, empty the bullpen. Any average reliever facing a lineup the first time is going to be better than almost all starting pitchers 3rd time through the order.

        For me against the Giants it is a pick one between Cole or Liriano, Liriano is not Morton or Burnett who struggles with platoon splits, he has a very effective change up and has been just as good against RHH as Cole over the last two seasons.

        I like Volquez and his production this year was fantastic, but the idea that he is a go to starter in a one game playoff is just recency bias. Volquez has the worst K-BB% rate on the staff this year, and only ranked ahead of Locke and Morton in the 2nd half, relying on BABIP luck and sequencing is dangerous game.

          • Overall stats are one thing. Then you’ve got hot hands and team/batter specifics. The above comments speak to team/batter specific matchups. And the matchups vs SF seem to favor Cole over Liriano, especially as it pertains to Posey (5-9 vs both Liriano & Volquez, hitless vs Cole/Worley) who’s been their primary offensive engine.

            The Giants also appear to hit the back end of our bullpen very well.

            • Key words there are “seem” and “appear”.

              Using batter/pitcher stats lead one to believe in a lot of things that “appear” to be true but probably aren’t, due to sample sizes.

              • Now I know who you really are Mr. Roenicke. So tell me Ron, why on earth did you pitch Broxton against us last week?

                • Because all my other pitchers stink equally as bad, or worse?

                • As a team, the Giants are fairly neutral regarding pitch type, with changeups being their weak point. They do, however, rank 3rd in baseball in overall swing rate and out of zone swing rate.

            • I enjoy diving into different split numbers, but I think no information is more informative than pitcher vs individual batter match ups were the sample is nine. And if the Pirates go with Cole, I hope they empty the bullpen because he has an annoying knack of struggling through the order the 3rd time.

              • That annoying knack is because he is, and always has been, more hittable than his stuff suggests. No deception and little variation in speed.

  • Wouldn’t you have to skip his start Saturday then? It seems like they’ll still have a shot at the division on Saturday so you obviously can’t do that and with how hot Volquez has been I don’t think you lose a ton. Also if St. Louis clinches the division on Saturday then they could skip Cole and start him if they prefer that. I think the chance to win the division is too important, and pitching Liriano on a lack of rest isn’t a good idea.

    • Weighing short (3 days’) rest vs. extended (8 days’) rest is a toughie. In either case, you’re disrupting the rhythm. Recall, however, that Cole was skipped at the end of the season (he was throwing a bullpen the night the Pirates clinched home field for the WC game) and his appearance in the NLDS was 10 days after his last start. You’ll recall his start in the playoffs was lights out.

      Tonight’s games will determine a lot. If the Pirates end up tied with STL or SF, meaning they have a shot at the division or are in danger of losing home field for the WC, you have to throw Frankie and manage the consequences. If the status quo holds, I would either limit his pitch count to 75 or so, or skip him entirely.

    • I bet they wait to see what St. Louis does tonight. If the Cards win then they might go for it if they beat the Reds as well. If the Cards win or the Pirates lose tonight, then they should sit Liriano.

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