The Pirates are having a very fine season. There is no knocking on wood required here, no jinxers, no late-season collapse to ruin the party. They will, at the very least, clinch one of the two wild card spots, and as it stands right now, they have a 95.7% chance to do so. It’s been over 20 years since the last time they were there. As a baseball story, I think we can all appreciate the idea of a good Pirates baseball team. And as such, the journey of this baseball team has, in turn, illuminated several individual performances that have not just come as a surprise in the world of ‘real’ baseball, but that of fantasy as well. In an effort to choose which player to spotlight, and ultimately narrowing my focus to a few performances, I stumbled upon something very interesting. It wasn’t just the fact that both of the players in question had improved substantially from their career norms. And it wasn’t just the fact that both of these players were producing career years or near-career years. It was the fact that both of these players shared the same exact process for these improvements. That is to say, A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano changed in the exact same way, and in effect, share the exact same result. Because of this, we’re going to scrap the normal ‘single’ player spotlight and go over both of these guys. And since they’re Pirates, I get to have a little fun. ARRRRRGH you ready?
Booty, booty, booty. I couldn’t help myself. Okay, now I’m ready. Booty.
At the time, the Pirates acquisition of Burnett was considered nothing more than a salary dump by the New York Yankees. Heh, dumps. Regardless, Burnett had just come off a 5.15 ERA showing, which had followed a 5.26 ERA effort. The FIP’s didn’t really give confidence either, with a 4.77 in 2011 and 4.83 in 2010. This is who he was — a league average pitcher with some K’s. And while that may have some value as a streamer or a bench guy, this type of profile is easily forgotten. In 2012, his profile started changing. His ERA and FIP both stood at 3.50, the walks came down, and the home run rate was cut in half. Now, the home run rate going from 1.47 to 0.80 last year is easily explainable with the change in venues. But there was something else at play here. When you examine his flyball issues, other trends start to emerge.
I had an apostrophe sort-of-speak.
Err. Epiphany. I meant epiphany.
Never mind, you’ll see what I’m talking about…
2009-2011, A.J. Burnett, a New York Yankee
I’d say its pretty obvious that the problem here was Burnett’s four-seam fastball. He was throwing it nearly half the time, and the pitch produced the most flyballs in a park that is not kind to flyball pitchers. But I mentioned other trends. Let’s take a look at the same table, but now as Pirate. Speaking of Pirates, hey buddy, what do they have in common with pimps? They both yell ‘Yo Ho!’ and walk with a limp. ARRRRGH you kidding me? No… no I’m not. Booty.
2012-2013, A.J. Burnett, a Pittsburgh Pirate
Is is really that simple? Tell a player, “Hey, this pitch isn’t really working out… so maybe throw your other ones more and this one less.” Well, I guess it is, because that’s what’s happened here. According to the usage data, A.J. Burnett has turned to his sinker and curve, both pitches that induce ground balls moreso than his fastball. The batted ball profile has stayed somewhat stable, the only thing that has changed is the usage. In fact, as a reward for using his four-seamer less, Burnett has, in fact, achieved a higher whiff rate from both his fastball and curve (more specifically, a knuckle-curve), showing up in his career high K/9 of 9.76 this season.
Sometimes, I find it hard to quantify what exactly a manager and coaching staff have control over during a baseball season. They have an effect, no doubt, but to what extent? Are the in-game decisions ultimately good or bad ones? Are they utilizing the bullpen correctly, or playing the match-ups correctly? But in this case, I have to give complete credit to them for Burnett’s turnaround. There was a problem. They identified that problem. And everyone in fantasy baseball who took the same chance is sharing in the spoils, the booty if you will. That one was actually warranted. Maybe.
So I guess the question becomes, if it worked with one guy, can it work with another?
Thus enters Francisco Liriano.
So, looking at Liriano’s stat page, we are instantly seeing similarities. In 2012, he put up a 5.34 ERA with a 4.34 FIP and the year before that, in 2011, he had a 5.09 ERA with 4.54. Like Burnett, he was a league average pitcher with some strikeout potential. Nothing more, nothing less. Also, like Burnett, there were flashes of brilliance, but more flashes of frustrating ineptness. In fact, Francisco Liriano may serve as a cautionary tale with Matt Harvey and his impending Tommy John surgery. It’s fair to say Liriano hasn’t showed us a year like the one he’s having now since 2006, the year he tore his UCL. So far, in 2013, he has produced a 2.74 ERA with 2.66 FIP, and cut down his HR/9 from 1.09 in 2012 to an astoundingly low 0.36 in 2013. Let’s go to the tables.
2005-2012, Francisco Liriano, a Minnesota Twin and Chicago White Sock (for, you know, a couple of seconds.)
Now, the main difference between Burnett and Liriano here is the gopher ball. There isn’t such a problem here. However, Liriano’s main problem isn’t giving up the home run ball as much as him getting the pitch into the strike zone. In his case, the four-seam fastball was called a ball 45.22% of the time during the same period. To give context, his sinker was called a ball only 36.76% of the time. So what do you think changed this year? I’ll give you one guess, because you won’t need more than that. And if you do, well, sorry bro. Reading ain’t for you.
2013, Francisco Liriano, a Pittsburgh Pirate
That 0.58% is no typo. He has thrown 11 four-seam fastballs so far this year, total. That’s certainly turning a frown upside down. If a frown is a fastball and a smile brings you whiplash. Liriano is now strictly relying on his Sinker (of which I’ve also seen classified as a two-seamer) and slider, both pitches which have suppressed his FB%, which, in turn, helps with his HR/FB rate. But the most important part, the coaching staff recognized a lack of control with a certain pitch, and basically said, ‘Hey, that one, yeah bro, not your best. Throw your other ones instead.’
I could even include Mark Melancon in this post. Also relying primarily on his four-seamer, he now favors a completely different usage chart and is once again a relevant bullpen piece. And in that, we come to the real lesson here. There are so many aspects in baseball that are undervalued and overvalued. Almost like fashion, there are parts of the game that are hot one year and cold the next. The entire idea of Moneyball wasn’t just about finding value in OBP guys. Or older veterans that could still produce comparatively to their cost. It was about finding inequalities in any value, and taking advantage of that. A lesson, I might add, that translates very well in fantasy baseball. We not only have to appreciate the fact that the Pirates have finally, after all these years, done something right. But, at the same time, have accomplished such a great run by targeting two guys that had, what is abundantly clear now, very fixable issues, and coached them to become more than what they were.
It’s not just a great baseball story.
It’s one that’s well deserved AND well earned.
Good luck to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Jaywrong is a 30-year old Korish writer who finds solace using Makers Mark as a vehicle to impress women, and also has an affinity for making Jennifer Lawrence GIFs. You can follow him @jaywrong, read his blog Desultory Thoughts of a Longfellow, or, you can find his GIFs at his tumblr, named Siuijeonseo.