It’s never fun when you pick a pitcher who has been reliable for years and he has an awful season. A big injury is one thing, but what about the players who simply don’t resemble their former selves? Is it bad luck? Regression from a career peak? Two starters that fantasy managers relied on in 2016 were Francisco Liriano and Jaime Garcia. Needless to say, both pitchers were disappointments, essentially costing teams their #2 or #3 SP pick by performing like reserve arms. Let’s look at their metrics and see if we can find any indication for 2017.
He posted three solid seasons after having two forgettable ones. With a three-year improvement in K/9 from 2013-15 and a corrected spike in BB/9 from 2014, owners could be optimistic. His ground ball tilt is also something I look for, and his FIP and xFIP from his three recent seasons indicated it wasn’t just luck. Liriano seemed like a solid veteran to build around.
Then 2016 actually started, and owners got nervous quickly. His ERA was under 4.00 in April, and his strikeouts were there as always, but his walk rate was quite high, as was his HR/FB rate. It turns out that was his best month until September. His HR/FB rate has usually been a bit above average, but in 2016 it seemed batters squared up well when they hit the ball, with a first half rate of 18% and a second half rate of 21%. What’s more, hitters weren’t chasing out of the zone (lowest O-Swing% in 5 years), and they hit far more balls inside the zone (career high Z-Contact%)
His walk rate was horrendous in the first half, and his swinging strike rate was low for him at 11%. A mediocre first pitch strike rate was likely a main cause of his walk issues, because if he got behind the batters, he couldn’t battle back. His F-Strike% in the first half was just 52%, and his BB/9 was 5.6. When he got more on track in the second half, his F-Strike% rose to 60%, and his BB/9 dropped to 3.6 — still high, but at least tolerable. All the metrics (including BABIP and strand rate) indicated his poor ERA and WHIP weren’t the result of bad luck — this was an ineffective approach. He was throwing his fastball more often than he had the previous four seasons, and it didn’t work.
Is there hope for 2017 and beyond? Maybe. His second half was certainly better, with improvements in GB%, BB/9, and K/9. September was well above average (9.8 K/9, 2.0 BB/9, 14% SwStr%), though he got lucky with a strand rate of 91% that month. He’ll always give you strikeouts because his K/9 has been above 9.0 for six of the last seven years. His ground ball tilt at least helps mitigate the recent bout of gopheritis. But personally, I can’t tolerate poor control, and this isn’t his first season with an awful walk rate. Also, given that he struggled in situational matchups this year (worse the second and third times through lineup, worse with runners on base), I wouldn’t pick him until the end of the draft.
Liriano is really hot or cold for a full season, with an ERA either under 3.65 or over 4.65. Even in his good ERA years, there’s a 50/50 chance his WHIP still lags behind. The high risk, high reward game isn’t for me.
I’ve never liked Garcia, at least not since 2012, when he lost the ability to pitch 30 games. His early career showed some promise and checked a lot of the boxes I look for: an elite ground ball rate, an improving walk rate, and signs of potential improvement (high SwStr%, some bad luck BABIP). After losing most of 2013-14, he came back for 20 starts in 2015 and posted a shiny ERA and WHIP, prompting roto managers to seek him out in 2016.
That didn’t turn out so well for those who paid full price for an injury risk. His first two months were pretty decent, including an impressive spike in strikeouts for him in April (though it came with an unusually high walk rate). Then the wheels fell off. His HR/FB rate remained elevated all season compared to his previous years of 20+ starts, and the gopheritis exploded in August and September, with HR/FB rate above 30%. Even for a ground ball pitcher, a rate that high is going to hurt you. He also endcapped the year with another spike in both K/9 and BB/9.
His velocity didn’t drop during the season, so it’s not as if it was strictly a stamina problem. But he only went 6+ innings 14 times, and so he could only earn 10 quality starts — indicating he struggled to get through the order early on. Looking at his times through the order support this: His third time through, the starts are great because he was in the zone. But aside from strikeouts, every other important metric was worse the first two times through the order. (And sadly enough, it seems his good results the third time through may have been at least partly luck, with a BABIP of .228.)
What can we expect moving forward? It’s a lot of risk in my book. First, I still don’t trust his health, given 2016 was his first 30-start season in five years. Second, he’s been known for his great control, yet in 2016 he posted a 3.0 BB/9, which is high for him — compare it to his 2.1 mark in 2015. His FIP and xFIP say it wasn’t a bad luck year, with career worsts (excluding his rookie campaign). He’s stopped relying on his curveball and slider, increasing his fastballs — is this due to his arm injuries, and they hurt to throw or aren’t as effective? His PITCHf/x value for his slider is still pretty high, but his curveball did take a hit. However, most of the damage came off of his fastball. If perhaps he can’t throw breaking stuff due to his arm, then he’s not going to get better because his fastball was hittable.
The only positive in 2016 was that his K/9 was higher than any other 20-start season, but if it comes at a cost of higher walk rate and gopheritis, then it isn’t worth it, because it’s not even near elite (like Liriano’s). His fastball hasn’t been so ineffective before 2016, so if he can find a way to get it back on track, maybe he’ll turn it around.
Between the two pitchers I’ve profiled, I’ll take the healthier, high-strikeout Liriano over the injury-risk, blah profile that Garcia presents. But in the grand scheme of things, with pitching as deep as ever, there’s no reason to take on any high risk, high reward arms, at least not until the end of the draft. These two pitchers will cost you more than the minimum, so I’d pass on both.
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