Ace Analysis: Liriano and Shields

The goal of the Ace Analysis Series is to analyze pitchers whose most recent performance has not met expectations and try to determine whether the results are due to skill change, or simply a run of good/bad luck. As always, I do take requests, so if there is a specific player you would like me to take a look at, please let me know in the comment section.

This week’s feature will examine two commonly owned guys who have struggled mightily this season. Sometimes, making the decision to purge that ERA killer from your roster can be even more important than picking up the next breakout. Let’s see if these two have any redeeming virtues to offer.
All stats are current as of 6/24/16.

Francisco Liriano, Pittsburgh Pirates

78.1 4 80 5.17 1.63
Owned in 75% of Y! Leagues

Francisco Liriano has had a very up and down career. Some years he has been great; some his he been absolutely terrible, and there have been a couple of average seasons in between. Since moving to Pittsburgh in 2013, he has been on the good to great side, but not so much this year. Now that trade rumors are swirling, many fantasy owners are questioning what to do with the polarizing lefty.

The Arsenal

Liriano is a three pitch guy. He has a two-seam fastball, a slider and a changeup. His average fastball velocity this season is 92.3 MPH, which is very close to where he has been the last two years. His fastball has always been his least effective pitch and has graded out negatively just about every season. This year, he has been forced to throw it more often than he has in years past (52.4%) and the results have been predictably poor. Opposing batters have a wOBA of .418 against the two-seamer this season, and .385 career.

Liriano’s best pitch is easily his devastating slider. He is throwing it a little less often than he has recently (30.8%), but it is still a heavily featured pitch. It has been effective this season (.241 wOBA), but not quite as dominant as normal. His swinging strike rate on the pitch is down to 17.4% (20.9% career), and opposing batters are not chasing it as often as the have in years past, which probably explains the dip in swinging strike rate.

Liriano’s changeup is another elite pitch in terms of generating swings and misses, although it is not as effective overall as the slider. His changeup usage spiked when he moved over to the NL, but has dropped back down even lower than where it was before. He is throwing the changeup 16.9% of the time this season with a swinging strike rate that is right in line with career averages. Like with the slider, however, hitters are not chasing it as often.

In summary, Liriano has two elite strikeout pitches and a crummy fastball that he has been forced to throw more often because batters are not chasing the off speed stuff.

Ks and BBs

This is the story for Liriano. He has always been a high strikeout, high walk pitcher, but this year has been extreme. On the K side, his K/9 appears solid at 9.19, but his K% is just 22.2%. While this is still above average, it pales in comparison to his 26.5% strikeout percentage from a year ago and his 24.1% career mark. Liriano’s swinging strike rate has been over 13% every year since 2012, but this season it sits at just 10.6%.

The reasons are simple. He has made his living pitching outside the zone with off speed stuff and getting hitters to chase. This year, they are not biting. Opposing hitters are chasing 26.1% of the time this season, which is far less often than they have the last 3 seasons (33.9%, 32.9% and 32.4%). Over the last two seasons, Liriano threw outside the zone more than any pitcher in baseball (34.8% zone% in 2014, 35.8% in 2015). Hitters have clearly adjusted in an effort to make him throw more fastballs.

Despite the fact that Liriano’s zone% is up to 39.6% this season, his walk rate is also up to a whopping 13.6% and his K/BB rate sits at a putrid 1.63. Walks have always been an issue because of his pitching style, but now that opposing hitters are staying disciplined against the junk, they are walking at unprecedented rates and getting plenty of fastballs to hit. The results have been predictably bad. Hitters have adjusted to Liriano, and I am not sure whether or not he can adjust back. So far, the answer is a resounding no.

Batted Ball Data

When looking at the batted ball data, there are a couple of numbers that really jump out. Liriano has always had a relatively neutral BABIP, and this season is no different (.300 career BABIP, .304 in 2016). He has a strong ground ball tilt to his profile and has typically done a really good job limiting hard contact. This year, however, his hard contact rate is 36%. For a pitcher who has never had a hard contact rate above 30% and has been under 25% the past two years, this is a huge jump. The elevated hard contact rate is surely related to Liriano finding himself in so many hitter friendly fastball counts.

The other number that leaps off the page is Liriano’s HR/FB rate of 20.3%. He has typically had an above average HR/FB rate, but because of his relatively low FB rate, home runs have not been a huge problem for Liriano. He has already allowed 14 home runs this season. To give proper context, he allowed 13 homers in 2014 and 15 in 2015. 11 of those 14 home runs allowed the year have come on fastballs.

Surely some of the home run problem is due to bad luck. Because hitters have clearly taken a new approach against Liriano this season and his hard contact rate is so elevated, I am not chalking it all up to bad luck. Some regression in his HR/FB rate is likely coming, but if Liriano keeps throwing so many fastballs, he will allow a bunch more souvenirs this season.

Walks and home runs are a brutal combination for pitchers. Liriano’s ERA indicators show that he has not been all that unlucky. His FIP is 5.44, his xFIP is 4.58 and his SIERA is 4.75. Together, those numbers suggest that his ERA should be somewhere around 5.00, which it is.

Possible Trade Scenarios

Trade rumors have been swirling lately regarding Liriano. The one generating the most heat is Liriano to Baltimore. Normally, a pitcher moving from the NL to the AL East would be a death-blow to his fantasy value. In this case, a fresh start in the AL might be the best possible outcome, although AL hitters have seen the game plan too. Here is a breakdown of Liriano’s two starts against AL clubs this season:

5/29 @TEX: 6 IP, 6H, 4 BB, 5 ER, 6K, 2 HR
6/3 vs LAA: 3.1 IP, 10H, 4BB, 6 ER, 2 K, 1 HR

I am not going to put too much stock in a two start sample size, but this is not the result Liriano owners were hoping to see here. The high walk totals are especially troubling. The word appears to be out.

Final Conclusions

The reasons for Liriano’s struggles are very real. He will likely improve some, because to be perfectly honest it would be difficult not to. Here are my projections moving forward:

  • IP: 90
  • ERA: 4.50
  • WHIP: 1.50
  • Ks: 90
  • Wins: 5

Unless hitters start chasing again, he will continue to struggle. Given how successful the blueprint against Liriano has been, the onus falls on Liriano to adjust back. Throwing his off speed pitches in the strike zone could be an answer. Clearly throwing more fastballs is not. At this time, Liriano is droppable in most formats. If I owned him, I would strongly consider cutting the cord.

James Shields, Chicago White Sox

81 2 65 6.22 1.70
owned in 45% of Y! Leagues

When James Shields signed in San Diego two winters ago, fantasy owners were expecting big things. He had been one of the most consistent pitchers in the AL and he was headed to a pitchers’ paradise on the senior circuit to continue his success. Things have not quite worked out that way. Shields has struggled mightily this season, and since being traded to the windy city the results have been even worse.

The Arsenal

Shields has two fastballs, a four-seamer and a two-seamer. He throws the four-seamer about 30% of the time and the two-seamer just over 10%. When he was excelling a couple of years ago, his velocity was over 92 MPH. This year, it is down to just a shade above 90. It would be safe to say that Shields’ past success had come despite his fastball and not because of it. His career wOBA against on each pitch is approaching .400. When he was at his best, he was able to get those numbers down to the .340 range. This year, his wOBA on the four-seamer is a shocking .461.

Shields’ knuckle curve is far and away his best pitch. It is his least used off speed offering (15.6%), but opposing hitters have a .169 wOBA against it. He is able to induce an elite ground ball rate and a swinging strike rate of over 18% on the pitch. It is his only offering that has graded out as a positive value over the last two seasons. The only real downside to the curve is that Shields has a tough time throwing it for strikes when he needs to, so it is really more of a put away pitch when he gets ahead.

Shields throws the changeup about 24% of the time. It is his second best strikeout pitch this season, although it has been his best in years past. His swinging strike rate on the change is over 19% for his career, but only 14.9% this season. A high strikeout rate along with groundball tendencies has made it very effective over time, but he has also given up a few home runs over the past two seasons.

Rounding out the arsenal is Shields’ cutter, which he throws almost 20% of the time. Prior to this season, it had been a fairly effective pitch. Now, he is not getting many swinging strikes; he has given up five home runs and he is simply not getting hitters out with it. Opposing batters have a .462 wOBA against.

Ks and BBs

Shields had a massive K spike in 2015 that sort of came out of nowhere. This season, his numbers are more back in line with career averages, so we will ignore the 2015 surge. Shields is striking out 7.22 batters per nine, with a K% of 17.7%. That K% is actually significantly down from his 20.8% career mark, but his swinging strikeout rate is not too far off (9.5%).

The main issue for Shields has been his inability to find the strike zone. Previously known as a pitcher with excellent command, Shields struggled immensely with walks last year (9,4%). That number has risen to an eye-popping 10.9% this year and his K/BB ratio sits at a very unappealing 1.63. Shields has failed to get ahead of batters (53.1% F-Strike), he is not finding the zone (39.2% zone percentage), and opposing batters are not chasing like they have in the past (26.2% O-Swing in ‘16, 29.9% career).

None of these numbers have single-handedly caused the demise of James Shields, but when taken together, they are very troublesome. Shields is unable to consistently find the zone, hitters are not chasing as much when he misses, and he seems to lack the stuff to get hitters out when he does throw strikes. Moving forward, I would expect a slight improvement in his strikeout and walk rates, but not enough to make him fantasy relevant again.

Batted Ball Data

Shields has always been a pitcher with fairly neutral batted ball data. That continues to be true. It would be easy to look at his .340 BABIP, his 67.8% strand rate and his 16.3% HR/FB rate and conclude that he has been unlucky. I am sure that he has been unlucky to a degree. The gopheritis is a continuing trend that began last season and his hard contact rate is all the way up to 34.1%, so I am not holding my breath waiting for improvement.

The bottom line is that all of Shields’ ERA indicators are hovering around 5.00. If we assume normal batted ball luck, a normal home run rate and a small improvement in K/BB ratio, he still would not be good enough to trust in fantasy.

Final Conclusions

Here are my Shields projections the rest of the way:

  • IP: 60
  • ERA: 5.00
  • WHIP: 1.45
  • Ks: 50
  • Wins: 3

Maybe Shields is pitching hurt, but he clearly is not right. There is no way he should be owned in more than 10% of fantasy leagues given his struggles. Anybody still holding on here is wasting a roster spot. I would be looking to move on in all but the deepest AL only leagues. Shields is 34, so this is likely the beginning of the end for him.


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Tommy is also known as tlance on the CBS and Sports Hoopla message boards. He has been playing fantasy baseball for 16 years in many different format types and looks forward to helping you with your fantasy baseball questions! You can now follow me on Twitter @tlandseadel