DINGERS FROM THE 6IX
Considering everything else, the Toronto Blue Jays starting rotation was one of the few areas where there are very few concerns regarding the teams 2017 roster. With Aaron Sanchez, Marco Estrada, Marcus Stroman, J.A. Happ, and Francisco Liriano holding all five of the spots, the rotation is expected to be one of the teams biggest strengths in 2017. I expect reasonable performances from all five starters, but I expect a big improvement over his last season from Francisco Liriano, who mostly struggled in 2016 with a 4.69 ERA and just 0.4 fWAR. Despite these seemingly bad numbers, there is reasonable reason to expect improvement from Liriano besides the obvious numbers which people point out.
The clearest and most talked about reason for why Liriano struggled in 2016 was his walk totals, which increased from 3.38 BB/9 in 2015 to 4.69 BB/9 in 2016. When people combine the improvements in Liriano, as well as Jason Grilli and Joaquin Benoit after trades to the Blue Jays, it appears that the reduced walks caused a dramatic improvement in performance. Although this may be true for Grilli and Benoit because of their small sample size, I discovered a more impactful reason for Liriano’s struggles in 2016. He simply gave up too many home runs.
Liriano had the highest home run rates of his career in 2016. Liriano’s total of 0.72 HR/9 in 2015 to 1.44 HR/9 in 2016. And there is more to this than an increased fly ball rate, as this increased by just 4% from 2015 to 2016, hardly enough of a difference to cause an increase of this magnitude. It’s not as if 2015 was an outlier either, in fact his career HR/9 of 0.87, proving that his 2016 struggles were a result of bad luck.
The fact of the matter is Liriano gave up more home runs that can be reasonably expected in the average pitcher. His HR/FB was a whopping 18.8%, a massive increase from his career average of 11.6%. Considering the league average HR/FB was 12.8% in 2016, there is an obvious correlation between Liriano’s struggles and the increase in home runs. With these inflated home run totals, one could expect Liriano to progress back towards his career norms next season, as a result of simply dumb luck in 2016.
This isn't result of park factors either even though the Rodgers Centre is the first hitters park that Liriano has regularly had to pitch in during his career. Although Liriano may have given up a few extra home runs in 2016 as a result of his move, it surely can’t account for this dramatic of an increase. In fact, his HR/FB decreased from 19.6% to 17.1% after being moved to Toronto. In addition to this, there was only 0.07 more home runs per game at the Rodgers Centre over the American League average, and many of these were a result of the Blue Jays home run heavy offence, which proves that Francisco Liriano was more unlucky than bad in 2016.
But in addition to the increase in home runs, Liriano also had a dramatic increase in hard contact rate in 2016. This number increased from 24.3% in 2015 to 34.8%, a rather large increase from his career norms. Like the home runs, this increase is largely unexplained, as his pitch locations were more or less the same in both seasons. In addition, there was no major change in pitch velocity from his 2015 numbers or his career numbers and his only real increase in pitch selection was 4.2% increase in fastball usage. Although some would consider this to be a major reason for his struggles, I find it more likely that he was forced to use it more as a result of pitching behind in the count and needing to throw a strike.
To summarize, I believe that Liriano’s struggles in 2016 were a result of some rotten luck rather than a noticeable decline in skill, and I expect Liriano to be among the Jays better pitchers in 2017. Assuming his home run and hard contact rates progress back towards his career norms, I believe that there is reasonable reason to expect improvement in Francisco Liriano’s performance next season.