Blue Jays’ Liriano shows he can still deliver ‘wow’ factor

Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Francisco Liriano delivers a pitch (Kathy Willens/AP)

TORONTO – When the Toronto Blue Jays acquired Francisco Liriano, he had a 5.46 ERA and more walks than anyone in the National League.

A couple of months later, he’s looking much more like the pitcher who excelled with the Pirates from 2013-15. In 43 innings with Toronto, Liriano has 42 strikeouts and just 15 walks for a 3.35 ERA.

He’s never going to be a pinpoint command type, but Liriano succeeds as long as his pitches are in the vicinity of the strike zone. Even at age 32, the left-hander generates his share of swings and misses.

“I probably told him ‘wow’ about five times,” second baseman Devon Travis said Friday, after Liriano pitched six shutout innings against the New York Yankees. “That guy, he’s got some awesome stuff. I told him that’s the Francisco Liriano I grew up watching.”

That version of Liriano burst onto the scene in 2006, when at age 22 he earned an All-Star berth and posted a 2.16 ERA. A decade later, he’s still making an impact.

Liriano has now allowed more than two earned runs in just one of his seven starts with the Blue Jays. Just as tellingly, he has walked more than two batters just once since Toronto acquired him with prospects Reese McGuire and Harold Ramirez for Drew Hutchison. In that respect, starts like Friday’s outing against the Yankees are becoming the norm.

Liriano says he has welcomed contact since returning to the American League, allowing him to cut down on walks.

“I’ve been trying to get ahead a little bit more,” Liriano said through interpreter Josue Peley. “I’ve been trying to throw the balls where they can hit it, pitch to contact and it’s been working for me lately.”

Liriano gets an assist from catcher Russell Martin, who regularly maximizes called strikes for Blue Jays pitchers with his receiving skills. There’s a comfort factor there, too. Even so, it’d be an over-simplification to credit Liriano’s turnaround to a reunion with Martin. Yes, they worked well together in Pittsburgh, but Liriano succeeded in 2015 when Martin was already in Toronto, and Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli is a well-regarded receiver, too.

As for concrete changes, Liriano has been throwing a few more strikes since joining the Blue Jays. That’s not the most dramatic shift that’s occurring, though. He’s also generating more swings and misses by getting hitters to expand the strike zone.

% of pitches in the strike zone % of pitches batters swing at outside the zone
Pirates 2016 38.5 27.8
Blue Jays 2016 40.8 35.1
MLB Average 44.6 30.3

That’s a losing proposition for opponents considering the life on Liriano’s pitches. With a fastball that sits just below 93 mph, he’s throwing as hard as he did when he thrived in Pittsburgh. He’s still got a change-up capable of freezing righties and a slider to neutralize lefties.

“He’s always had one of the better arms in baseball. He’s one of those guys that can always dominate teams and he really hasn’t lost a whole lot,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said.

It’s added up to consistency for the Blue Jays: five quality starts in seven starts compared to just seven in 21 outings with the Pirates. He’ll have the chance to start one more regular season game when he faces the Baltimore Orioles Wednesday.

After that he becomes an intriguing piece for the Blue Jays on a couple of levels. He’s under contract for $13,666,667 in 2017, when he’s slated to join Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman, Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ in Toronto’s rotation.

First, though, there’s the possibility of the playoffs. Liriano, who started the 2013 wild card game for the Pirates, could be a useful bullpen piece in a potential play-in game, considering that the Blue Jays lack reliable left-handed relievers beyond Brett Cecil. If the Blue Jays were to advance beyond the wild card game, Liriano’s ability would make him an intriguing option for an ALDS roster.

Granted, the Blue Jays have to qualify for the playoffs before those decisions are required. If they advance, Liriano’s contributions will be among the reasons why.

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