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Liriano is the Ace You're Looking For

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Intro from Jesse: With Bobomojo distracted this week due to rallying the vote, Mister_S is stepping in for the morning to fill the content void. Let's give him a warm welcome.

About the second most annoying meme regarding the Twins’ failure to win a playoff series is the idea that we lack a "true ace" (I shouldn’t need to remind TT readers what the most annoying meme is).

Tom Powers was the first to broach the subject a scant two days after the Twins lost in New York with his two part solution to the Twins’ losing ways:

"How do they fix this problem? Here's the answer: First, they need to add a staff ace […] Equally important is that they also have to add a dose of "sandpaper" to the clubhouse."

Sandpaper, apparently, is a grit-delivery system that is going to revolutionize the way players hustle, slide into first, and "do the little things" like punch teammates in the mouth and throw them into lockers.

Leaving aside the cynical belief that "nice guys finish last," Powers’s critiques of Liriano as a staff ace does seem to have some resonance. "Francisco Liriano is wonderfully talented." Powers writes, "He is a power pitcher, which is the most valuable commodity in baseball. But his makeup is soft. Here's a guy who has never pitched a complete game in his professional career. Not one. Not even by accident. Not in the major leagues and not in the minor leagues."

Arguments like this have been echoed (although not totally agreed with) by Aaron Gleeman, Nick Nelson, Seth Stohs, John Bonnes, and basically everywhere in the Twins blogosphere. We need an ace, they say. Our current rotation is not going to get us to the promised land. We have to sacrifice the future to get a Zack Greinke, or Josh Johnson, or Wandy Rodriguez, or pay Jorge de la Rosa $10 million+ a year, or we’ll just get bounced again.

Not only is Liriano a "true ace" already (and he is only going to improve), but the idea that the starting rotation is an area of need this off-season is faulty, if not ludicrous.

When Gleeman briefly tackled this argument, he linked to an article published by Bryan Smith on that used norm-referenced data to try to define what a #1 starter was able to do opposed to a #2 starter, and so on. Smith looked at four different rate stats (K/9, BB/9, GB%, and xFIP) in the entire population of pitchers with more than 130 innings last year, and divided the population into groups of 4, assigning the first 25% as #1 starters, the second as #2’s, the third #3’s and the fourth #4 starters.

The full article is definitely worth reading, and Smith intended to use this information as a baseline for putting some numbers behind a scout’s evaluation that such-and-such prospect is a "future no. 3 starter." But we can also use this information to evaluate the pitchers that are already here.

For example, by looking at the numbers that Smith used, we can easily see that Liriano scores well into the top 25% of Major League pitchers in K/9, GB% and xFIP, while he is better than half of Major League pitchers in BB/9. This puts him firmly in "ace" territory for 2010, as few pitchers can claim similar numbers. C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee, for example, only have #1 stuff in two categories. As an aside, only two pitchers in baseball scored in the top 25% in all four categories: Roy Halladay and Adam Wainwright.

But still, people say, Liriano "wilts." He’s not a big game pitcher. And there still is that annoying statistic about Liriano’s lack of complete games out there. To which I say: hogwash. Liriano logged plenty of innings to prove he can handle a full workload. He has pitched near 200 innings twice in his career, this year (over 200 if you count the winter league) and in 2008 (199.1 counting minor leagues). Keep in mind that Liriano is still gaining strength after Tommy John surgery (Erik Bedard won Cy Young votes at age 28 after having surgery at 23) along with his natural development at age 27. He averaged 6.1 innings per start last year, which puts him in line with Josh Johnson in 2008 (when he recovered from his own TJ surgery).

The dominance is already here. The innings have been pitched. A lack of complete games means nothing. And an off-season of rest instead of winter ball should do wonders.

Still people will say that Liriano is not enough. They'll say that we need to shore up our rotation, especially if Pavano leaves via free agency, and that relying on the likes of Scott Baker to pitch us through the post season is an exercise in futility. This is also not as obvious as it seems.

Since the Twins’ goal is to advance in the playoffs, and the main narrative of this year’s playoffs is one of powerful pitching match-ups, I compared the Twins' four man playoff rotation to the four teams that advanced in the playoffs. Using Smith’s rubric, it’s amazing how well the Twins compare. With the exception of the Phillies uber-rotation of three aces and a Blanton, every team has two weaker pitchers in their four man rotation. According to Smith’s numbers, Phil Hughes, A. J. Burnett, C. J. Wilson, Tommy Hunter, Matt Cain* and Jonathan Sanchez were low #2 starters at best.

The Twins, however, don’t have anywhere near as bad a drop off. Pavano was a high #2, and Duensing also scored well. Both Blackburn and Baker rated better than Hunter and Burnett for certain.

Does that mean there’s no need to improve the rotation? Well, the one place with a noticeable difference is K/9, where Twins pitchers (except Liriano) are below average, while the other playoff teams almost universally have above average strikeout rates (the one exception being poor Tommy Hunter). John Bonnes’ series on and his own site have already tackled this issue in detail, but my opinion is that the current free agent market is too thin. De la Rosa is a good pitcher (if he stays healthy), but he’s going to be too in-demand, and there is a steep fall off if we lose out on him. In fact, I’m unable to find another free agent target with a high K/9 that’s not named Vicente Padilla. I’d much rather the Twins find a way to get another good right handed bat, a deeper bench, and shore up a suddenly depleted bullpen than worry about our starting rotation.

*Matt Cain trends as a #3 starter based on the rate stats that Smith uses, but Matt Cain is some sort of anomaly that some SABR geek needs to study in depth to see if his essence can be bottled and sold as luck juice. Seriously, the guy’s ERA is consistently a run lower than his xFIP, his career oppBABIP is .274, and his GB% is a paltry 36%. It’s like he’s playing billiards. Or he’s a pinball wizard.