Liriano Dominance, Opening Day Walk-Off Hint Pirates' 2013 Season Was No Fluke

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMarch 31, 2014

PITTSBURGH, PA - MARCH 31:  Neil Walker #18 of the Pittsburgh Pirates celebrates after hitting a walk off solo home run in the tenth inning against the Chicago Cubs during Opening Day at PNC Park March 31, 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Pirates are a fine example of how what happens on Opening Day isn't always indicative of what's going to happen in the 161 games to come. Before it ended with the club's first winning record since 1992, Pittsburgh's 2013 season began with a 3-1 loss to the Chicago Cubs.

But, oh, what the heck. Let's be optimistic about the Pirates anyway. Opening Day is just the day for optimism, you know, and they deserve to have some thrown their way after their opening act of 2014.

The Pirates opened with a thriller against the Cubs at PNC Park, winning by a final of 1-0 when Neil Walker led off the 10th inning with a home run down the right-field line. Cue 40,000 fans erupting and the raising of the Jolly Roger.

That the Pirates won it on a homer by Walker is encouraging in its own right. But we'll get to that later, for we'd be remiss to go any further without giving Francisco Liriano his due.

The 30-year-old lefty was largely responsible for keeping the Cubs off the scoreboard on Monday, pitching six shutout innings in which he allowed four hits and three walks. To boot, he struck out 10.

Now, there's a caveat here that can be spelled out in all caps: CUBS, YO. They weren't very good at the whole run-scoring thing in 2013, tallying only 602 runs to finish third from the bottom in MLB.

But even with that being noted, Liriano's performance was still the kind that qualifies as promising. He looked a lot like the guy who was one of 2013's most pleasant surprises, and it just so happens that the Pirates are going to need that guy even more this season than they did last season.

Mar 31, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Francisco Liriano (47) delivers a pitch against the Chicago Cubs during the first inning of an opening day baseball game at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

For starters, Liriano was able to rack up strikeouts on Monday for the same reason he was able to rack up strikeouts (9.1 K/9) in 2013: Nobody could make contact against him.

Liriano got 19 swinging strikes out of the 104 pitches he threw, an 18.3 swinging-strike percentage reminiscent of the MLB-high (minimum 150 innings) 13.2 swinging-strike rate that Liriano posted in 2013, according to FanGraphs.

Liriano had both his slider and his changeup to thank for the whiffs. Per Brooks Baseball, 18 of the swinging strikes Liriano got came on either of those two pitches, and it wasn't one or the other hogging the spotlight. His slider drew 10 whiffs, while his changeup drew eight.

And if you ask Harry Pavlidis of Baseball Prospectus, he might tell you that Liriano's changeup was just as nasty as his slider on Monday:

I'd call it par for the course, at least as far as the testimony of Liriano's 2013 season is concerned. According to the PITCHf/x leaderboards on Baseball Prospectus, Liriano was the only lefty in MLB to rank in the top 10 in whiffs per swing with both his slider and his changeup.

"Everything was working [for me], with good location, mixing pitches," said Liriano after the game, via Tom Singer of He added: "I got a couple of swings and misses. I didn't try to do too much, just hit my spots and go from there."

Liriano didn't have to be the ace of Pittsburgh's staff in 2013. Not with A.J. Burnett in town, as he had established himself as Pittsburgh's ace in 2012 and kept the job with a 3.30 ERA and an NL-high 9.8 K/9.

But when Burnett left for Philadelphia over the winter, Liriano inherited the Pirates' ace role by default. And despite what he did in 2013, let's face it: It was fair to be skeptical. Liriano is, after all, a guy who has never put together two straight quality seasons.

For now, though, it looks like the Pirates can rest easy. Liriano looked just as filthy on Opening Day as he did in 2013, which serves as a fine indication that the top of the Pirates rotation is in safe hands. All Gerrit Cole has to do is live up to his potential in the slot behind Liriano, and the Pirates will enjoy the same kind of one-two punch in their rotation that they did last year.

Now, as for this Walker guy...

The Pirates would probably take another season from Walker just like the one they got in 2013. He hit .251/.339/.418 and produced a career-best 2.7 WAR by FanGraphs' calculations. That's a good season.

However, the Pirates would probably prefer more of what their second baseman did in the second half of 2013.

Walker's 1.5 fWAR in the second half ranked second on the Pirates behind only NL MVP Andrew McCutchen. A main ingredient in Walker's second-half surge was an uptick in power, as he hit 10 home runs and upped his slugging percentage from .384 to .456.

So following that performance up with a home run on Opening Day? Yup, that'll do nicely.

Liriano's dominance and Walker's walk-off (Walker-off?) are easily the two best things to happen for the Pirates on Opening Day. Both were welcome sights, and they don't win the game without either. Duh.

But since we're being optimistic and generally all happy and sunshine-y here, we might as well note the other stuff, too.

Though it was largely a quiet day for Pittsburgh's offense, McCutchen did get on base twice and Travis Ishikawa picked up a pair of hits. Also, Starling Marte drew a walk! With one game down and 161 to go, he's already only 24 walks away from matching his 2013 output.

Even better is what Pittsburgh's bullpen did. Tony Watson, Mark Melancon, Jason Grilli and Bryan Morris each pitched an inning and combined to allow just two hits and a walk.

It was just the kind of performance that was typical of Pittsburgh's pen last year, when Pirates relievers ranked third in MLB with a 2.89 ERA. Bullpen performances like that are very hard to repeat from one year to the next, so it's not a small positive that it's so far, so good for the ol' Shark Tank.

In all, a day like Monday necessitates a fresh look at the projections for 2014. Two good places to get 'em are at Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs, and incidentally, both are pretty much in agreement on what awaits the Pirates in 2014: a record right around .500. If that's what it comes to, then Pittsburgh's 2013 season will look like a fluke.

Here's the thing, though: A .500-ish projected record makes for a fairly easy set of expectations to surpass. The Pirates could do the trick simply by virtue of a few lucky bounces. If they get more of the good stuff they got on Monday, it will be even easier.

That's the mindset we're working with today, anyway. Today, we're optimistic. Today, it looks like the resurrection of the Pittsburgh Pirates might be here to stay after all.

Note: Stats courtesy of unless otherwise noted/linked. 

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