Aaron Leibowitz | The Fan
Published: Tuesday, October 8, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, October 8, 2013 01:10
What do you want to do in your 20s? Graduate college? Get a job or two or three? Eat some cereal? Beyond that, it’s probably up in the air.
Whatever happens during my 20s, it won’t be half as eventful as the past decade has been for Pirates pitcher Francisco Liriano.
When he was 21, the lefty made his major league debut. Two days ago, he helped the Pirates approach their first playoff series victory since 1979. In between, he has had an All-Star Rookie season, undergone Tommy John surgery, bounced back, tanked, bounced back again, thrown a no-hitter, tanked again and bounced back once more. And oh yeah — last Christmas, he broke his non-pitching arm while playing with his kids.
He turns 30 this month.
Born in the Dominican Republic, Liriano signed in 2000 with the Giants — as an outfielder. It wasn’t long before they turned him into a pitcher, and three years later he went to the Twins in a deal that sent A.J. Pierzynski to San Francisco and Joe Nathan to Minnesota. The Associated Press headline read: “Giants give up Nathan in deal for catcher.” Liriano was a throw-in.
In 2003, Liriano appeared in just five minor league games due to shoulder injuries. By 2004, though, he was touted as the second coming of Johan Santana. In 2005, he struck out 204 batters — 11 per nine innings — between Double-and-Triple A.
Liriano took the majors by storm in 2006, posting a 2.16 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP and finishing third in Rookie of the Year voting. But in August, he experienced forearm inflammation and went on the disabled list. Then his elbow started barking. That November, he had Tommy John surgery and kissed the 2007 season goodbye.
In his first three starts of 2008, Liriano stunk. He was demoted to Triple-A and didn’t return until August. In his next three starts, he was unhittable. Makes sense, right?
The years that followed made anything but sense for Liriano. In 2009, he cemented his status as a massive disappointment, finishing the year 5-13 with a 5.80 ERA. His fastball, which had averaged close to 95 MPH in 2005, dipped below 92. At age 25, Liriano was already being compared to injury-prone flops like Kerry Wood and Mark Prior.
But Liriano came back better than ever. He dropped weight and dominated hitters in winter ball. During the 2010 season, he magically added three miles per hour to his heater and sliced two-plus runs off his ERA, eclipsing 200 strikeouts and posting a 2.95 xFIP, tops in the American League.
And yet, his roller-coaster career plummeted once more in 2011. Liriano’s first five starts were a train wreck. He mixed in a no-hitter on May 3 — just to keep us on our toes — but struggled the rest of the year and into 2012, when he was traded to the White Sox at the deadline. By September, he couldn’t even crack Chicago’s starting rotation.
That brings us to the past 12 months, which, remarkably, may be the strangest ones yet. The Pirates offered Liriano two years and $12.75 million in the offseason, but after the Christmas incident they reduced their offer to one year plus a vesting option, with only $1 million guaranteed.
Now, along with the Pirates, the 29-year-old journeyman is finally back on top. He returned from his injury in May and has been awesome ever since, winning 16 regular season games and making two strong starts in the playoffs. A lot can change over the course of a baseball lifetime.
Liriano told reporters on Saturday, “I didn’t think I was going to play this year, so I’m surprised by the year I have had.”
He should know better by now.