Leading up to the trade deadline, Kenny Williams did his share of window-shopping and haggling for a starting pitcher.
The Sox were reportedly interested in Ryan Dempster, who would have probably waived his no-trade protection to stay in Chicago. They scouted an Anibal Sanchez start. Williams threw everything he could to pry Zack Greinke from Doug Melvin and the Brewers.
And after all the rumors, Williams ended up settling for Francisco Liriano. At least you could call it that if only looking at the numbers. With the Twins, Liriano was 3-10 with a 5.31 ERA, and the last time the White Sox saw him, they knocked him out in the third inning.
Wrapping up the first month of his White Sox career, we certainly have a different impression of Liriano. And several starts into the wave of post-deadline deals that shifted six significant starters to contenders, it doesn't look like Williams "settled" at all.
Here's the scoreboard:
Liriano's numbers are better than the rest of the American League acquisitions, and he's been better than his numbers. He's thrown three quality starts, and came one inning short of a fourth after taking a comebacker above the knee. Sure, Oakland pasted him for seven runs over 3⅓ innings, but I'm pretty sure the Sox would be happy with four good outings for every dud (assuming the dud wasn't in an elimination game). The standards for the back end of the rotation were lower than the expectations for Liriano. He's exceeded both by far.
He's also well ahead of his peers.
Sanchez: His line above was worse before Wednesday night, when he held the Blue Jays to two runs over 6⅔ innings to keep the Tigers two games behind the White Sox. The Tigers had skipped Sanchez to let him get his bearings, and the early returns suggest an improvement, although the optimism is limited at Bless You Boys.
Greinke: It's been a rough reintroduction to the American League for Milwaukee's former ace, and a quick glance shows he's susceptible to the big inning (the inflated home run rate certainly doesn't help). He's called his first month with the Angels "embarrassing," and he's one of a few significant reasons why they're fading out of contention.
Dempster: His exit from the Cubs was a drawn-out fiasco that reflected well on nobody, and his first foray into the AL has been inconsistent. He's balanced two lousy starts with two good ones, including eight innings of one-run ball against Baltimore on Monday.
Maholm has been one of baseball's best pitchers for the last two months. Rodriguez isn't giving the Pirates the boost they'd hoped for, but he hasn't been terrible (he picked up the win by pitching the 18th and 19th innings on Sunday). However, since they're National League lifers who remained in the lesser circuit, whatever success they've attained with their new teams isn't as easily applicable to the White Sox's situation.
It's hard to say if Williams had any special knowledge of this market. After all, he had some interest in the other pitchers, and given Melvin's description of the failed Greinke negotiations, it's probably accurate to say Liriano was at least Plan B.
That said, the Sox did have a hunch with Liriano. Don Cooper had some adjustments in mind (using his height better, minimizing hesitation), and Liriano is mostly winning the battle to stick to them. To my amateur scouting eye, he looks like John Danks at times when he gets out of sync. He appears to overrotate during his leg lift instead of keeping his upper body perpendicular to home plate, and then his arm comes through late, and he leaves the ball high and wide. He was able to kick the bad habits after the first inning against the Yankees on Tuesday. Against Oakland, he wasn't so fortunate.
When his mechanics are less noisy, though, you can see that there's no question about his stuff, especially when it comes to his breaking ball. He throws a nasty backfoot slider, but he gets swings and misses even when he leaves it out over the plate. Late break is king.
But the other pitchers in question have their own kinds of above-average offerings, so it's not a matter of Liriano just being better. There's certainly the issue of sample size, although there isn't much time remaining. These pitchers are just about at the halfway point of their rental periods, so bemoaning isolated bad innings or other forms of "luck" doesn't carry nearly as much weight as usual. It's a sprint, and whatever happens happens.
Liriano just happened to break out of the gates faster, and perhaps that speaks to the infrastructure Don Cooper provides. Before Liriano, Edwin Jackson brought his tattered stats to The Cell and offset them immediately with a strong two months. Even Jake Peavy nailed his first few starts with the Sox in 2009, although they were too late to matter. We know Cooper can work with live arms, but maybe he and the Sox's development staff can get the ball rolling before they're even acquired.
Or maybe it will all even out, with Liriano reverting to his unreliable form while Sanchez and Greinke reel off a few good starts in the row. The picture could change by the time autumn approaches. Regardless, these games count the same, and all contenders really could use their key acquisitions performing now as well as later. And if luck is the only way to explain this, then Williams can say that fortune favors the bold.