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White Sox Decision Review: Starting rotation

Letting Francisco Liriano go to Pittsburgh doesn't look like a great idea in hindsight, but let's take a look at whether it would have made a difference in Chicago

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Jared Wickerham

It's weird seeing Francisco Liriano take the mound twice in a week as The Guy You Want Starting In The Postseason, and not just because he's doing it for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

At this point last year, Liriano's pitching was the cause for lament. The White Sox lost in five of Liriano's last six starts, and Liriano couldn't complete six innings in any of those defeats. He wasn't the reason why the Sox couldn't hold off the Tigers, but he played a small part in it all.

One year later, he's pitching well enough for the Pirates to win both of his October starts, and after a regular season in which he went 16-8 with a 3.02 ERA to boot. The Sox could have retained Liriano's services if they wanted to, but they weren't interested. and they had their reasons. Their losses turned into the Pirates' gain.

Was Rick Hahn wrong for letting him go so easily?

As a longwinded way of figuring out an answer to that question, let us take a look at how the 2013 rotation came to be. It was one of several areas in flux, and I'm curious whether any of the decisions Hahn made in his first winter as general manager could have changed the course enough to make the summer easier to watch.

The final five of 2012
  1. Jake Peavy
  2. Chris Sale
  3. Gavin Floyd
  4. Jose Quintana
  5. Francisco Liriano
Other pitchers in the immediate picture:
  • John Danks (season-ending shoulder surgery)
  • Philip Humber (demoted to bullpen)
  • Dylan Axelrod
  • Hector Santiago
What the White Sox did:
Pure hindsight says:
  • Sign Peavy to the extension
  • Decline Floyd's option / exercise Floyd's option and trade him for anything
  • Waive Humber
  • Extend Sale
  • Re-sign Liriano to a two-year, $11 million contract
Was the pure hindsight vision possible?

Liriano had the makings of a classic Coop'll-Fix-Him when Kenny Williams acquired him at the July deadline in 2012. Better yet, since Liriano would be a free agent at the end of the year, Kenny Williams basically picked him up on a lease with an option to buy.

After an encouraging beginning, he started nibbling himself to death. Outside of a dominant start against his former employer, his September starts were short-lived affairs. He finished his Sox stint with a 5.40 ERA and a 1.52 WHIP over 56⅔ innings, and showed no real signs of flipping a switch. The Sox let him go to free agency, and made no real outward effort to retain his services.

Liriano didn't inspire the market much, either. He eventually settled for a two-year, $12.75 million deal with the Pirates, who were the only team to give him a second year. But then Liriano broke his arm trying to startle his kids on Christmas Day before the original contract had been formalized, and so they agreed to a revised one-year, $1 million contract with incentives and an option for 2014.

(Liriano ended up earning $3.875 million this year after bonuses, and pitched enough to guarantee his $8 million option. He almost earned back the difference.)

After a delayed start, Liriano ended up throwing 161 innings for the Buccos, posting that impressive record and ERA while slicing his walk rate (5.1 to 3.5 per nine innings) and home run rate (1.1 to 0.5) dramatically. But could he have done it for the White Sox?

Probably not. Look at his home/road splits this season:

Home 8 1 1.47 11 73.2 45 12 12 2 26 72 .174 .249 .225
Away 8 7 4.33 15 87.1 89 42 42 7 37 91 .261 .333 .381

Clint Hurdle doesn't think it's a coincidence:

Liriano and PNC Park proved a fortuitous match. It has been a historically good yard for left-handed pitchers since it opened in 2001 because of the difficulties right-handers have hitting home runs with the left-center field gap stretching to 410 feet. [...]

"It's been a very, very good place for Frank to pitch just with the sequences of pitches, the ability to spin the ball, still ride the fastball, pitch the right-handers in the big part of the park, the left-center field notch out there," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "It's all worked out very well for him."

That certainly jibes with what we saw from Liriano in Chicago, who looked untouchable when rolling, but afraid of a knockout punch when threatened in tight games. Don Cooper tried to get him to fill up the strike zone first and ask questions later, but it never quite clicked.

If PNC Park's dimensions give him the confidence to risk making a mistake, then that's something U.S. Cellular Field wouldn't have afforded him. The lack of a DH doesn't hurt, either. Consider both factors, and it's safe to say a Liriano couldn't have posted a .474 home OPS with the Sox.

Plus, the 2013 White Sox defense wouldn't have allowed him to go an entire season without allowing an unearned run, as he did with the Pirates. Pittsburgh did commit 106 errors on the season, which is fewer than the Sox's 121, but not all that impressive in and of itself.

However, the Pirates finished with the fifth-best defensive efficiency in baseball, so they did their job in terms of turning batted balls into outs. Along the same lines, Liriano's BABIP dropped from .300 to .290. It's possible he benefited from luck more than his his club's shift-heavy tendencies over a 161-inning sample, but the Pirates did play a better brand of defense than the Sox.

He's also evolved as a pitcher, throwing his changeup and slider more often while ditching his four-seamer in favor of a sinkers-only fastball approach, according to Brooks. But that's a transition that started when the Sox acquired him, as he used both his secondary pitches more in Chicago than he did in Minnesota.

I'm inclined to think Liriano might have refined his tools in a similar fashion had he stayed with Cooper. I'm not inclined to think he would've been as effective in using them in a hitter-friendly American League park, especially with a clown-shoed defense behind him. That's not an environment conducive to pitching with conviction. Watching Liriano wobble into trouble in the third and fifth innings in Game 3 on Sunday makes me think he hasn't entirely shed his old self, either.

So with Liriano, all you can do is shrug. With Floyd, his fate was a little easier to foresee, as the Sox had to guide him through a couple of elbow aches in 2012. He provided 168 decent innings despite the issues, but it was his lowest total since becoming a full-time starter in 2008.

The Sox picked up his option, because even if he duplicated his 2012 season, he would've earned his $9 million. That possibility was probably too great to let him go for nothing.

If only they knew he wasn't going to make it out of April. That elbow required Tommy John surgery, and we probably won't see him in one uniform or another until the 2014 All-Star break at the earliest.

That being the case, we know the Sox could've let him go in one way or another and reallocated that $9 million toward something more useful. But the market for Floyd never seemed that hot, so a salary dump probably would've been the most they could have hoped for, and the money itself wouldn't have solved the Sox's many, many other problems.

(And if they paid another third-tier starter instead, the free agent pool wouldn't have been the place to find one. The best feasible options -- Liriano and Brandon McCarthy, who struggled in Arizona.)

How did it work out?

What Hahn got right heavily outweighed what he might have wanted to do over.

The Sale extension was a no-brainer at the time, and it only looks better after seeing him throw 214 better innings in 2013. The Peavy extension paid off in two ways -- the rare hometown discount gave the Sox a premium pitcher at a below-market price, and Peavy justified it enough to net Avisail Garcia plus some A-ball prospects at the deadline. As for Humber, he's basically the anti-Liriano.

And even Floyd's injury opened the door for Santiago, who probably would've had a tough time finding starts otherwise. He ended up outpitching most of the free agent class, with the added benefit of learning what he might be able to provide in the future.

Injuries and trades turned the 2013 rotation into a unit far more ramshackle than we're accustomed to, but it somehow skirted a drop-off in production:

2012 starters 60 52 4.15 980.0 947 469 452 129 324 829 .254 .320 .414 20
2013 starters 44 63 3.99 982.2 974 485 436 144 300 825 .257 .316 .425 39

That's pretty remarkable, especially since Axelrod (106⅓ innings) pitched more innings as a starter than Peavy and Floyd combined (104⅓ innings). Had the offense and defense from 2012 carried over into 2013, the rotation would've been strong enough to contend, so it's hard to find fault with the route Hahn chose with his rotation. The results rewarded the process, at least if you can ignore pitcher wins and losses.