General manager Neal Huntington’s persistence in getting the 29-year-old left-hander signed to a free-agent deal – despite Liriano’s freak offseason accident that left him with a broken right arm – seemed a little aggressive at first blush. However, the Pirates’ player evaluation staff was proven to be prescient, as a slight mechanical adjustment and a fresh start in Pittsburgh boosted Liriano to his best year since his spectacular rookie season of 2006.
Liriano’s rebirth attracted attention across MLB, especially when he dominated the Reds in the National League wild card game and helped push the Pirates within a win of the NLCS for the first time since 1992. On Monday, Liriano received further validation when he was named the NL comeback player of the year by the Sporting News.
A panel of 186 MLB players selected Liriano for the honor, along with retiring Yankees legend Mariano Rivera on the AL side. Liriano, a native of the Dominican Republic, started 26 regular-season games for the Pirates, posting a .302 ERA and a 1.22 WHIP in 161 innings. He got the call for two playoff starts, allowing seven hits and three runs in 13 combined innings, striking out 10.
Liriano’s strikeout rate for the regular season was 9.1 per nine innings, right on par with his eight-year career average. But where he made significant strides under the tutelage of Pirates pitching coaches Ray Searage and Jim Benedict was his walk rate – it dropped from 5.0 or higher in four straight seasons to 3.5 per nine, his lowest rate since 2010.
In 2010, Liriano won the AL comeback player of the year award with Minnesota, but he followed it up by dropping back significantly in 2011. The challenge for Liriano will be putting together back-to-back above-average seasons, which he has never done either because of injury or reverting to bad habits.
The Pirates have Liriano under contract for one more season, so if he can stay at this rarefied level, Pittsburgh will reap the benefits. With A.J. Burnett still deciding on his future and the pitching staff otherwise devoid of a veteran standout, the Bucs may need Liriano even more in 2014 than they did in 2013.