Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Of Opponents and Kryptonite

Last night, the Pirates played the Minnesota Twins. The teams do not have a long history with one another, as their rivalry is a function of the recent phenomenon of interleague play. In 1997, the Pirates were 1-2 against the Twins. In 1998, they were 2-1. They were 1-2 again in 1999, 2-1 in 2000, and 1-2 in 2001. That was the end of annual series between the clubs. Since then, the Twins swept three games in 2006 and took two of three in 2009. The Pirates were 2-1 in 2012, the last time the two teams played.

So in 24 games spread over 18 seasons, the Pirates were 10-14 against the Twins entering play last night. They've scored 109 runs (4.5 per game) with a .762 OPS and given up 112 runs (4.7 per game) with a 4.22 ERA. 

But last night wasn't just the Pirates playing the Twins, it was Pirates starting pitcher Francisco Liriano facing the first major league team for which he played. He was signed by the San Francisco Giants in 2000 but traded to the Twins after the 2003 season. After six games in Minnesota in 2005, Liriano, then 22, was a sensation as a rookie in 2006. He was named to the All-Star team and at the end of July was 12-2 with a 1.96 ERA and 137 strikeouts in 115 innings. That year Twins pitcher Johan Santana won his second Cy Young Award, but at the end of July, he was just the second-best lefty starter on the club (12-5, 3.11 ERA, 160 strikeouts in 156.1 innings).

Then Liriano missed a start with elbow soreness. He lasted four innings, allowing ten hits and four runs, in a start against Detroit on August 7, then went on the disabled list with a sprained ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in his throwing elbow. Even if you don't know the Francisco Liriano story, you can probably guess where this is going. He returned for one start, against Oakland in September. left after two innings, his UCL torn, and had Tommy John surgery. 

Liriano was never the same as a Twin. From 2008 to 2012, he started 110 games, compiling a 37-47 record with a 4.69 ERA. His ERA was 42nd among 48 American League pitchers with at least 500 innings pitched during that stretch. He was traded to the White Sox at the trade deadline in 2012, became a free agent, and became, in 2013, Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage's latest reclamation project.

Liriano entered play last night with a 2.96 ERA, the 15th best in the league. He had a 1-3 record, but that was a product of lousy run support, as the Bucs had scored just 2.3 runs per 27 outs with Liriano on the mound, the seventh-lowest support in the league.

And he got lit up yesterday. Two innings, five hits (including two homers), two walks, one hit batter, a wild pitch, seven runs, all earned. His ERA went from 2.96 to 4.05 over the course of two innings.

So, is Liriano's first team, the Twins, his Kryptonite*? Does he prove Tom Wolfe's point, that you can't go home anymore**?

Hardly. Small sample size caveats and all that, Liriano faced his former teammates twice after getting traded to Chicago in 2012, and he performed well: 2.77 ERA over 13 innings, during which he allowed just 11 baserunners (five hits, six walks), striking out 17. Among the nine opponents that year against whom he had at least seven innings pitched, he had easily his best ERA and best WHIP against Minnesota. 

So the problem last night was clearly not that he was pressing, seeking some sort of revenge or something against the club that traded him away. The time for that was in 2012, and he dominated his former club.

But this got me thinking: How have the Pirates pitchers fared against their first team? Given the club's propensity for home-grown talent,t he list if short:

  • Starter A.J. Burnett: Started with the Marlins, against whom he's 2-2 with a 3.22 ERA and 1.459 WHIP (career averages: 3.99, 1.319) in six starts 
  • Starter Vance Worley: Started with the Phillies, against whom he's 0-1 with a 2.25 ERA and 2.250 WHIP (career averages: 3.78, 1.400) in one start
  • Reliever Mark Melancon: Started with the Yankees, against whom he has one save, a 4.32 ERA and 0.720 WHIP (career averages: 2.95, 1.112) in six games
And that's it. Every other Pirates pitcher is either home-grown (Cole, Hughes, LaFramboise, Locke, Sadler, Watson), or has never faced his original team (Bastardo [Phillies], Carminero [Marlins], Liz [Orioles], Scahill [Rockies]). 

So tonight, Pirates starter Jeff Locke has no reason to be particularly good or bad against the Twins, as he's spent his entire career with Pittsburgh and has never faced Minnesota. On the other hand, Twins starter Mike Pelfrey, in six appearances against Pittsburgh, has a 3-2 record but a 4.78 ERA and 1.407 WHIP, about in line with his career averages of 4.51 and 1.480, respectively. No Kryptonite-based advantage here.

*The term Kryptonite is commonly misused. It's come to mean a person's weakness, e.g. New York Post, last Nov. 1: "Cold weather is [Peyton] Manning's Kryptonite...exemplified by his 8-11 career record and thoroughly mediocre 82.1 rating in games played in temperatures below 40." True, the otherwise indestructible Superman is vulnerable to Kryptonite, but what makes it different from Peyton Manning's aversion to cold weather is that Kryptonite was formed from exploded pieces of Superman's home planet, Krypton. So the analogy here, to Liriano's original team, is more apt that most that you'll see.

**OK, technically, Liriano's home is the Dominican Republic, not Minnesota, and I imagine he's welcome there.

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