Michael Pineda‘s four years with the Yankees have been eventful, to say the least. He missed the 2012-13 seasons following shoulder surgery, then pitched brilliantly in limited action around a lat strain last year. Despite the injury, what Pineda showed last summer was pretty encouraging. His fastball had life, his slider was nasty, and his changeup was promising.
The 2015 season was supposed to be Big Mike‘s coming out party. He was finally healthy, with the shoulder surgery far in the rear view mirror. What we saw last year was very exciting and it was not hard to dream up a scenario where Pineda was the ace of the staff and one of the game’s most dominant arms. We saw flashes of that this year. Mostly though, we saw inconsistency.
Dominance in Spring
Pineda has had some pretty eventful Spring Trainings with the Yankees. He was overweight and ultimately hurt in 2012. The next year he was still coming back from shoulder surgery and didn’t pitch at all. Last year he came to camp healthy and it was something of a feeling out process. No one knew what to expect from Pineda after two lost years.
This year, Pineda showed up to camp with expectations for the first time in three years, and holy moly was he sharp in Spring Training. Pineda started five Grapefruit League games, allowed three runs in 19 innings, striking out 23 and walking just one. It was Spring Training, we all know the stats mean nothing, but damn. Big Mike killed it in March. It was hard to contain the excitement.
No. 2 Starter
The Yankees decided to start Pineda in the second game of the season, between Masahiro Tanaka and CC Sabathia. They lost four of their first five games of 2015 and the one win was Pineda’s start, when he held the Blue Jays to two runs in six innings. He struck out six and walk one. Not a great start but serviceable. It was a cold and rainy night in the Bronx, so it was understandable.
Five days later the Orioles roughed up Pineda, scoring five runs on nine hits in 6.1 innings. He did strike out nine. His next start was okay (three runs in 5.2 innings against the Rays), but, after that, Pineda went on a four-start tear in which he looked like the budding ace the Yankees thought they were acquiring back in 2012.
On April 24th, Pineda outdueled Jacob deGrom and held the Mets to one run in 7.1 innings. Five days later he allowed two runs in 5.2 innings against the Rays, and six days after that he threw eight shutout innings against the Blue Jays in Toronto. Then, five days later on Mother’s Day, Pineda struck out 16 Orioles in seven masterful innings.
The 16-strikeout game capped off a dominant four-start stretch in which Pineda allowed four runs on 22 hits and one walk in 28.1 innings. He struck out 34. Big Mike had a 2.72 ERA and a 1.90 FIP in his first seven starts and 46.1 innings of the season. Things were a little rocky early, but Pineda settled in and was starting to #shove on a consistent basis.
Small to Mid-Size Mike
Given how the rest of the season played out, it’s fair to wonder if Pineda exerted himself a little too much in that 16-strikeout game. He surrendered five runs in 5.1 innings next time out and showed nothing more than flashes of dominance the rest of the season. Pineda had some truly great starts down the stretch (like this one) but was generally inconsistent and mediocre, if not downright bad.
Following the 16-strikeout game, Pineda pitched to a 5.04 ERA (3.92 FIP) in 20 starts and 114.1 innings. His walk (3.7%) and strikeout (21.0%) strikes were excellent, and he was starting to get ground balls (46.5%), but Pineda was incredibly hit (.284 AVG and .330 BABIP) and home run (1.42 HR/9 and 17.0 HR/FB%) prone. He closed the season by allowing 35 runs in his final 54.1 innings. That’s not good.
Pineda did miss a little more than a month with a forearm muscle strain, the same injury that sidelined Tanaka and Andrew Miller for a month each earlier in the season. Pineda returned in late-August and finished the season healthy, so that’s good, but he struggled before getting hurt and again after getting hurt. The dominant Big Mike were all hoping to see never really showed up aside from that four-start stretch early in the season, which ended with the 16-strikeout game.
All told, Pineda finished the season with a 4.37 ERA (3.34 FIP) in 27 starts and 160.2 innings. His had great strikeout (23.4%) and walk (3.1%) numbers — Pineda had the third lowest walk rate (behind Phil Hughes and Bartolo Colon, the Yankees love their low walk guys) and the second highest K/BB ratio (behind Max Scherzer) among the 89 pitchers who threw at least 150 innings in 2015 — and got ground balls (48.2%) for the first time in his life.
The peripherals were magnificent. The actual preventing runs part? Not so much. Pineda was way too hittable this year for a guy with his stuff.
Before & After
Like I said earlier, it’s fair to wonder if Pineda put a little too much into the 16-strikeout game, leading to his poor performance afterwards. Maybe he threw off his mechanics, maybe he was hiding an injury, or maybe it was something else all together.
Let’s look at some PitchFX graphs to see if we notice any sort of difference before and after that Mother’s Day gem, starting with good ol’ velocity. I’ve boxed out Pineda’s starts after the 16-strikeout game.
Looks fine to me. Pineda added velocity as the season progressed, which is totally normal, then it tailed off a bit at the end of the season, around the forearm injury. This looks fine. Pineda was relatively consistent with his velocity before and after the 16-strikeout game before getting hurt.
Now let’s look at the horizontal movement of Pineda’s pitches since he’s a fastball/slider/changeup guy. The changeup goes left-to-right and everything else he throws seems to go right-to-left. Even his fastball is more of a cutter.
Okay, now maybe we’re on to something. Pineda’s slider lost horizontal movement as the season progressed. Going month-by-month, the pitched averaged 4.54 inches of break in April, then 4.00 in May, then 2.47 in June, then 1.31 in July, then -0.45 in August — that basically means he was throwing sloppy backup sliders more often than not — before rebounding to 1.32 in September.
The swing-and-miss rate on Pineda’s slider actually went up as the season progressed — it had a 17.5% whiff rate in April and peaked at 26.1% in August before the forearm injury — but the whiff rate on his fastball dropped. It went 7.8% in April to literally 0.0% in August. No swings and misses on the pitch that month.
A pitcher’s arsenal is not just a collection of individual pitches. They all play off each other. The fastball sets up the slider and vice versa. That’s what makes it so tough. The hitter reads fastball out of the hand, starts his swing, then the thing slides out of the way. Pineda’s slider was less slider-y as the season progressed, and it hurt his fastball more than anything.
The slider wasn’t sliding less just because. There’s a reason behind the change, and, looking at the PitchFX data, it appears Pineda’s arm slot changed after the 16-strikeout game. Check it out:
Oh boy. That first data point after the 16-strikeout game is pretty scary. Pineda’s vertical release point dropped significantly — four and a half inches according to PitchFX, to be exact — immediately after the 16-strikeout game. It bounced back for a few starts after that, then began to trend downward and zig zag all over the place around the forearm injury.
We don’t know if Pineda exerted himself a little too much on Mother’s Day. The PitchFX data shows his slider didn’t slide as much and his vertical release point dropped, but correlation does not equal causation. It could be a coincidence. Remember, we already talking about a pitcher who has had major shoulder surgery. His arm may never work the same across a full season.
Whatever it was, Pineda did not meet expectations this season. He wasn’t terrible, the overall numbers are okay, but the Yankees were expecting high-end performance from Pineda. He was being counted on to be one of the leaders of the staff. We saw flashes of that and nothing more.
Looking Ahead to 2016
Pineda is under team control as an arbitration-eligible player for another two years and there’s always a chance the Yankees could use him in a trade this offseason. For now, he’s penciled as one of the five starters next season, except now expectations may be tempered a bit.