Michael Pineda

Michael Pineda
(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

Michael Pineda is a right-handed starting pitcher for the New York Yankees. The team acquired him from the Seattle Mariners in January 2012, along with right-handed minor-league right-handed pitcher Jose Campos, in exchange for catcher/DH Jesus Montero and right-handed pitcher Hector Noesi.


Unlocking the mystery of Michael Pineda

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

Along with the shiny ERA (1.89) and ridiculous strikeout-to-walk ratio (8.4), perhaps the most impressive part of Michael Pineda’s 2014 campaign was his consistency from start-to-start.

Game Score is a metric devised by Bill James that provides a quick-and-dirty evaluation of a pitcher’s start. Every pitcher begins a game with 50 points and then gets points added/subtracted based on innings pitched, strikeouts, walks, hits and runs allowed. 50 is average, anything above 90 is awesome, and anything below 10 is horrible.

Last year, Pineda posted an above-average Game Score in 11 of his 13 starts — the exceptions were the pine tar game in April and his September 11 start against the Rays when he allowed 10 hits and four runs in 7 1/3 innings (Game Score of 44).

Pineda’s 2015 season couldn’t be any more different. While he’s shown flashes of brilliance — the 16-strikeout gem against the Orioles, the one-hit masterpiece against the Marlins — he’s also had his share of clunkers. Six of his 14 starts have produced a Game Score under 50, including a career-worst Game Score of 5 in his most recent start on June 22. He’s basically been either a stud or a dud this season, and can go from elite to enigma in the blink of an eye.

Strap in, because this roller coaster ride is not for those with weak stomachs:

Pineda GmScr

The peaks and valley have become even more extreme in his last seven starts, which have resulted in the following game scores, starting with his May 15 outing against the Royals: 29, 37, 65, 57, 23, 75, 5. Yikes.

How can we explain this bizarre Jekyll-and-Hyde sequence from a pitcher that last year resembled a metronome (when healthy)?

A scout recently told John Harper of the New York Daily News that one reason for the huge disparity in Pineda’s performance lies in the inconsistent execution of his signature slider:

“His height creates an angle on the slider that hitters don’t usually see and when it has a sharp break they don’t hit it. But when he doesn’t have the tight spin and the sharp break, it hangs in the strike zone and it’s getting hit.”

This is what Prince Fielder can do with a hanging slider from Pineda:

ezgif.com-crop (2)

But Lorenzo Cain had no chance on this nasty slider from Pineda:

ezgif.com-crop (3)

Pineda’s last two starts have been a microcosm of his season. On June 17 against the Marlins he was at his absolute best, taking a no-hitter into the seventh inning. Five days later against the Phillies, he pitched the worst game of his career.

Just as the scout noted, his slider was much flatter against the Phillies compared to his previous start, averaging nearly an inch less vertical movement and three-quarters of an inch less horizontal movement. Against the Marlins, his slider netted Pineda nine outs — including six strikeouts — with no hits allowed; the Phillies put six of his sliders in play and got three hits off the pitch.

But it wasn’t just a sloppy slider that doomed Pineda against the Phillies. Similar to his other disaster starts this season, he struggled to hit his spots with his cutter and batters pounded the poorly located pitches.

As you can see in the images below, he did a good job of avoiding the middle of the zone vs. the Marlins (on the top). But he threw far too many cutters (dark red dots) over the heart of the plate vs. the Phillies (on the bottom), who got seven hits and made just four outs against the pitch.

Pineda vs Marlins

pineda vs Phillies

When Pineda is at his best, he’s got a sharp slider and devastating cutter that makes him nearly unhittable. But at his worst, he’s forced to navigate lineups with flat sliders and batting-practice cut fastballs — a pitching arsenal that becomes crushable even against the worst offensive team in the majors. Although this inability to execute his pitches probably doesn’t completely explain Pineda’s inconsistency this season, it’s something that can’t be ignored.

Once tabbed as the future ace of the Yankees pitching staff, Pineda is now a mystery with the potential to either dominate or detonate when he steps on the mound. The question remains: can he find the consistent approach necessary to make him a true top-of-the-rotation starter?

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Pitching plans show the Yankees wisely have their eyes on the big picture

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Last night, Michael Pineda turned in arguably his best start of the season, which is pretty impressive when you consider he struck out 16 batters in a game last month. Big Mike carved through the Marlins with his mid-90s electricutter and the best slider command he’s had since the 16-strikeout game. It was Pineda at his best. Overwhelming dominance.

Five days ago Pineda suffered through arguably his worst start of the season by allowing six runs on nine hits in only 4.1 innings against the Orioles, the same Orioles he struck out 16 times a few weeks ago. His slider wasn’t behaving and his location was terrible, hence all the damage. Perhaps not coincidentally, last night’s start came on normal rest while the start in Baltimore came on eleven days rest.

“There’s days he hasn’t had his slider and he’s been on regular rest. So there is no answer to this, as much as you guys want one. There is no exact science,” said Joe Girardi to Ryan Hatch last night when asked about Pineda dominating on normal rest and struggling with extra rest.”These guys are creatures of habit, but sometimes you have to make adjustments. You have off days that you have to adjust to.”

The Yankees didn’t skip Pineda’s start two weeks ago for the heck of it. They did it because they’re trying to keep him healthy, and because he threw 124.2 total innings from 2012-14 following major shoulder surgery. Pineda has already thrown more big league innings this season (81.1) than he did last season (76.1) and we’re only halfway through June. Again: major shoulder surgery in the not too distant past!

Pineda is not the only pitcher who is having his workload monitored. Masahiro Tanaka‘s next start has been pushed back to give him an extra day of rest, something the team is trying to do as much as possible this year. They aren’t so concerned about his exact innings total, they’re just playing it safe with the partial ligament tear in his elbow. Adam Warren, a reliever turned starter who is two starts away from exceeding last year’s innings total, has also had some starts pushed back in recent weeks.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees are clearly looking at the big picture here and are willing to lose the battle (Pineda vs. the Orioles) to win the war (Pineda the rest of the season) with their rotation. Having Pineda, Tanaka, Warren, and whoever else around and not just healthy, but productive as well in the second half is far more important than one or two starts right now, before the halfway point of the season. Skipping that start seems to have resulted in a poor outing for Pineda against the O’s. The hope is it will lead to an effective Pineda in September and October.

The workload manipulation is only going to continue these next few weeks, so it would be nice if Pineda figured out how to remain effective in starts with extra rest. That’s an adjustment he has to make. The Yankees may use a six-man rotation when Ivan Nova returns and they figure to insert a spot sixth starter several times down the stretch — they were prepared to start Bryan Mitchell this Saturday until Nathan Eovaldi‘s short start on Tuesday, allowing him to come back on short rest. My guess is Mitchell will still end up taking a few rotation turns later this year.

There is definitely a time and a place for focusing on the here and now, especially with the AL East so tight. The Yankees aren’t at that place right now. There is still 60% of the season to be played and they have to be cognizant of their starters’ physical limitations and do their best to keep everyone healthy and sharp all season. If that means sacrificing some starts now a la Pineda against the Orioles, then so be it. The big picture is far too important right now.

Game 55: Back from the West Coast

(Otto Greule Jr/Getty)
(Otto Greule Jr/Getty)

That was a really uneven seven-game trip to the West Coast. The Yankees played poorly in losing two of three to the Athletics then had basically the best series ever while sweeping the Mariners. They pounded Felix Hernandez in the first game, had a dramatic ninth inning comeback in the second game, and watched Masahiro Tanaka dominate in his return from the DL in the third game. How could it get any better?

Thankfully, the Yankees are back home in the Bronx for a quick five-game homestand, starting tonight with the first of three against the Angels. The Halos had the best record in baseball a year ago but are kinda scuffling along this year. In fact, they have almost the same record as the Yankees. The Yankees are 29-25 and the Angels are 28-26. Anyway, here is Anaheim’s lineup and here is New York’s lineup:

  1. CF Brett Gardner
  2. 3B Chase Headley
  3. DH Alex Rodriguez
  4. 1B Mark Teixeira
  5. C Brian McCann
  6. RF Garrett Jones
  7. SS Didi Gregorius
  8. 2B Stephen Drew
  9. LF Ramon Flores
    RHP Nathan Eovaldi

The weather is kinda crummy in New York. It’s been raining on and off all day, though there’s nothing more than some drizzle in the forecast tonight. That’s good. First pitch is scheduled for 7:05pm ET and you’ll be able to watch on YES locally and MLB Network nationally, depending where you live. Enjoy the game.

Rotation Update: The Yankees are skipping Michael Pineda‘s next start to control his workload. He isn’t hurt and will start next Friday. CC Sabathia will start on normal rest Sunday in Pineda’s place. The Yankees had an off-day yesterday and have off-days coming up on Monday and Thursday, so they can skip Pineda without needing a spot starter. Big Mike has already thrown 70.1 innings this year and is on pace for about 220 innings. He threw 76.1 innings last year and a career-high 171 innings back in 2011, before shoulder surgery.

Injury Updates: Jacoby Ellsbury (knee) ran some sprints, took dry swings, and played catch today, the first time he’s performed any baseball activity since getting hurt … Ivan Nova (elbow) will make his first official minor league rehab start with High-A Tampa on Monday, the team announced. He is scheduled for 80-85 pitches and will make at least one more start after that before returning to the team … Carlos Beltran (foot) is still day-to-day after fouling that pitch off his foot in Seattle. He may be available to pinch-hit tonight … McCann (foot) got some new orthotics and tested his foot in the bullpen this afternoon. He’s fine and back in the lineup.

Can Michael Pineda rebound against the Royals?

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

Michael Pineda was the model of consistency for the first 20 games of his pinstriped career. He never gave up more than three runs in consecutive outings, and he’d never had a “disaster” start where he allowed more runs than innings pitched (except for his pine tar-shortend game last year).

Until May 15 (5 1/3 IP, 5 R, 10 H, 1 K) and May 22 (6 IP, 7 R, 8 H, 4 K) happened.

It’s definitely not time to press the panic button after just two poor starts, but this (extremely) mini-slump is somewhat noteworthy because it’s the first time Pineda has struggled in back-to-back outings since joining the Yankees.

With Pineda facing the Royals again this afternoon — the same lineup that clobbered him less than two weeks ago — let’s take a look inside the numbers to see what’s gone wrong for the right-hander in his last two turns, and how he can get back on track against the best team in baseball on Wednesday.

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Here’s a quick overview of his first seven starts this season compared to his last two:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% HR
Last 2 11 1/3 7.15 4.82 9.3% 1.9% 2
First 7 46 1/3 2.72 1.91 29.5% 1.6% 3

The most shocking number in the table above is the huge drop in his strikeout rate. Sure, that 30 percent figure is skewed a bit by the 16-strikeout game. But the fact that he’s had his two lowest strikeout totals of the season in his last two games is really hard to ignore.

Predictably, batters are making more contact against Pineda in his past two games (83 percent) compared to his first seven (77 percent), but that doesn’t completely explain the lack of whiffs. Almost all of the increase in that contact rate is on pitches outside the zone — the pitches that he normally uses to get strikeouts.

Contact % O-Swing % O-Contact % Z-Contact %
Last 2 82.9% 34.8% 71.0% 87.5%
First 7 76.5% 32.3% 56.9% 86.5%

So while Pineda is still generating above-average swing rates on those out-of-zone offerings, hitters haven’t been fooled by his stuff and he’s not missing as many bats with those pitches.

Over his last two games, his signature slider has hardly been the wipeout pitch that made Pineda such a dominant force on the mound to start the season. He’s lost about an inch of horizontal movement on his slider, making it easier for hitters to square up on the pitch. After getting batters to whiff on 19 percent of his sliders in his first seven games, that rate has plummeted to just nine percent since then.

pineda whiffs animate

Another concern related to this lack of strikeouts is his inability to finish off hitters when ahead. Pineda is actually getting into more favorable counts now, but he hasn’t been able to execute those put-away pitches.

Opponents are 5-for-8 against him in pitchers’ counts over the last two games, a situation that the Royals really took advantage of when they crushed Pineda on May 15. The game was decided in the sixth inning as Pineda allowed two doubles and a triple to three of the first four batters he faced — unsurprisingly, each of those extra-base hits came on a 1-2 pitch from the right-hander.

The other obvious problem for Pineda recently is that he’s simply been more hittable, and he’s given up nearly as many runs in his last two outings (12) as in his first seven (14). Let’s break it down, good-bad-ugly style:

• The good: he’s still generating ground balls at the exact same rate (53 percent);
• The bad: he’s traded a few fly balls for line drives;
• The ugly: he’s really struggled when pitching from stretch:

After limiting batters to a .230 average with runners on base in his first seven starts, they are 8-for-20 (.400) over the last two games. Even worse, Pineda has stranded just 43 percent of baserunners during this mini-slump, a drop of more than 30 percentage points from the first month of the season (78 percent). Not being able to get that big strikeout in those key scoring situations has really hurt him recently.

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While there are some reasons to be optimistic that Pineda will be able to rebound today against the Royals — he’s still getting a ton of grounders, showing excellent control and limiting walks — he will definitely be challenged by Kansas City’s high-contact lineup and powerful lefty bats.

Pineda, who held opposite-handed batters to a .200 average in his first seven outings, has been hit hard by lefties in his last two starts. They are a combined 10-for-24, and he’s allowed identical 5-for-12 lines against both the Royals (May 15) and Rangers (May 22).

If Pineda can’t contain the Royals’ quartet of Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Alex Gordon and Kendrys Morales — three lefties and a switch-hitter — it could be another long afternoon for the Yankees and their budding staff ace.

Game 33: Time to get CC a win

(Leon Halip/Getty)
(Leon Halip/Getty)

Wins are a terrible way to evaluate a pitcher but that doesn’t make CC Sabathia‘s 0-5 record any less of an eyesore. The Yankees are 1-5 in Sabathia’s six starts and 19-7 whenever anyone else starts this year. Sabathia hasn’t picked up a win since April 24th of last season, nine starts ago. The Yankees are 1-8 in those nine starts since CC’s last personal win. That’s rough, man.

You know that’s wearing on Sabathia, who is fully aware of how poorly he’s pitched the last three years, and you know his teammates are aware of it as well. After all, they bear some responsibility for that 0-5 record. Despite his decline, Sabathia is still the leader of the pitching staff — and the team in general, for that matter — in the clubhouse, so you know everyone wants to get him that first win. Tonight’s a good night to do it, no? The Yankees are playing too well for their erstwhile ace to be 0-5. Here is Tampa Bay’s lineup and here is New York’s lineup:

  1. LF Brett Gardner
  2. RF Carlos Beltran
  3. DH Alex Rodriguez
  4. 1B Mark Teixeira
  5. C Brian McCann
  6. 3B Chase Headley
  7. CF Chris Young
  8. 2B Stephen Drew
  9. SS Didi Gregorius
    LHP CC Sabathia

Not a good weather night for baseball in St. Petersburg. It’s hot (low-90s) and grossly humid, and it’s supposed to rain a little later as well. Typical Florida, really. Thank goodness for Tropicana Field’s dome, I guess. Tonight’s game is scheduled to begin at 7:10pm ET and you can watch on YES. Enjoy the game.

Injury Updates: Masahiro Tanaka (wrist, forearm) threw long toss today and made ten pitches on flat ground, including some breaking balls and splitters. He will throw a 30-pitch bullpen session tomorrow, which will be his first time throwing off a mound since landing on the DL two weeks ago … Jacoby Ellsbury is fine, just a routine day off. He’s available off the bench if necessary.

Awards!: What happens when you strike out 16 batters in a game? You win an award, that’s what. Michael Pineda was named the AL Player of the Week today, MLB announced. He’s the second Yankee to be named AL PoW this season — Mark Teixeira won it two weeks ago — and the first Yankees pitcher to win it since Mariano Rivera in September 2011. Congrats, Big Mike.

Michael Pineda is changing things up … for the better

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

With the health of Masahiro Tanaka‘s wrist/forearm/elbow a huge question mark following his latest DL stint, Michael Pineda has assumed the de facto role of ace in the Yankees rotation. While his 3.73 ERA is nothing special, his peripherals and defense-independent stats are flat-out ridiculous, and probably are the better indicator of his true pitching performance this season.

In 31 1/3 innings, Pineda has struck out 32 batters, walked two guys (!) and allowed two home runs. That all adds up to an AL-best 16-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a FIP of 2.20, which ranks among the five best in baseball. He’s even sporting a career-best ground ball rate of 55 percent, putting him in rare company this season:

There are three pitchers who are striking out more than one-quarter of batters faced, with a walk rate below five percent and are getting grounders on more than 50 percent of balls in play: Felix Hernandez, Clayton Kershaw and Michael Pineda. Any time your name is on a short list with those two pitchers, you’re doing something right.

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Prior to his first start of the season, I wrote here about one key improvement Pineda needed to make in order to truly stand out atop of the Yankees rotation: the ability to pitch deep into games. That obviously doesn’t tell the whole story of how he can develop into an ace, though.

Another trait the best pitchers in the game share is an arsenal that features at least three above-average, quality pitches they can throw in nearly any count. Pineda has always been able to unleash a devastating fastball-slider combo, and relied heavily on that mix last year, throwing those two pitches nearly 90 percent of the time. But this season he’s added a much-improved changeup which has brought him that much closer to achieving “ace” status.

Let’s take a deeper look at the development of this new weapon and how Pineda is using his newfound toy to dominate hitters.

Pineda clearly has more confidence in his changeup this season and is consistently going to that third pitch every outing. He has thrown his changeup at least 10 percent of the time in all five of his starts in 2015, a rate that he reached in just six of 13 starts last year.

Not only has he increased its overall usage from 9.3 percent to 13.6 percent, per Brooksball.net, he’s also more comfortable throwing it to both lefties and righties. He’s already thrown 25 changeups to right-handed batters this season, 10 more than he threw in all of 2014.

Another indication of his increased confidence in the changeup is his willingness to use it as an out-pitch, to complement his already-nasty slider. He’s more than doubled his changeup usage in two-strike counts over the last two seasons (from 9 percent to 20 percent), giving hitters yet another off-speed pitch they have to worry about when falling behind in the count.

MICHAEL PINEDA PITCH USAGE WITH 2 STRIKES

Year Fastball pct Changeup pct Slider pct
2015 28.5% 20.0% 51.5%
2014 44.9% 8.8% 46.3%

Although the pitch is still evolving, it’s been really effective for him in finishing off batters. Pineda has thrown 26 two-strike changeups and gotten eight strikeouts with those pitches (all swinging!) this season, giving him a changeup “put-away” rate of 31 percent that is tied for second in the majors (min. 50 pitches). Daniel Murphy had no chance when he decided to swing at this 87 mph two-strike changeup on April 24:

While strikeouts are nice and flashy and get the crowd pumped up, the real bread-and-butter of Pineda’s changeup is in its ability to get ground balls. Batters have put 13 of his changeups in play this season, and 10 of those have been grounders. That’s a ground ball rate of 77 percent on his changeup which puts him among the top-5 in the majors and is a huge jump from last year’s mark of 44 percent.

It’s no secret that the key to getting more grounders is to pound the bottom of the strike zone, and Pineda has done exactly that with his changeup this season. He’s improved the location of the pitch this season compared to last year, leaving fewer hanging changeups and burying more of those pitches below the hitters’ knees.

2014 changeup pineda

The changeup, however, remains a work in progress for Pineda. He’s struggled to command it on the edges, getting just four called strikes compared to 33 (called) balls this season, a rate that ranks in the bottom 10 percent among major-league pitchers.

While you never want to serve up meatballs in the middle of the plate, you need to at least occasionally throw something that looks like a strike in order to keep hitters honest. Pineda, though, has put only 10 of his 65 changeups (15 percent) in the zone. So far he has relied mostly on hitters’ poor discipline to get outs, which probably isn’t sustainable over a full season.

Despite the control problems, it’s hard not to be optimistic about the development and improvement of Pineda’s changeup this season. If he can continue to throw the pitch with confidence and become more consistent in its execution, Pineda could have three plus-pitches with which to dominate lineups – and should be nearly ready to put the title of “ace” next to his name on the back of his baseball card.

How Pineda can become the next Yankees ace

(Presswire)
Is the next Yankees ace on the mound tonight? (Presswire)

Michael Pineda may be the No. 2 starter according to Joe Girardi‘s binder, but after Masahiro Tanaka‘s unimpressive Opening Day performance and lingering concerns about his UCL injury, could Pineda jump up to the front of the rotation?

Based on his outstanding spring and last year’s record-setting performance, the answer just might be yes. Pineda last season became the first Yankees starting pitcher to finish with a sub-2.00 ERA (min. 10 starts) since Ron Guidry in 1978, and his .200 batting average allowed was the lowest by a Yankee starter (min. 75 innings) since Dave Righetti in 1981.

Perhaps the most impressive number was 8.43, his strikeout-to-walk ratio. That was the best single-season mark by any Yankee in franchise history with at least 75 innings pitched.

Yet, it’s important to remember that those numbers came in a very small sample size (13 starts, 76 1/3 innings) and there’s still a few holes in his “ace” resume. So before we put the crown on Pineda – and as we await his first start of 2015 – let’s take a look at one key thing the 26-year-old needs to do in order to take the next step during his second year in pinstripes.

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Although there’s no consensus definition of an ace, it usually is a pitcher that you can count on to go deep in games, a true workhorse who can give the bullpen a rest for the night and turn over the opposing lineup multiple times.

Pineda last season averaged fewer than six innings and just 87 pitches per start, a mark that ranked 80th out of 91 AL pitchers with at least 75 innings pitched in 2014. He recorded an out in the seventh inning or later in just five of his 13 outings, and only twice threw at least 100 pitches in a game.

Those averages are slightly skewed because of his April 23 appearance when he was ejected in the second inning for using pine tar, but it doesn’t hide the fact that Pineda didn’t give the Yankees length as a starter and Girardi rarely felt comfortable extending him beyond the sixth frame.

While some of that might be due to the fact he was coming off major shoulder surgery at the start of the season and then spent two-plus months on the disabled list with a back injury, there’s also evidence that he wasn’t as effective in the later innings and when facing hitters multiple times through the order.

Pineda held hitters to a .185 batting average with 48 strikeouts and four walks the first two times through the order. The average MLB starter allowed a batting average of .250 in those situations, so it was clear that Pineda was dominant early in games.

But when the lineup turned over a third time, those batters tagged him for a .246/.281/.443 line in 64 plate appearances. Frankly, those numbers more resemble an average major-league pitcher (.268/.327/.421) than an ace. Most of that damage was done by lefties, who slugged .543 and had a line drive rate of 23 percent when seeing him for the third or fourth time in a game.

Most concerning might be that his signature slider became increasing ineffective as he faced hitters a second and third time during a game:

MICHAEL PINEDA SLIDER BY TIMES THROUGH ORDER IN 2014

BA Slug pct ISO
1st 0.135 0.212 0.077
2nd 0.200 0.314 0.114
3rd+ 0.240 0.480 0.240

Pineda also inevitably was hit hard when he pitched beyond the sixth inning. Four of the 16 earned runs he gave up in 2014 came in the seventh frame or later, across only 4 1/3 innings pitched. That’s an 8.31 ERA for those counting at home.

Batters were 8-for-21 with three doubles and two homers against Pineda after the sixth inning (.381/.435/.810), and it should be no surprise that he failed to hold his velocity on his four-seamer as he went deeper into games:

Pineda velo by inning

There is little doubt that Pineda has shown a ton of promise during his short stint as a Yankee, and appears to be on the cusp of being the next Yankees ace. However, the 26-year-old still has a ways to go before he can be viewed as a top-of-the-rotation starter.

Not only must Pineda prove that he can remain healthy for an entire season, he has to develop the stamina to give the Yankees length on a consistent basis and learn to pitch effectively in the later innings after batters have seen his stuff during a game.