The Very Talented and Very Frustrating Michael Pineda [2016 Season Review]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

It’s hard to believe Michael Pineda just completed his fifth season with the Yankees. It still feels like he just got here. Of course, Pineda didn’t actually pitch in two of those five seasons because of his shoulder surgery, but still. The trade was five years ago. Man, time flies. That was such a wild day, the day of the trade.

The Yankees hoped Pineda would emerge as an ace or something close to it by now. The idea was he would take over at the top of the rotation as CC Sabathia slipped with age, but it hasn’t happened. The shoulder surgery surely plays a role in that, but that’s not all. Pineda’s stuff actually came back very well following surgery. About as well as you could have reasonably expected. It hasn’t translated into consistent success on the field though.

When 207 Strikeouts Aren’t Enough

The good news: Michael Pineda led all qualified American League pitchers with 10.6 K/9 and was second with a 27.4% strikeout rate. Only Justin Verlander (28.1%) was better. Pineda fanned 207 batters in 2016, the 11th highest total in all of baseball and the most by a Yankee since Sabathia fanned 230 in 2011. It was the most by a Yankees’ right-hander since Roger Clemens and Mike Mussina struck out 214 and 213 in 2001, respectively.

Pineda’s most dominant performance of the season came on June 30th, when he held the Rangers to one run in six innings. He struck out 12 of the 23 batters he faced that afternoon because his slider was hellacious.

When Pineda is on, his slider is untouchable. The 207 strikeouts were not a fluke. Pineda absolutely has the ability to miss that many bats. He just doesn’t do much of anything else. Also, Pineda went six innings in that game against Texas, and that’s good for him. He completed seven innings twice in 32 starts this season. Pineda faced only ten batters in the seventh inning this season. Ten! That’s it. He did not throw a single pitch in the eighth inning all year.

Strikeouts do run up pitch counts and that somewhat explains Pineda’s inability to take the ball deep into the game. As does his 7.0% walk rate, which was more than double his 3.1% walk rate last year. Pineda started his Yankees career with 41 straight starts of two or fewer walks. He then had eight starts with at least three walks this past season. Is it possible he was scared out of the strike zone because he was so homer prone (1.38 HR/9)? Maybe!

All told, Pineda had a 4.82 ERA (3.80 FIP) while setting new career highs in starts (32) and innings (175.2) in 2016. His best stretch of the season came from June 2nd to August 16th, when he had a 3.58 ERA (3.29 FIP) in 14 starts and 83 innings. And yet, by September it was clear Joe Girardi had no confidence in Pineda. This was never more evident than on September 9th against the Rays. The Yankees were up 7-2 with two outs in the fifth and Pineda had thrown only 77 pitches, yet Girardi pulled him with men on the corners because he didn’t trust him to get out of the jam. Yeah. Says a lot.

Pineda was New York’s third best starter this season, though that shouldn’t be taken as praise. He was their third best starter by default. Nathan Eovaldi‘s elbow exploded and Luis Severino was awful as a starter. Kids like Luis Cessa, Chad Green, and Bryan Mitchell didn’t throw a whole lot. Pineda was the team’s only starter not to miss a start this year, and he deserves credit for that, but he also rarely pitched deep into the games, and rarely pitched as well as his stuff suggests he should.

Problems with Two Strikes

It’s truly mind-boggling that Pineda struggled in the situation most advantageous to pitchers — two-strike counts! — as much as he did this season given the quality of his slider. You watched that video above (probably). His slider is electric. It really is. And yet, with two strikes:

Pineda: .187/.246/.286 with a 47.6% strikeout rate
MLB Average: .176/.246/.276 with a 41.1% strikeout rate

The strikeout rate is nice, but Pineda’s overall numbers in two-strike counts are far too close to the league average pitcher for a guy with his stuff. Chad Green, whose slider isn’t nearly as good as Pineda’s, held hitters to a .135/.192/.281 batting line with two strikes. Those are the kind of numbers you’re looking for from Pineda.

Anecdotally, it seems Pineda had a knack for hanging two-strike sliders this season. It was almost like he was trying to make the perfect pitch, let himself get out of sync, and left it out over the plate. Here are Pineda’s two-strike sliders this season, via Baseball Savant (click for a larger view):

Michael Pineda two-strike sliders

Lots and lots of two-strike sliders up in the zone and out over the plate. I mean, every pitcher is going to have some of those over the course of the season, everyone hangs a pitch now and then, but Pineda left way too many sliders in the wheelhouse. Last year he held hitters to a .202/.244/.349 batting line with 43.1% strikeout rate in two-strike counts, so this isn’t really a one-year blip. He had some issues in those spots last year too.

Problems with Two Outs

Because struggling in two-strike counts isn’t enough, Pineda had big time issues closing out innings this year as well. Look at this. Just look at it:

Zero Outs: .234/.284/.403 with a 26.8% strikeout rate
One Out: .231/.292/.370 with a 30.4% strikeout rate
Two Outs: .325/.383/.598 with a 25.3% strikeout rate

Good grief. That’s not good, Michael! Pineda had major issues finishing innings this season. He allowed 52 of his 98 runs with two outs this year, or 53.1%. The MLB average is 36.5%. I’m not sure how to look this up without manually scrolling through the play logs of each game, but it sure seemed like Pineda allowed a lot of rallies to start with two outs this year. He’d get two quick outs, then bam, baserunners and runs. So annoying.

Both Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild said Pineda loses “focus” from time to time, leading to the problems with two strikes and two outs. It’s certainly not a stuff issue, though I do think Pineda could stand to throw his changeup a little more often. It’s an execution issue. I think sometimes Pineda tries so hard to throw a perfect pitch, a nasty slider at the knees, and he screws up. I don’t think it’s that he isn’t trying enough. I think it’s that he tries too hard at times.

I have a theory why Pineda is more hittable than his stuff would lead you to believe: everything moves in the same direction. He’s a cutter/slider pitcher, so his two main pitches move away from righties and in to lefties. If you’re a hitter, who know which way the ball is moving. You don’t know the velocity or location, but you know the way it’s moving. That takes one of the variables away.

It seems like Pineda would benefit from adding a pitch that moves the other way, in on righties and away from lefties, like a two-seamer. Even a straight four-seam fastball would help. Just something to keep hitters from expecting every pitch to sweep from right to left. Like I said though, this is just a theory. I could be completely wrong. It just seems like everything Pineda throws moves in the same direction. How could hitters not pick up on that?

Outlook for 2017

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Next season is Pineda’s final year of team control, so he’ll be a free agent next winter. The Yankees have to figure out what they want to do with him pretty soon. If they want to keep him long-term, then it would be wise to explore a multi-year extension this offseason. If they don’t consider him a piece of the puzzle going forward, then they should explore the trade market. They should do both, really, and then figure out which makes the most sense.

Pineda is extremely frustrating because his natural talent is so obvious. The guy is 6-foot-7 and 260 lbs., he’s as strong as an ox, he has a 95 mph cutter, and he has a vicious slider that fools both righties and lefties. You can be born with worse skill sets. And yet, the results are mediocre at best. Right now, at this point of his career, Pineda falls into the A.J. Burnett category of pitchers with great stuff who leave you wanting more, yet you’re afraid to give up on him because he could figure it out any day now.

MLBTR’s projected 2017 arbitration salaries and the Dellin Betances outlier

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

With the 2016 season now complete, we can begin to look forward to the offseason and the 2017 Yankees, and this winter a lot of attention will be paid to arbitration-eligible players. The Yankees have a lot of them. Nine, in fact. Some of them are pretty important parts of the team too.

Yesterday Matt Swartz at MLB Trade Rumors published his annual arbitration salary projections for next season. Swartz’s model is pretty darn accurate and it gets more and more precise with each passing season. The numbers might not be exact, but they’re usually in the ballpark. Here’s what Swartz’s model projects for the Yankees’ nine arbitration-eligible players.

That’s $32.8M worth of arbitration salaries next year, which works out to a $14.6M raise over what those nine players earned this past season. As a reminder, players need three years of service time (3.000) to qualify for arbitration in most cases. Some, like Gregorius and Layne, are arbitration-eligible four times as a Super Two. The Super Two cutout this year is approximately 2.127, according to Steve Adams. That doesn’t really affect the Yankees. Anyway, here are some thoughts on the projected arbitration salaries.

1. The Betances projection seems light. The arbitration process is pretty archaic. Old school stats like ERA and saves — especially saves — matter most. Betances has been a setup man for the majority of his career, so he doesn’t have those big money making saves totals, which is going to hurt his arbitration case. We all know Dellin has been one of the two or three best relievers in baseball since Opening Day 2014 though.

Swartz’s model has trouble with elite players with unprecedented resumes. Tim Lincecum damn near broke the thing when he went into arbitration with two Cy Youngs a few years ago. Betances leads all relievers in innings and strikeouts over the last three seasons by a lot. He struck out 392 batters from 2014-16. Next most by a reliever? Andrew Miller with 326. Yeah. Look at the five highest strikeout totals by a reliever the last three years:

  1. 2014 Betances: 135
  2. 2015 Betances: 131
  3. 2016 Betances: 126
  4. 2016 Miller: 123
  5. 2015 Aroldis Chapman: 115

Yeah. Betances is also a three-time All-Star. Do you know how many other relievers have been to the All-Star Game each of the last three years? None. Not one. Dellin’s the only one. The All-Star Game selections plus the bulk inning and strikeout totals mean Betances is going into arbitration with far more earning potential than most setup men. He could break Swartz’s model, so to speak.

As best I can tell, the record salary for a first year arbitration-eligible reliever is $6.25M by Jonathan Papelbon back in the day. The lack of saves will probably prevent Betances from breaking Papelbon’s record, though I do think he’s going to wind up with a salary closer to Papelbon’s than the projected salary above. Dellin isn’t a normal reliever and projecting his arbitration salary with a one size fits all model probably won’t work.

2. Eovaldi and Ackley are goners. Swartz’s model projects no raise for Ackley. He made $3.2M this year and the model has him making $3.2M next year. That’s what happens when you barely play and barely hit before suffering a season-ending injury. Given the salary and the lack of production, Ackley is a prime non-tender candidate this offseason. The Yankees might release him after the World Series to clear 40-man roster space rather than wait until the December 2nd tender deadline.

As for Eovaldi, the model projects a $1.9M raise, though that’s pretty irrelevant. He recently underwent major elbow surgery, including his second Tommy John surgery, so he’s going to miss the entire 2017 season. There’s no sense in paying Eovaldi that much money to not pitch next season, especially when he’ll be a free agent next winter. The business side of baseball can be cruel. Eovaldi is hurt and soon he’s going to be unemployed too. The Yankees will non-tender him. Brian Cashman all but confirmed it.

A non-tender wouldn’t necessarily mean Eovaldi’s career in pinstripes is over. The Yankees could re-sign him to a smaller contract with an eye on 2018. They’ve done that before, sign injured pitchers to a two-year deal and rehab them in year one. Think Jon Lieber and Andrew Bailey and David Aardsma. The second Tommy John surgery is much riskier than the first, but with pitching so in demand, it’s probably worth exploring a two-year deal with Eovaldi. Just not at the projected salary.

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

3. Extension time for Gregorius? Gregorius made $2.425M this past season and projects to make $5.1M next season, which is a $2.675M raise. His salary projects to more than double. Didi will be in his second of four arbitration years as a Super Two next year, so if we apply similar raises going forward, we get $7.775M in 2017 and $10.45M in 2018. That’s a real quick and dirty way of estimating his earning potential the next three years.

That rough estimate puts Gregorius at $23.325M from 2016-18 before he hits free agency. Is it worth it to explore a long-term extension this offseason? It is if you think his power breakout this past season was real, and there are reasons to believe it is. Gregorius is only 26, remember. He’s entering what should be the best years of his career. A four-year deal that guarantees him $35M or so seems worthwhile for the Yankees. We’re talking about a prime age player at a premium position.

At the same time, the Yankees have a ton of shortstops in the minors, namely Tyler Wade in Double-A plus both Gleyber Torres and Jorge Mateo in High-A. I wouldn’t worry about that though. Gregorius is a talented young player at a hard to fill position and those guys are worth locking up. If there’s a logjam at shortstop when Wade and Torres and Mateo and whoever are ready, great! That’s a good problem.

4. Big Mike‘s big salary. Being a starting pitcher is pretty good when arbitration time arrives. Even mediocre starters like Pineda get hefty raises. He made $4.3M this past season and projects for $7.8M next year, so we’re talking about a $3.5M raise. That’s despite a 6-12 record and a 4.82 ERA (90 ERA+) in 175.2 innings. That stuff matters in arbitration.

Pineda’s raise has more to do with his 207 strikeouts and AL leading 10.6 K/9. And really, $7.8M is still below market value for a pitcher of Pineda’s caliber. Guys like him will run you $10M to $12M or so in free agency. Probably more these days. It would be worth asking Pineda and his representatives what it would take to get an extension done this offseason, simply because the upcoming free agent pitching classes are so weak.

5. The remain projections are fair. The projections for Warren ($2.3M), Hicks ($1.4M), Layne ($1.2M), and Romine ($900,000) seem just about right. Not high enough to consider a non-tender and not low enough to see it as a bargain. That could change in a year, but right now, they’re fair. Weirdly enough, it wouldn’t surprise me if all four of those guys are on the 2017 Opening Day roster and it wouldn’t surprise me if all four are jettisoned in the offseason. I feel like we’re in for some surprises this winter.

Goal for 2017: Reduce Roundtrippers

(Brian Blanco/Getty)
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

Yankee pitchers over the last few years have been generally good at two things: limiting walks and striking batters out. If there are two skills you want pitchers to have, those two would be pretty good. Both skills combine to minimize runners on base and put little stress on the fielders and the pitchers themselves. In 2016, though, the third component of defense independent pitching–limiting home runs–was severely lacking.

Among the Major League leaders, the Yankees were, well, not leaders. Despite ranking only 13th in the league in FB% overall (so just about average), the only team worse in HR/FB% than the Yankees and their 15.5% mark was Cincinnati Reds and their 15.9% tally. In fact, the Yankees were the only AL team with a HR/FB% over 14%; the Twins clocked in at second worse in the AL at 13.9%. To state the obvious, when you’re near the 2016 Twins in some statistical category, you’re probably not doing a good job. To state the obvious yet again, this is something that needs to get better in 2017.

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

Luckily for the Yankees, the homer happiness may improve by subtraction alone next season. The biggest culprits in surrendering homers on fly balls were Ivan Nova (21.3%) and Nathan Eovaldi (18.7%), both of whom won’t be on the Yankees next year for one reason or another. Unfortunately, three fifths of their potential rotation for 2017 was dismal at keeping the ball in the yard in 2016.

Michael Pineda clocked in at 17% with Luis Severino and Luis Cessa tipping the scales at 16.4% and 19.5% respectively. Severino’s number is skewed slightly, as he didn’t give up a homer as a reliever; as a starter, his HR/FB% was 22.9% (!). Cessa’s numbers were a bit more balanced: 19.3% as a starter, 20% as a reliever.

Luis Cessa Corey Dickerson

In terms of pitches, the culprits for the homers for Pineda and Cessa are split between two. For Pineda, they’re the slider and the cutter; this is problematic because those are the pitches he throws most often. Cessa’s fastball and curveball are taking the brunt of punishment from hitters. Severino’s fastball is the root of all home run evil for him.

Whether it’s varying their selection, improving their location, or perhaps hiding these pitches better, all three righties need to do something to keep the ball in the park in 2017. Chances are, they’ll all be called on to do some heavy lifting for the Yankee pitching staff in 2017 and another year of giving homers left and right is not going to cut it. Like this past season, the margins between success and failure are going to be razor thin next year and the Yankees will need to stifle any hiccups in pitching performance or they could be looking at another year of mediocrity.

Yankeemetrics: The final series [Sept. 30-Oct. 2]

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

The Pineda Puzzle
One day after they were officially eliminated from the playoff race, the Yankees flopped in an ugly 8-1 loss on Friday night.

The offense was M.I.A. with just three singles, while going 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position. It was their 16th game without an extra-base hit, the most in the majors through Friday, and their AL-high 35th game scoring one run or fewer.

It was also their 11th game with three hits or fewer — no team in MLB had done that more this season through Friday — and the first time the Orioles held the Yankees to no more than three hits at Yankee Stadium since August 14, 2007.

Michael Pineda made his final start of 2016, and his Jekyll-and-Hyde performance (5 runs, 4⅓ innings, 5 strikeouts) against the Orioles was a fitting end to Pineda’s perplexing and season.

He finished with a career-best 207 strikeouts (that’s good!) and a career-worst 4.82 ERA (that’s bad!) while going 6-12 in 32 starts. His 4.82 ERA is the fifth-highest by any MLB pitcher ever with at least 200 strikeouts in a season, and his .333 win percentage is the second-lowest among that group.

And that’s not the worst of his puzzling, boom-or-bust campaign: Pineda allowed a whopping .784 OPS this year, the highest in major-league history for a guy that also struck out 200-or-more batters in a season.

austin low five
(Getty)

Party at Austin’s
The Yankees bounced back from their lackluster series-opening loss with a resounding 7-3 victory on Saturday, preventing the Orioles from clinching a playoff spot on the penultimate day of the season.

Typical of this up-and-down Yankee season, the game featured a number of encouraging signs for the future while also re-affirming some potential concerns heading into 2017.

The bad news? Luis Severino continued his baffling string of disappointing pitching performances as a starter, giving up three runs on five hits before being pulled in the fourth inning. He ended up with a 8.50 ERA in 11 starts, the highest ERA as a starter by any pitcher in franchise history with at least 10 starts in a season.

If there’s a silver lining in Severino’s poor showing as a member of the rotation it’s this: the highest single-season starters’ ERA in MLB history (min. 10 starts) belongs to Roy Halladay, who posted a 11.13 ERA in 13 starts in 2000; three years later, he won the first of his two Cy Young Awards.

The good news? Two of the more unheralded Baby Bombers continued their unexpected trend of clutch hitting performances, with Tyler Austin and Austin Romine fueling the Yankees’ late-game offensive explosion and comeback bid.

Austin knotted the score at 3-3 in the seventh inning with his fifth homer of the season, and the 406-foot blast was eerily similar to each of the others he’s hit in the majors. All five of them have: been at Yankee Stadium, gone out to right-center or right field, and either tied the game or gave the Yankees a lead.

Four of his five longballs have also come in the seventh frame or later, giving him the most go-ahead and/or game-tying homers on the team this season through Saturday. Even more impressive is this feat: Austin is the only Yankee rookie in at least the last 75 years to hit four go-ahead and/or game-tying homers in the seventh inning or later.

Romine then capped off the Yankees rally with a tie-breaking, two-run single in the eighth inning, his 16th hit in 44 at-bats with runners in scoring position this year. His .364 batting average in that situation not only leads the team, but would be the best by any Yankee with that many at-bats in a decade, since Derek Jeter hit .381 with RISP in 2006.

Game 162
And so the 2016 season comes to an end, fittingly the same way it began, with a loss at Yankee Stadium.

The Yankee bats were shut down by the newest Yankee killer, Kevin Gausman, who dominated the Yankees this season with just five earned runs surrendered across 41 innings. Among pitchers to make at least five starts against the Yankees in a season, Gausman’s 1.09 ERA is the lowest since Brewers lefty Mike Caldwell’s 0.99 mark in 1978, when he three shutouts in five starts versus them.

Brian McCann‘s solo homer in the fourth inning was the Yankees lone source of offense for much of the afternoon, and it was a significant one for the catcher, his 20th of the year. He is the fourth catcher (who played at least 50 percent of their games at the position) in major-league history with double-digit 20-homer seasons, joining Mike Piazza, Johnny Bench, and Yogi Berra. It was also his ninth straight season with at least 20 homers; among catchers, only Yogi and Piazza ever had a streak like that.

 

tex goodbye

McCann joined his backstop teammate, Gary Sanchez, in the 20-homer club, making the Yankees just the third team in major-league history to have two guys, who played catcher in at least half their games, hit 20-plus homers in the same season. The other clubs to do this were the 1961 Yankees (Johnny Blanchard and Elston Howard) and 1965 Milwaukee Braves (Gene Oliver and Joe Torre).

Combined with Starlin Castro‘s 21 homers and Didi Gregorius‘ 20 homers, the Yankees are the first team in baseball history to get at least 20 homers from four different players, who each played more than half their games at either catcher or the middle infield (shortstop and second base) positions.

And finally, Mark Teixeira closed the book on his 14-season big-league career, walking off the field in the seventh inning to a standing ovation while tipping his cap to the hometown fans.

There are many stats and superlatives that define his legacy as a major-leaguer, but perhaps this one best captures his unprecedented combination of power and defense, which makes him such a unique and special player among his peers: Teixeira is the only first baseman to finish his career with at least five Gold Gloves (awarded since 1957) and at least 400 homers.

Yankeemetrics: The final countdown begins [Sept. 20-22]

(AP)
(AP)

Gary For President
Fueled by the heroics of Gary Sanchez and a dominant outing by the enigmatic Michael Pineda in the series opener on Tuesday night, the desperate Yankees kept their faint postseason hopes alive for at least one more day.

Sanchez delivered the biggest blow in the seventh inning, when he pounced on a first-pitch slider and hammered it 437 feet over the left-center field wall for a tie-breaking, three-run homer that put the Yankees ahead 5-2. It was the 17th time he’s gone deep in his big-league career, and the first time (of many, hopefully) he’s homered to give the Yankees a lead in the seventh inning or later.

Sanchez wasn’t the only star of the game, of course, as Pineda pitched a gem and made sure the Yankees had a chance to record their 42nd comeback win of the season. He had absolutely filthy stuff, striking out 11 of the 22 batters he faced, including 10 of them swinging.

Pineda increased his strikeout total to 195, and a whopping 175 of them (89.7 percent) are of the swinging variety. Among all pitchers with at least 125 Ks this season, Pineda has the highest percentage of swinging strikeouts in the majors.

Pineda was yanked by Joe Girardi after Brad Miller singled with one out in the sixth inning, producing this Yankeemetric that perhaps best defines his tantalizing — and frustrating — talent: Pineda’s 11 strikeouts against the Rays are the most ever by a Yankee pitcher in an outing of of 5 1/3 innings or fewer.

(USA Today Sports)
(USA Today Sports)

LOL, Gary Sanchez
This is Gary Sanchez’s world, and we’re just living in it. Yup, the Sanch-ino (Thanks John Sterling!) did it again.

Sanchez continued to re-write baseball history at an incredible and frenetic pace, going deep twice while driving in a career-high five runs in the 11-5 win. He truly is must-see television as fans have a chance to witness something every time he comes to the plate.

On Wednesday, Sanchez clobbered his 18th and 19th home runs, becoming the fastest player ever to reach those marks. No other major-leaguer had even hit 19 homers in their first 50 career games (Wally Berger had the previous record with 19 in 51 games), and Sanchez compiled that number in a mere 45 games.

He made his mark on the franchise record books, too, becoming the first rookie in Yankees history to homer in four straight games. This was also the third time he’d hit two homers in a game, making the 23-year-old Sanchez the youngest Yankee with three multi-homer games in a season since Bobby Murcer in 1969.

There are so many ways to quantify his ridiculous home run pace and put his Superman-like slugging into perspective. Here’s another one (all data per Statcast):

Through Wednesday, one of every 6.5 balls that he put into play turned into a home run, and roughly one of every 18 pitches he swung at went over the fences! Both of those rates were by far the best among all players with at least 10 homers this season. #YoSoyGary

It’s a good thing that Sanchez is a human highlight reel, or else this game would have been decided by Masahiro Tanaka’s inexplicable four-homer meltdown in the third inning. Although he settled down after that blip, Tanaka still joined this illustrious list of Yankees to give up a quartet of longballs in a single inning: Chase Wright (2007), Randy Johnson (2005), Scott Sanderson (1992) and Catfish Hunter (1977).

(AP)
(AP)

“We need to win 11 out of 10
That quote above is from Brett Gardner following the Yankees 2-0 loss to the Rays on Thursday night, and pretty much sums up the daunting task ahead of the Yankees in the final week of the season. Do you believe in miracles? Because that’s what it might take for this team to avoid making tee times for October.

For the 417th time this season (approximately) the Yankees failed to close out a series sweep, getting blanked by the Rays as their near-impossible trek towards a postseason berth became even more improbable.

The Yankees and Rays played six series this season; in four of them the Yankees had a chance to win every game in the series, and four times they lost the final game to come up empty in the sweep opportunity. #Sigh

The Yankees season-long problem of coming up empty in scoring situations reared its ugly head once again, with the Yankees going 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position while stranding 11 baserunners. This is the 17th time this year they’ve left at least 11 men on base in a game; last year, it happened only 12 times.

This was also their 73rd loss of the season, meaning the Yankees will fail to win 90 games for fourth year in a row. That’s their longest stretch of sub-90-win campaigns (excluding strike-shortened seasons) since the dark days of the late 1980s and 90s, when they didn’t reach the magical 90-win mark from 1987-1993.

The Mystery that is Michael Pineda

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

Last night the Yankees snapped their five-game losing streak thanks largely to yet another Gary Sanchez homer. His three-run blast in the seventh inning gave the Yankees a 5-2 lead. It was his 17th (17th!) home run in 42 games since being called up. Pretty incredible. Without him the Yankees would not be even remotely close to a wildcard spot right now.

Before Sanchez played hero, Michael Pineda gave the team 5.1 strong innings, during which he struck out eleven and generated 19 swings and misses. Pineda also allowed two runs on five hits, and of course the big blow came with two strikes and two outs. Brad Miller’s two-run triple came on a slider too far up in the zone …

Michael Pineda Brad Miller

… which is the kind of mistake pitch Pineda has thrown all season. Going into last night’s start opponents were hitting .193/.248/.287 against Pineda with two strikes this year. That sounds really good! Except the MLB average is .176/.246/.279. That’s the average pitcher. Someone with a ferocious slider like Pineda should beat those numbers pretty easily.

Following last night’s game, Pineda is sitting on a 4.89 ERA (3.62 FIP) in 30 starts and 165.2 innings. He’s on pace to have one of the worst 200-strikeout seasons in baseball history. Seriously. Pineda has 195 strikeouts right now, and with two starts to go, he should get over 200 easily. Here’s the list of pitchers to strike out 200 batters with a 4.80+ ERA and a 3.60+ FIP:

1999 Pedro Astacio: 5.04 ERA and 4.57 FIP with 210 strikeouts
1996 Mike Mussina: 4.81 ERA and 4.04 FIP with 204 strikeouts
1986 Mark Langston: 4.85 ERA and 3.95 FIP with 245 strikeouts
1938 Bobo Newsom: 5.08 ERA and 4.53 FIP with 226 strikeouts (in 329.2 innings!)

Moose! How about that? I never would have guessed Mussina had a season like that. Anyway, those are four pretty good pitchers. Mussina was excellent and so was Langston for a long time. Newsom went to a bunch of All-Star Games back in the day. Astacio is the worst pitcher of the bunch, but hey, he played 15 years in the big leagues.

The thing is, this doesn’t feel like a blip for Pineda. That 1996 season was out of the ordinary for Mussina. Ditto 1986 for Langston. Pineda has been pitching like this since his 16-strikeout game last year. I don’t know if the 16 strikeouts have anything to do with it — did he push too hard and hurt himself or change his mechanics? — or if it’s just a coincidence, but that’s how far this goes back. This isn’t new.

Why does Pineda struggle so much despite a quality fastball/slider combination, good extension thanks to his 6-foot-7 frame, and good control? There’s no shortage of theories. The three most common:

  1. He loses focus. When a guy gets beat with two strikes and/or two outs all the time, it’s easy to think he loses focus and doesn’t execute. On the other hand, it could be he’s trying too hard and makes mistakes because he’s trying to be perfect. Point, it’s possible this is a mental thing.
  2. His command stinks. Command and control are different. Control is basic strike-throwing ability. Getting the ball over the plate. Pineda can do that. Command is dotting the corners and living out of the middle of the zone. Pineda can’t do that. He’s a classic good control/bad command pitcher.
  3. He lacks a third pitch. Pineda has a changeup. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. He just rarely throws it. Pineda threw four changeups out of 98 pitches last night. He’s thrown 7.8% changeups this year. Hitters know that when push comes to shove, they’re getting a fastball or a slider. The changeup is not even on their mind.

When it comes to stuff like this, I always assume the problem is not one specific thing. Throwing twice as many changeups going forward probably won’t fix everything, you know? It’s not that easy. Chances are Pineda’s results don’t match his stuff because he doesn’t throw enough changeups and his command stinks and he loses focus and a bunch of other stuff too.

Anyway, I have no idea where I’m going with this. I was just watching Pineda last night and again wondering how a guy with those underlying skills — two pitchers in baseball have a 25+ K%, 45+ GB%, and a sub-7 BB%: Pineda and Noah Syndergaard (thanks Katie!) — can manage to be below-average at preventing runs for over 300 innings now. It’s hard to believe.

Pineda’s upcoming free agency really complicates things. The Yankees have, at most, another 32-34 starts to determine whether he should be considered part of the future. Ideally the decision would be made this offseason so the Yankees could trade Pineda if he’s not part of the future. That’s better than losing him for a draft pick, or maybe nothing. In reality, the club may want more time to evaluate him.

Two years ago when Pineda returned from shoulder surgery, he looked like someone who had a chance to pitch near the front of the rotation for a few years. He was that good in limited time in 2014. Pineda took a step back last year, and an even bigger step back this year, and that ain’t good. Not at his age and not with his stuff. Pineda is a classic enigma, and the Yankees don’t have much time left to solve this mystery. They’ll have to make a decision about his future relatively soon.

The Yankees are running out of starting pitching at the worst possible time

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

For the third time in the last five games, the Yankees’ starting pitcher failed to complete five innings last night. The Dodgers contact-bombed Bryan Mitchell — he got only three swings and misses out of 47 pitches — for eight hits and six runs (two earned) in only 2.1 innings. That came three days after Michael Pineda couldn’t finish five innings with a five-run lead and four days after CC Sabathia struggled to complete four innings.

The rotation outside Masahiro Tanaka has been a problem most of the season. The staff doesn’t have a 4.58 ERA (4.37 FIP) by accident. Not 143 games into the season. Remove Tanaka from the mix and all the other starters have a 5.04 ERA (4.58 FIP) in 626.1 innings. That’s 626.1 innings of meh. Sabathia and some others had their moments earlier this season, but, by and large, the rotation has been a liability, not a strength.

Rosters have expanded and the Yankees are carrying 13 relievers, so they have enough arms to soak up whatever innings need to be soaked up. Of course, no manager actually wants to use his September call-up relievers, at least not this often, including Joe Girardi. Every manager wants their starter to hand the ball off to their usual late-inning relievers. The Yankees haven’t been able to do that much lately, and there’s no help coming for two reasons.

1. There’s no one left to call up in Triple-A. The Yankees have more or less exhausted their rotation depth at this point. Nathan Eovaldi and Chad Green getting hurt after Ivan Nova was traded really thinned out the team’s depth. Joe Girardi admitted yesterday they originally planned to give Bryan Mitchell more time in Triple-A in the wake of his toe injury, but there was a need in the rotation due to Green’s injury, so they called him up.

The next best rotation option at this point is probably Richard Bleier, or maybe Phil Coke, who has done a nice job in the Triple-A Scranton rotation of late. Dietrich Enns is bumping up against his innings limit and has already been moved to the bullpen. Adding Jordan Montgomery to the 40-man roster a year earlier than necessary so he can make something like three starts late in the season is crappy roster management. Bleier or Coke it is, and that’s not reassuring at all.

De La Rosa. (Justin Edmonds/Getty)
De La Rosa. (Justin Edmonds/Getty)

2. There’s not much of a trade market either. The Yankees and every other team can still make trades through the trade waivers process, though whoever they acquire won’t be eligible for the postseason roster. That’s fine. They goal right now is to get to the postseason, that’s it. Right now cobbling together a postseason rotation is a problem the Yankees would be happy to deal with.

What does the starting pitcher trade market look like in September? Bleak. I’m guessing the only pitchers available are impending free agents on bad teams. That means players like Jorge De La Rosa, Andrew Cashner, and Jhoulys Chacin. Normally I’d say just stick with Luis Cessa and Mitchell, but you know what? If all it costs is a fringe prospect or cash, give me one of those guys as an extra starter for the postseason push. I’d rather have him and not need him than need him and not have him, you know?

* * *

Point is, there are no impact pitchers to be found on the trade market. Not on the trade market and likely not in the farm system either. The Yankees’ very best arms are in the big leagues right now. That’s good from a “this is the best possible team they have” perspective and bad from a “this is the best possible team they have?” perspective. You know what I mean.

With less than three weeks left in the regular season, what you see if what you’re going to get with the Yankees. If they’re going to do the improbable a qualify for the playoffs, Cessa and Mitchell and late-career Sabathia and the mystery that is Pineda are going to be the guys who get them there. Like it or not, those four plus Tanaka are the five best starting pitchers in the organization at the moment.