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.


Michael Pineda and the Quest for Better Health and More Strikeouts [2015 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Finally. After two years of nothing, the Yankees finally got to see Michael Pineda in action last season. And it was glorious, even if it was only 13 starts. Big Mike pitched to a 1.89 ERA (2.71 FIP) in 76.1 innings across those 13 starts, and, most importantly, he showed his stuff had not been seriously compromised by his shoulder injury. He did lose some velocity — his fastball averaged 95.4 mph in 2011 and 93.3 mph in 2014 — but not a career-sabotaging amount.

Last year was sort of a feeling out period for the Yankees and Pineda. The team had no idea what he could do following two lost seasons and I don’t think Pineda did either. Sure, he was confident (he’s always confident), but the hitters were going to tell him how good he was after the injury. And they told him he was still good. Pineda has yet to hold up over a full season in pinstripes, though we know more about him now than we did at this time last year, and that affects his role on the 2015 Yankees.

Yankees Need: A Full Season

Pineda was great last year but only in flashes. He missed nearly four months with a teres major strain the Yankees officially called a “shoulder” injury in their press release. Pineda pulled a muscle in his back near his shoulder, basically. The injury limited him to those 13 starts, the only 13 he’s made in three years with New York.

The Yankees need Pineda to get over that physical hump now. He’s now three years removed from shoulder surgery and they want to see him out there for 30 starts. It’s time. They need him to do it because other pitchers in the rotation carry injury concerns and because they want him to lead the rotation. Remember, the Yankees acquired Pineda hoping he would have developed into their ace by now. That didn’t happen. The next step now is to be someone who takes the ball every fifth day.

Pineda Can: Just Go Out There And Pitch

Pitchers who have major shoulder surgery tend to continue having problems throughout their careers. Pineda is young and strong, so maybe he has a better chance of staying healthy than a veteran pitcher who undergoes a similar procedure, but we don’t know that for sure. I wouldn’t say I feel confident in Pineda staying healthy this summer, but I do think it’s important to note his injury last year was just a muscle pull. There was nothing wrong with his surgically repaired labrum. That’s encouraging in a lesser of two evils kinda way. Otherwise no one knows if Pineda’s physically capable of making 30 starts after his shoulder surgery. The only thing he can do is pitch as his body allows, that’s all.

Yankees Need: Find Some Strikeouts

Pineda was awesome last year, but he only struck out 59 batters in 76.1 innings. That works out to 6.96 K/9 and 20.3 K%, which is more or less league average for an AL starting pitcher (7.36 K/9 and 19.4 K% in 2014). Pineda struck out 173 batters in 171 innings as rookie in 2011 (9.11 K/9 and 24.9 K%) and his minor league strikeout rates were as good as it gets, so last year’s league average-ish strikeout rate was a big startling. I wouldn’t say alarming, he was pretty damn effective with a reduced strikeout rate, but the Yankees would like to see those strikeouts return in 2015, even with their improved team defense. Strikeouts are the best outs for pitchers.

Pineda Can: Still Get Swings & Misses, Just Not As Many He Once Did

Watching his stuff on television as a dumb fan sitting at home, it looks like Pineda should strike out more batters. He throws hard, he locates exceptionally well for someone who throws that hard, and slider is just filthy. Pineda’s changeup is very much a work in progress though it did flash some nice potential last year, like this one (GIF via IIATMS):

That specific changeup was poorly located — that baby is center cut, thigh high and splitting the plate right down the middle — but it had action and the hitter’s timing was disrupted. Like I said, the changeup is a work in progress but it shows flashes of being a weapon with some more refinement.

The changeup and slider are Pineda’s moneymakers, and his decline in strikeout rate last year comes with a decline in overall swing-and-miss rate. Here are the numbers (via Brooks Baseball):

Four-Seamer Sinker Changeup Slider
2011 10.5% 8.7% 6.4% 19.4%
2014 8.2% 16.7% 15.2% 17.9%
MLB AVG 6.9% 5.4% 14.9% 15.2%

Ignore the sinker and changeup. Pineda threw those two pitches less than 10% of the time combined in both 2011 and 2014. We’re focusing on his four-seam fastball and slider, both of which had an above-average whiff rate last year yet were down considerably from his rookie year in 2011. Swing-and-miss rates are among the first stats to stabilize, within 300 pitches or so, so this isn’t a sample size issue.

As mentioned earlier, Pineda did lose some velocity between 2011 and 2014 thanks mostly to the shoulder surgery. His fastball velocity dropped but his slider velocity stayed the same — the pitch averaged 84.68 mph in 2011 and 84.67 mph in 2014. Pitches are not mutually exclusive. Pineda’s slider plays off his fastball and vice versa. The decline in fastball velocity means the separation between his two main pitches isn’t as great as it once was, giving hitters slightly more time to react. Enough to take that big a bite out of strikeout and whiff rates? I don’t know. Maybe.

Pineda’s stuff is still very good, just not as good as it once was. Shoulder surgery has a way of doing that to a pitcher. That doesn’t mean his strikeout and swing-and-miss rates will never recover, however. This could be an adjustment he has to make, an adjustment he was unable to make last year because a) he only made 13 starts, and b) he was dominating even without the strikeouts.

Weak contact has always been Pineda’s thing — he gets a ton of pop-ups, which are near automatic outs, so his career .250 BABIP in 247.1 innings is not necessarily a fluke — and he still generated a bunch last year. Adding in more strikeouts will help take him to the next level, however. Weak contact is good. Weak contact and missing bats is better.

Yankees Need: More Development

As good as he looked last year, we have to remember Pineda missed two full seasons at ages 23 and 24 due to his shoulder injury. That’s pretty serious. Those are crucial developmental years and he won’t get them back. He just has to try to catch up this season. The Yankees need to Pineda to make up for some of that lost development this year. As a pitcher, as a teammate, as a big leaguer, the whole nine. He’s a guy with nearly four years of service time but only a year and a half of actual MLB experience on the mound. Pineda has a lot of learning to do.

Pineda Can: Learn!

In his first spring as a Yankee, Pineda showed up to camp out of shape and didn’t seem to take his profession all that seriously. I don’t know if that led directly to the shoulder injury, but it certainly didn’t make a good first impression. This year though, Pineda camp to camp in tremendous shape, which he did last year as well. He’s grown as a person and better understands the kind of work this game requires. Learning how to read swings and set hitters up, stuff like that, he can only learn while being on the mound, and hopefully he does a lot of that in 2015.

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Ranking the 40-Man Roster: Nos. 3-5

Over these next two weeks we’re going to subjectively rank and analyze every player on the Yankees’ 40-man roster — based on their short and long-term importance to the team — and you’ll inevitably disagree with our rankings. We’ve already covered Nos. 6-10, 11-14, 15-16, 17-19, 20-25, 26-31, and 32-40.

Dellin. (Elsa/Getty)
Dellin. (Elsa/Getty)

We are now in the home stretch of our 40-man roster rankings and about to enter the top five. These guys are the cream of the crop. The impact players for both today and tomorrow. The guys who will hopefully be at the center of the next great Yankees team. Simply put, these are the players the Yankees need to excel to get back to being contenders.

Today we’re going to cover players three, four, and five. Two pitchers and an everyday up-the-middle player. The weird thing is we don’t quite know what to expect from two of the three just yet because one has injury concerns and the other hasn’t even played a game in pinstripes yet. So let’s get on with it. Here is the next batch of players in our 40-man rankings.

No. 5: Dellin Betances

2015 Role: High-leverage reliever. Betances emerged as one of the top relievers in the world last season and the Yankees are asking him to do it again. Well, I’m sure they understand he might not be that good again, but they are counting on Betances to dominate late in the game, and for multiple innings on occasion. I don’t think he’ll throw another 90 innings in 2015 — the two-inning appearances might not come as often only to keep him fresh and healthy.

Long-Term Role: Closer, and it could happen as soon as next year. It seems obvious to me Betances is being groomed for the ninth inning, and all the bullpen depth they added this winter means it’ll be easier for Joe Girardi & Co. to navigate the seventh and eighth innings without Dellin. There is a question of whether Betances is best used as a setup man or being pigeon-holed into the ninth inning, but teams tend to use their best relievers in the ninth inning, and Betances is the team’s best reliever even after the addition of Andrew Miller.

Although it feels like he’s been around forever, Betances is still under team control for five more years, the next two as a dirt cheap pre-arbitration player. He’s not all that young anymore — he’ll turn 27 in March — so by the end of his five years, he’ll already be 31 and heading into his age 32 season. That’s too far away to think about though. Betances earned a lot of responsibility last season and it’s only a matter of time until he gets the glory of the ninth inning.

Didi. (Presswire)
Didi. (Presswire)

No. 4: Didi Gregorius

2015 Role: Starting shortstop. The Yankees have discussed platooning Gregorius with Brendan Ryan but that seems sort of silly. Ryan has hit lefties worse than Didi these last two years (31 vs. 25 wRC+). I do think the team will sit Gregorius against tough lefties, the David Prices and Chris Sales of the world, but I think he’ll get a chance to sink or swim against guys like Mark Buehrle and Wei-Yin Chen, the non-overpowering lefties.

As the starting shortstop, Gregorius’ first responsibility comes in the field on defense. He is a massive upgrade over Derek Jeter defensively and the team is trying to compensate for their lack of offense with great defense, so catching the ball at short is imperative. Didi is a standout gloveman with a knack for highlight plays and that’s what the Yankees want to see. Anything he contributes at the plate is a bonus, though it is worth noting he’s a left-handed hitter with a career .262/.332/.411 (102 wRC+) line against righties. He could help more than expected offensively, especially in Yankee Stadium.

Long-Term Role: Gregorius will turn 25 next month and the long-term shortstop position is his for the taking. The Yankees clearly like Didi, they’ve been trying to get him since at least the 2013 Winter Meetings and they traded away a valuable young player in Shane Greene to get him, so I fully expect him to get an extended opportunity at the position this summer. Five-hundred something at-bats. They want him to be their shortstop of the future.

Gregorius has five years of team control remaining. He’ll make something near the minimum this season and will be arbitration-eligible four times as a Super Two. The Yankees want him to spend all five of those years reeling in balls at short and contributing at the plate from the bottom of the lineup. Gregorius is not Jeter, neither he nor anyone else ever will be, though he has a chance to be a shortstop in this league for a very long time, and the team wants him to have that career in pinstripes. I have no doubt about it.

No. 3: Michael Pineda

Big Mike. (Presswire)
Big Mike. (Presswire)

2015 Role: Ace. Ace-ish, really. Pineda finally made it to the mound for the Yankees last year and the little bit of time he did spend in the rotation was dominant: 1.89 ERA (2.71 FIP) in 13 starts and 76.1 innings. He was the team’s best starter last season on a rate basis and the Yankees want to see more of the same this coming season. Lots more. When he’s healthy, Big Mike showed he can be a difference-maker.

Pineda’s battled shoulder trouble since coming over to New York in the January 2012 trade with the Mariners, and last year he missed more than three months with a muscle strain in his shoulder. Durability is a major concern for Pineda. You can’t realistically expect him to maintain his 2014 performance over a full season, but the Yankees would happily take something like a 3.50-ish ERA in 2015 if it meant getting 180+ innings out Pineda.

Long-Term Role: Ace! Pineda is No. 3 on this list for a reason: because he is capable of domination and ace-caliber performance. The health concerns are never really going to go away — guys who have shoulder surgery tend to continue having on-and-off problems in their careers — but they can be alleviated somewhat with a healthy year in 2015.

Maybe Pineda’s long-term outlook is Al Leiter? Leiter had major shoulder surgery at age 23 — the same age as Pineda — and threw only nine big league innings from 1990-92 before finally settling in as a workhorse starter with occasional ace-level domination in his late 20s. Pineda turned 26 less than two weeks ago and will soon be three full years out from shoulder surgery.

Either way, the Yankees have Pineda for another three seasons as an arbitration-eligible player. At the time of the trade, they were hoping he would have risen to the top of rotation by now, but that didn’t happen. That’s baseball. We saw last year that Pineda is still capable of being excellent and it was encouraging. Now that he’s beyond the shoulder surgery, the goal is keeping him healthy and seeing more of that top of the rotation ability.

Coming Thursday: No. 2. The two-way threat with the most remaining guaranteed contract years on the roster.

Yankees, Michael Pineda avoid arbitration with one-year, $2.1M deal

(Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

7:06pm: The Yankees have announced the one-year contract. It’s non-guaranteed, which is standard for pre-arbitration and arbitration-eligible players.

4:44pm: According to Chad Jennings, the Yankees and Michael Pineda have agreed to a one-year contract worth $2.1M, avoiding arbitration. That exactly matched MLBTR’s projection. Nathan Eovaldi (projected $3.1M) and David Carpenter ($1.1M) are the team’s only unsigned arbitration-eligible players.

Pineda, 25, has only made 13 starts during his three years with the Yankees, all last season, but he accrued a bunch of service time while on the disabled list from 2012-13. This was Pineda’s first arbitration year. He isn’t scheduled to qualify for free agency until after the 2017 season.

In those 13 starts last year, Pineda had a 1.89 ERA (2.71 FIP) in 76.1 innings. Shoulder trouble sidelined him for a big chunk of the season, but he was dominant when healthy. The Yankees and all their fans want to see more of that Big Mike going forward. He was awesome.

In addition to Pineda, the Yankees have already signed Ivan Nova ($3.3M) and Esmil Rogers ($1.48M) as well. Today is the deadline for teams and eligible players to exchange salary figures, but the Yankees have historically signed all of their guys before then. Eovaldi and Carpenter will likely get have deals in place today too.

Short-term extensions for Pineda and Eovaldi make sense for Yankees

(Getty)
(Getty)

This coming Friday is a rather significant offseason date. It’s the deadline for teams and their arbitration-eligible players to exchange salary figures, which is something both sides try to avoid. Arbitration is an acrimonious process that could potentially damage relationships. It’s not fun sitting through an arbitration hearing while your team details your shortcomings and explains why you aren’t worth as much as you think. Exchanging salary figures is step one in that process.

The Yankees haven’t been to an arbitration hearing since beating Chien-Ming Wang in 2008 — he earned $4M instead of $4.6M in 2008, and while that doesn’t sound like much of a difference, the savings carry over into future years as well — and I can’t even remember the last time they got as far as exchanging salary figures with a player. They’ve signed all of their arbitration-eligible players before the deadline to submit salary figures the last several years and I have no reason to think this year will be any different.

The Yankees started the offseason with seven arbitration-eligible players and are now down to four after a series of trades and non-tenders and signings. They’ve already avoided arbitration with Esmil Rogers by giving him a one-year deal worth $1.48M — that represents the maximum allowable pay cut from his 2014 salary, so it seems the Yankees said take this or we’ll non-tender you — and the four unsigned arbitration-eligible players are setup man David Carpenter, the injured Ivan Nova, and two pitchers with a bit more than three years of service time in Nathan Eovaldi and Michael Pineda.

The three-year service time level is a weird place for starting pitchers. They’re hitting arbitration for the first time, which is right when you’d expect teams to lock up their top young arms with long-term extensions. But that hasn’t been the case recently. According to MLBTR’s Extension Tracker, Johnny Cueto is the only pitcher to sign long-term at that service time level since 2009. He received a four-year contract worth $27M with one option year.

Aside from Cueto, five other pitchers at the three-year service time level have signed multi-year extensions since 2009, and all five were two-year contracts with no options. All those deals did for the team was buy short-term cost certainty. The pitcher got a nice little payday while remaining arbitration-eligible one time after the two-year contract expired and still hitting free agency the year after that. It’s about short-term cost control, that’s it. It’s a bridge deal, so to speak.

With Eovaldi and Pineda arbitration-eligible for the first time this year, the Yankees could follow suit and sign one or both to short-term bridge deals now that the no extensions policy is no longer in place. A two-year deal makes a lot of sense for the team, I think. Both Eovaldi and Pineda carry enough questions — transition to the AL and injuries, respectively — that a long-term contract would be really risky, but they also have enough potential that they could take off in 2015 and cost a fortune through arbitration in 2016.

So, with that in mind, let’s quickly compare Eovaldi and Pineda to four of the five pitchers who signed two-year bridge contracts in recent seasons. The fifth pitcher, the one I’m excluding, is Clayton Kershaw, who isn’t comparable to anyone given his otherworldly performance. He was poised to smash arbitration salary records before signing his two-year deal.

Eovaldi Pineda Latos Chacin Kendrick Hammel
Career bWAR 4.3 5.0 9.0 8.2 3.1 3.4
Platform Year bWAR 0.2 2.7 4.3 1.9 1.8 1.5
Year 1 Salary pr. $3.1M pr. $2.1M $4.25M $1.65M $3M $3M
Year 2 Salary ? ? $7.25M $4.85M $4.5M $4.75M
Total $ ? ? $11.5M $6.5M $7.5M $7.75M

Eovaldi and Pineda are projected to earn $3.1M and $2.1M through arbitration this coming season, respectively, according to MLBTR’s model. There is no perfect comparison here given their somewhat unusual career paths, particularly Pineda, but there are never perfect comparisons anyway. All the Mat Latos, Jhoulys Chacin, Kyle Kendrick, and Jason Hammel contracts do is give us a ballpark number.

Based on performance and projected salary, the Kendrick and Hammel contracts appear to work as comparables for Eovaldi, but there’s a big catch: both Kendrick and Hammel were Super Twos who signed their bridge deals in their second of four trips through arbitration. They earned $2.45M and $1.9M their first times through arbitration, respectively. That complicates things. Those two were starting from a much higher base salary.

Had he not spent most of the last three seasons injured, Pineda could have been in line for Latos money this offseason, if not more. Actually, if he had been healthy, he would have been arbitration-eligible for the first time last winter. The Yankees optioned him to Triple-A two years ago after he completed his rehab and he spent enough time in the minors to push his arbitration-eligibility (and free agency) back a year.

Since this is an apples to oranges comparison, let’s look at it another way. Based on his salary in the first year of his bridge deal, Latos received a 171% raise in year two. Chacin received a 294% raise, Kendrick a 150% raise, and Hammel a 158% raise. Chacin is a huge outlier for whatever reason. Ignoring him, the other three averaged a 160% raise from year one to year two of their bridge deals. (Kershaw received a 146% raise from year one to year two of his contract, so even he’s in the same ballpark.)

If we apply that 160% raise to Eovaldi’s and Pineda’s projected 2015 salary, we get two-year contracts worth approximately $8.1M and $5.5M, respectively. That’s $3.1M in year one and $5M in year two for Eovaldi, and $2.1M in year one and $3.4M in year two for Pineda. This isn’t the most precise salary forecast in the world but we’re only looking for a ballpark number for discussion purposes, not an exact projection for a detailed analysis.

I don’t know about you, but I’d give Pineda two years and $5.5M in a heartbeat. Yes, I know he’s risky as hell, but it’s super cheap and he flat out dominated when on the mound last season. If he stays healthy this coming year and continues pitching anywhere close to that level, he’ll get a massive raise come 2016. Pineda signed for a small bonus as an amateur back in the day ($35,000!) and he’s already had one major shoulder surgery. He might jump at the guaranteed millions. I know I would.

As for Eovaldi, two years and $8.1M is a drop in the bucket for New York, though I wish we could see him in action in the AL East and Yankee Stadium before committing. Even if he were to flop next season, I think he’d still have plenty of trade value next offseason even with a $5M salary already set in stone for 2016. He’s young and throws hard. Teams are always looking for someone like that. It’s easy to say sign him, but I would understand passing and going year-to-year as well.

The big long-term extensions are fun and usually lead to tremendous savings in the future, but starting pitchers have been treated differently in recent years. At least pitchers at Eovaldi’s and Pineda’s service time level. A two-year bridge deal doesn’t buy up any free agent years or anything like that, but it does limit risk and could help the Yankees save some money not only in 2016, but also in 2017 since the savings career over. (Arbitration uses the player’s salary in the previous year as a base.)

There has been no indication the Yankees are considering a multi-year extension for any player right now, even a short two-year deal for Eovaldi and Pineda. That doesn’t mean they haven’t at least kicked around the idea though. It’s understandable if they simply sign both guys to a one-year contract for 2015 since Eovaldi has yet to throw a pitch in pinstripes and Pineda has made only 13 starts in the last three years, but a two-year bridge contract for either pitcher has the potential to be very beneficial. For both sides, really.

MLBTR’s Projected Arbitration Salaries for 2015

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

At this time last season, the Yankees were still talking about getting under the $189M luxury tax threshold for the 2014 season. It was definitely doable, but it would have been very difficult, especially since the team wanted to contend at the same time. Eventually the Yankees abandoned their luxury tax plan and they didn’t even get back to the postseason anyway, so double yikes.

Because Alex Rodriguez‘s salary is coming back on the books and the team handed out four free agent contracts worth $15M+ last offseason, the Yankees won’t be able to get under the luxury tax in 2015 and probably not in 2016 either. It might be possible in 2017, after the current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires and the luxury tax threshold is presumably raised.

Anyway, that’s a really long way of saying salaries for New York’s arbitration-eligible players are less important this offseason then they were at this time last year. When I looked at the club’s 2015 payroll situation three weeks ago, I guesstimated a $12M figure for their arbitration-eligible players. Turns out I was pretty close. Matt Swartz posted arbitration salary projections using his insanely accurate model — he’s been within 5% the last few years — earlier this week, and he has the Yankees’ players at $12.9M total. Not a bad job by me. Here are the projections:

Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via Matt Swartz)

Pineda (~$1.5M raise), Huff (~$200K raise), and Phelps (~$800k raise) are all arbitration-eligible for the first time. Pineda is getting a nice bump in salary despite missing all that time to injury because a) he was pretty awesome when healthy this past year, and b) he was an All-Star back in 2011, and that pays. Phelps qualified as a Super Two by about a month’s worth of service time, so he’ll be arbitration-eligible four times instead of the usual three. He and Pineda aren’t going anywhere. Same goes for Nova (no raise after lost season). They’ll be tendered contracts for next year.

Rogers, on the other hand, is an oh so obvious non-tender candidate at that salary. He earned $1.85M this past season, which is why his projected 2015 salary is so high. His raise isn’t expected to be that significant. Rogers had his moments in pinstripes (like this one) and his fastball/slider combination is just good enough to keep you interested, but not at $1.9M. The Yankees could always non-tender him and re-sign him at a lower salary, maybe even a minor league contract.

I don’t have any problem with Kelley at $2.5M next season — these days you basically have to throw 30 innings and not run over the closer with a bullpen cart to be worth $2.5M — even though he can be annoyingly inconsistent. At his best, he’s a true eighth inning guy who misses an awful lot of bats. At his worst, Kelley allows like four runs and gets one out. Which makes him no worse than most other relievers, really. His projected salary isn’t nearly high enough to scare me away.

The same goes for Cervelli even though I have no reason to believe he can stay healthy over the course of a full season. Quality catching is hard to find and the Yankees shouldn’t give it away for nothing just because they have John Ryan Murphy and Austin Romine (and soon Gary Sanchez) sitting in Triple-A. Even if they don’t want to keep Cervelli at that price, I think another team would give them an interesting enough low-level lottery ticket prospect in a trade. Then again, what do I know.

As for Huff, he actually pitched pretty well this past season by long man standards, posting a 1.85 ERA (4.00 FIP) in 39 innings. That’s usable. Huff’s projected salary is barely above the league minimum, so the decision whether to tender him a contract will come down to other factors like project performance and roster concerns. If the Yankees need a 40-man roster spot this winter — they’ll need one as soon as the World Series is over because A-Rod‘s suspension ends — Huff could be the odd man out.

It’s worth mentioning these contracts are not guaranteed. Teams can release arbitration-eligible players who sign one-year deals before mid-March and only owe then 30 days termination pay. If they release them after mid-March but before Opening Day, it’s 45 days termination pay. The Yankees dumped Chad Gaudin this way a few years ago. They could keep Huff, see how the offseason plays out, then cut bait if a need for a roster spot arises. I’d put my money on Huff being non-tendered.

The Yankees have an uninteresting crop of arbitration-eligible players this winter. There are no real tough decisions here. It’s an easy call to non-tender Rogers and an easy enough call to keep everyone other than Huff. Huff is the only borderline guy and there’s almost no wrong decision there. If they non-tender him, fine. If they keep him, whatever. The arbitration-eligible players won’t make or break anything this offseason. The Yankees have an easy arbitration class this winter, which is good because they need to focus on lots of other stuff.

2014 Season Review: Big Mike

The 2014 season is over and now we’ll look back at the year that was. Our old What Went Right/Wrong format has gotten stale, so it’s time for a new review format. We’ll review individual players, performances, tendencies, all sorts of stuff in the coming days and weeks.

BIG MIKE IS HERE

You’ll have to forgive me for being skeptical about Michael Pineda coming into the 2014 season, but I know I wasn’t alone. He spent his first two years with the Yankees either injured or in the minors — he was both injured and in the minors at one point late last year — and with each passing day the trade looked more and more like a total disaster for both teams. Both the Yankees and Mariners moved top chips for what looked like zero return. Then the 2014 season happened.

Part One: Spring Training

Pineda, who turned 25 in January, came to Spring Training this year fully healthy for maybe the first time as a Yankee. Who knows what was up with his shoulder back in 2012? He came to camp in shape (unlike 2012) and with a chance to win a rotation spot. The Yankees weren’t going to hand Pineda anything after he missed the entire 2012-13 seasons and I didn’t blame them one bit. Back in February, he was a total unknown who had to earn his roster spot.

In camp, Pineda had to compete against the likes of David Phelps, Adam Warren, and Vidal Nuno for the final spot in the rotation, and he flat out smoked ‘em. He allowed three runs (two earned) in 15 innings while striking out 16 and walking one, but, most importantly, he looked healthy and strong. The ball was coming out of his hand well, his slider was filthy, and even his changeup looked promising. There was no competition by the end of Spring Training. Pineda won the job with ease and everyone was looking forward to seeing what he’d do in the regular season.

Part Two: Finally

Eight-hundred-and-two-days after the trade that brought him to New York, Michael Pineda threw his first meaningful pitch for the Yankees. He made his first start in pinstripes on April 5th, in the team’s fifth game of the season. Here’s how it went:

Pineda held the Blue Jays to one run on five hits and no walks in six innings in his first start for the Yankees, and PitchFX says his fastball averaged 94.17 mph and topped out at 95.94 mph on the night. Considering the nature of his injury and the long layoff, I don’t think we could have asked to see anything more out of Pineda that game. He was great. Also, keep the “no walks” thing in mind. It’s going to become a theme.

Five days later, in his first career start at Yankee Stadium, Pineda held the defending World Series champion Red Sox to one run in six innings, striking out seven and walking two. Six days after that, he threw six shutout innings against the Cubs as part of a doubleheader sweep. Pineda had a 1.00 ERA and 2.69 FIP though his first three starts and looked very much like the future frontline starter the Yankees were hoping he’d become at the time of the trade.

Part Three: You Guys, You Can’t Spell Pineda Without P-I-N-E

During his nationally televised start against the Red Sox, the various networks caught Pineda with what looked like pine tar on the palm of his right hand. It was there in the early innings but not later in the game, after the internet caught wind of it and screen grabs were all over the place. Here’s what he had on his hand:

Michael Pineda

The Red Sox didn’t say anything because, frankly, many pitchers use some kind of foreign substance to improve their grip, so calling out an opposing player puts your pitchers at risk of being called out at some point in the future. It’s sort of an unspoken code. I won’t say anything if you won’t.

Two weeks later, in his fourth start of the season, Pineda gave Red Sox manager John Farrell no choice. He had a giant glob of pine tar on his neck in the second inning after getting hit around a bit in the first, prompting Farrell to come out of the dugout and bring it to the attention of the umpires. He had no choice. It would have been irresponsible for Farrell to not say something at that point.

The umpires looked at Pineda, found the pine tar, and immediately ejected him from the game. He admitted afterwards that he did use pine tar — “I know I made a mistake today,” he said following the game — and was later suspended ten games, the standard punishment for this sort of thing. Fair or not (fair!), suddenly Pineda’s dominance in his first three starts was brought into question.

Part Four: Hurt

Pineda spent his ten-game suspension at the team’s complex in Tampa. While throwing a simulated game to stay sharp, he felt a little something in his back and had to go for an MRI. Tests showed a lower lat strain, though when the Yankees announced he had been placed on the 15-day disabled list, they officially called it a shoulder injury. Regardless of what anyone called it, it was close enough to his surgically repaired shoulder to worry.

The injury was originally expected to keep Pineda out for 3-4 weeks, but that turned into 6-8 weeks after a setback in late-May. Then, in mid-June, Pineda suffered yet another setback to put the rest of his season in question. It was starting to look like those first three starts in April were just a tease. Every time Pineda ramped up his throwing program, he back/shoulder injury flared up and he had to be shut down.

Part Five: The Return

(Jim Rogash/Getty)
(Jim Rogash/Getty)

Eventually, Pineda was able to stay healthy long enough to increase his throwing program and begin pitching in simulated games. He made his first official minor league rehab start with Triple-A Scranton on August 3rd, throwing 58 pitches in 3.1 innings. Five days later he threw 72 pitches in 4.1 innings. Reports indicated that Pineda’s arm strength was fine and his back/shoulder was healthy, so it was just a matter of getting his pitch count up before he could return to MLB.

The Yankees didn’t wait that long. Phelps went down with an elbow injury and the team didn’t want to give Esmil Rogers another spot start, so Pineda was activated off the disabled list after his second rehab start with the RailRiders. In his first game back, on August 13th at Camden Yards, Pineda held the Orioles to one run on two hits in five innings. He threw only 67 pitches and clearly started to labor in the fifth inning. The Yankees were careful with Pineda earlier in the season — he threw 83, 94, and 89 pitches in his first three starts in April — and they were going to do the same following the injury.

There were no more setbacks once Pineda returned. No more pine tar (that we know of!) and eventually no more pitch limits. No more nothing. Just pitching. Pineda took the ball every fifth day once he was activated and he was dominant nearly every time out. He allowed six runs (five earned) in his next four starts and 25.1 innings, striking out 15 and walking just one. After the Rays tagged him for four runs in 7.1 innings on September 11th — easily his worst non-pine tar start of the season — Pineda allowed just three runs (two earned) in his final three starts and 19 innings.

In his final start of the season in Game 162, Pineda struck out ten Red Sox and allowed just one run in 6.1 innings. He closed the year with a 1.89 ERA and 2.71 FIP in 13 starts and 76.1 innings. Eight of those 13 starts were walk-less. Eight! Pineda walked just seven batters (!) in those 76.1 innings, a 2.4% walk rate that was the second lowest among the 206 pitchers who threw at least 70 innings in 2014. (Phil Hughes was the lowest at 1.9%).

Pineda’s strikeout total (59, or 20.3% of batters faced) was surprisingly low given the quality of his stuff, though it didn’t hurt his performance at all. He’s a weak contact guy who gets a lot of easy pop-ups, so while his .233 BABIP was low this year, he’s exactly the type of pitcher you’d expect to post a lower than usual BABIP. All those pop-ups and fly balls off the end of the bat are high-percentage outs, especially when Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury are covering two-thirds (more, really) of the outfield.

Pineda did hold his fastball velocity through to the end of the season, averaging 93.21 mph in and topping out at 96.27 mph in Game 162. His overall season velocity was 93.39 mph, on average. It is worth noting, however, that Pineda did tend to tire later in games once his pitch got up to 70-75 pitches or so. Here’s his velocity chart by inning, courtesy of Brooks Baseball:

Michael Pineda velocity

There’s a definitely downward trend there, after about the fourth inning. Most pitchers lose velocity as their pitch count climbs within a game, this isn’t unusual, but because Pineda’s season was interrupted by the injury, we don’t know if this is permanent or something he’ll grow out of once he truly has a chance to get into midseason and is further away from shoulder surgery. We’re just going to have to wait and see next year. Nothing we can do.

Pineda did add a cut fastball to his arsenal this year and it was very effective. It wasn’t a show-me cutter. Pineda would cut the ball outside to righties and to both sides of the plate against lefties, but stick with his true four-seam whenever he elevated for a swinging strike or wanted to bust a righty inside. His changeup also showed a lot of progress as well. The pitch averaged 88.49 mph this season, so it was a hard changeup, and at its best, it moved like this:

(GIF via IIATMS)
(GIF via IIATMS)

The pitch didn’t move that like all the time of course, but it did it often enough to make you think it’s only a matter of repetition and time before he gets a good feel for it and can throw it like that consistently. Besides, his fastball-slider and now cutter combination is good enough to get by as it is. Adding the changeup would be an extra cherry on top.

When the season started, Pineda was an injury risk and we had no idea what to expect when he was actually on the mound. He is still an injury risk, he didn’t exactly assuage any concerns about his durability this year, but at least now we know Pineda has the ability to dominate. That’s a pretty big question he answered in his 13 starts. Pineda still has frontline stuff and frontline command following shoulder surgery, the two things that made him so special as a prospect and great as a rookie in 2011. It’s easy to forget how good this guy was expected to be before the shoulder injury.

The trade has not gone as planned for either the Yankees or Mariners at this point, but the Yankees finally received some return this season. Everyone hoped Pineda would be a top of the rotation starter by time his third year in pinstripes rolled around, but instead his career in the Bronx is just getting started. That’s life. The injury this year was a major bummer, but, when he was on the mound, everything Pineda showed was tremendously encouraging. He aced the performance test with fly colors. Hopefully next year he can ace the health and durability test.

Girardi’s Press Conference Notes: Coaching Staff, A-Rod, Offseason, Prospects, Leadership, More

(Jim Rogash/Getty)
(Jim Rogash/Getty)

The Yankees wasted no time jumping into the offseason this year. Joe Girardi held his annual end-of-season press conference on Monday afternoon, the day after the team closed out its regular season. Usually they wait two or three days. Not this year though.

There was no major news announced during Monday’s televised press conference — no coaching staff changes or surprise injuries, etc. — though Girardi did talk at length about all sorts of stuff. Especially Alex Rodriguez. People love talking about A-Rod. Here’s a recap of Girardi’s state of the team address.

On A-Rod

  • “We’ve gotta see where he’s at. That’s the thing we have to do,” said the skipper when asked what he expects from Alex next year. “We have to see where he’s physically at. If he can play the field, how many days will he DH, play the field … I don’t think any of us know about him until we get him in games in Spring Training.”
  • “I thought our guys handled it pretty well (when A-Rod returned in 2013),” added Girardi while acknowledging the first few days of Spring Training will be hectic. “Will there be a number of new guys in there? I’m sure … We’ll do everything we can to make sure it’s not a distraction, but until we get into it we don’t really know. My personal opinion is it won’t be.”
  • “I have a good relationship with Alex. Our team enjoys Alex (in the clubhouse),” said Girardi. “I don’t think that will be an issue. Will he have to deal with some angry fans? Yeah, but we’ll help him get through that.” (Girardi also joked that fans have been hating on A-Rod for years and he’s used to it by now.)
  • Girardi said the Yankees “absolutely” expect Rodriguez to be on the team next year. “He hasn’t played in a year. That’s not easy to do, to sit out a year … Do we expect him to be a player on our team? Absolutely.”
  • Girardi also confirmed they have not discussed having A-Rod work out at first base. “We expect him to be our third baseman,” he said. They’ve stayed in touch via text message over the summer.

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