Baseball America’s top five league wide prospects going into the 2011 season were understandably hyped. Sitting at the top of the list was future National League MVP Bryce Harper. Future American League MVP Mike Trout filled the second slot. Rated at number three, Jesus Montero of the New York Yankees was supposed to become the next Mike Piazza; a prodigiously powerful catcher with enough receiving skills to get by until transitioning to first base or DH in his 30s. For a farm system criticized for not producing enough big league contributors and necessitating the signing of high priced free agents, Jesus Montero was supposed to be the 100M bat the Yankees didn’t have to pay for. In September of 2011, he got a cup of coffee in the Bronx and hit .328/.405/.590, an admittedly small sample size that admittedly did echo Piazza’s 1996 campaign in which he finished as the NL MVP runner up. Therefore, the outrage among New Yorkers was understandable on January 23, 2012 when Montero was traded to the Seattle Mariners for 22 year old pitcher Michael Pineda, who as a rookie was an AL All Star. Michael Pineda was supposed to slot in behind ace CC Sabathia in the Yankee rotation for the next half decade, easing the pain of losing the potential 40 homer bat of Montero.
One major shoulder surgery plus setbacks that cost him two full seasons, a DUI, a suspension for overuse of pine tar, and 373 underwhelming innings later, Michael Pineda has not been the return investment that the Yankees have hoped for. His stuff, by all accounts, remains electric, but he has been unable to consistently produce and stay healthy. However, a closer look at his 2016 season shows that he turned a corner after a dud on May 28 (a start in which he lasted only 3.2 innings and left his ERA at 6.92).
In his last 14 starts dating back to June 2nd, Pineda has pitched 83 innings at a 3.58 ERA, sporting a stellar K/BB ratio of 95/23, and with an opposing slash line of .227/.281/.387. These numbers, while only representing a half season, are exactly what the Yankees dreamed for when they traded the prospect rated only behind Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. While nobody doubts Michael Pineda’s talent, the idea that he has finally put it all together after five years of ineffectiveness, controversy, and major injuries justifiably raises some eyebrows. Fortunately for Pineda, it looks like that is exactly what he has done.
Through May 28, Pineda’s 6.92 ERA was accompanied by an opposing .322/.371/.581 triple slash. In other words, every batter who faced Pineda essentially put up numbers equivalent to Mike Trout. The statistic Batting Average on Balls in Play measures the impact defense and luck have on batting average. To be succinct, five line drives in ten at bats with only two or three falling for hits will differentiate from a couple high bouncers and two bloop hits in ten at bats when measured in BABIP. The statistic is handy because it separates men who put up numbers that look like Ted Williams’ for a month before falling back to earth from the real Ted Williams. A thorough explanation can be found at FanGraphs, but as a rule, the average BABIP is .300, with numbers as low as .230 and as high as .380 being all but impossible to sustain. The opposing BABIP against Michael Pineda through May 28 was .390; since then, it has been .292. Clearly, Pineda was the recipient of terrible luck to begin the season and his summer turnaround culminates with his BABIP returning to normal rates. Even so, pinning a so called breakout on luck does not satisfy the baseball gods. Delving into Pineda’s approach on the mound reveals a pitcher less likely to hang a slider up in the zone and one more likely to use that biting slider for a strikeout.
In 2015, Big Mike (he is listed at 6’7″ and 260 lbs) used his devastating slider to strike out 16 Oriole batters in a dominant May 10th start. He pitched to a frustrating 5.04 ERA for the rest of the season, but in his last 14 starts his slider has become the deadly weapon it was on May 10th of last year. Following his May 28th start from this year, he has thrown the slider 12% more often, with a whopping 36% decrease in vertical movement (while maintaining nearly identical horizontal movement). This means he is throwing the slider much more often, with just as much bite, while simultaneously hanging them less often. The drastic refinement of his slider has led to a 25% decrease in HR/FB%, giving up fewer homers in his 83 most recent innings than in his initial 53.1 of the season. Additionally, he has complimented his violent slider with a significant velocity bump for his fastball and changeup. His fastball, measured as the fifth fastest on average in the majors his rookie season, was diminished after two years of shoulder surgery and rehab. Since May 28th, its velocity has increased 1.4 MPH, from a pedestrian 93.2 to a menacing 94.6 MPH. His changeup velocity has increased from 87.8 to 89 MPH, settling in closer to the median of his slider velocity (85.8 MPH on the season) and aforementioned fastball – which further helps him keep hitters off balance and guessing speeds. With all three of his pitches developing into legitimate options, Pineda has enjoyed yet another phenomenon. Since May 28th, opposing hitters have swung 12% more often on pitches outside of the strike zone, while also swinging 6% less on pitches inside the strike zone. Clearly, his already stellar command coupled by refinement in his pitches has given him more deception against the opposition.
Michael Pineda has not been the #2 pitcher the Yankees hoped for when they traded for him in 2012. However, his talent never left him, and for the first time in his Yankee career he has showed consistency, refinement, better luck, and maturity on the mound. Michael Pineda has produced to those original lofty expectations since his low point on May 28th. He is a free agent following the 2017 season, and if he continues to pitch like a solid #2 pitcher, he will be a hot commodity on the open market. With uncertainty surrounding the future of the Yankees rotation, it may be time for Brian Cashman and co. to attempt to extend their big right hander before he prices himself out of the Bronx.