MIchael Pineda is the best he’s ever been

Apr 10, 2014; Bronx, NY, USA;  New York Yankees starting pitcher Michael Pineda (35) delivers a pitch against the Boston Red Sox during the first inning at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports  - RTR3KSMP
Apr 10, 2014; Bronx, NY, USA; New York Yankees starting pitcher Michael Pineda (35) delivers a pitch against the Boston Red Sox during the first inning at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports
– RTR3KSMP

Michael Pineda is the best he’s ever been

When comparing ERA’s from last year to this year, one would think the 2014 version of Michael Pineda was much better than the current 2015 version. However, this piece will analyze a few key changes from last year to this year that may explain why the 2015 version is setting himself up for more sustainable long-term success.

But to really understand the new Pineda, one must understand what he once was.

In 2011, Michael Pineda burst onto the scene as a massive fire baller striking out over 9 hitters per 9 innings pitched. Pineda came in with an average fastball velocity of over 94 miles an hour, leading into his reputation as one of the best young pitchers in the game. He ended his season with a 3.74 ERA over 170 innings, and was worth just over 3 Wins Above Replacement to a Mariners team that didn’t even make the playoffs. Needless to say there was a lot of hype surrounding Pineda after his first season, as fan and analysts alike gushed over a Mariners rotation fronted by Felix Hernandez and Pineda for years to come.

Fast forward to 2014. Pineda has been derailed by shoulder surgery, and hasn’t pitched in the majors in two years. In his first MLB action in 3 years, he finished the season with a sterling ERA of 1.89 over 76.1 innings. While it was a very nice comeback, there were indications that his success wasn’t going to last at that level over the course of a full season. For one, Pineda had a low strikeout rate for a flyball pitcher. Less than 7 strikeouts per 9 innings with a groundball rate of only 39.1% means that there were a lot of fly balls landing in gloves instead of the stands. Over the course of a full season (roughly 125 more innings), more fly balls were going to turn into homeruns, which in turn would create a much different reality for Pineda.

What was really helping him was his minuscule walk rate of 0.83 per 9, and hitters were only hitting .233 on balls in play. A .233 Batting average on balls in play is extremely lucky for any pitcher, as this statistic means that most of the balls hit against him were playable for the fielders. A line drive right to an infielder was a result that Pineda was fortunate enough to receive a few times more than usual in 2014.

His velocity had also dropped about two miles an hour since 2011, which wasn’t a good indication of how high his ceiling would actually be. As we’ve seen with pitchers such as Tim Lincecum, Justin Verlander, and Mat Latos, a loss in velocity can lead to a big drop-off in a pitcher’s performance. While Pineda was never the caliber of pitcher of the aforementioned aces, his drop-off has not been as dramatic. With that in mind, his 2015 has been a massive leap forward, eliciting hope that Pineda can lead a playoff quality pitching staff.

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An in-depth look:

First, his velocity is NOT all of the way back. Check out these numbers courtesy of Fangraphs.com:

2011 fastball velo: 94.2

2014 fastball velo: 91.9

2015 fastball velo: 92.2

He’s still a full 2 miles per hour off of his electric rookie campaign.

As we dig deeper, this is what we know:

Last season, Pineda threw his fastball 31.5 % of the time. This year, he’s raised that percentage up to 40.1%, while decreasing his cutter usage from 27.7% last season to 17.2% this season. He’s also throwing a little more of his two seam fastball and changeup more, a total uptick of about 3 percent. As far as his walk rate goes, it’s still at a miniscule 1.14 over 9 innings. Pineda has been able to ramp up his velocity to 95mph at certain points late in games along with keeping his pinpoint command, a sign of a young thrower maturing into a pitcher. That’s what Michael Pineda has become in 2015: a pitcher, not a thrower. While he showed promise in 2014, he has continued to improve and most importantly, stay healthy.

Here are a few more numbers to marvel at:

Strikeouts per 9

2014: 6.96

2015: 8.92

Groundball rate per 9

2014: 39.1%

2015: 50.9%

Batting Average of hitters on balls hit in play

2014: .233

2015: .338

Home runs allowed per 9 innings

2014: 0.59

2015: 0.99

The Batting average of balls in play (BABIP) and Homeruns allowed per 9 go hand in hand. As mentioned before, those long fly balls Pineda was allowing in 2014 are now leaving the yard. However, he has been able to counteract that with a big increase in his ground ball percentage along with another big increase in his strikeouts. Yes, more balls are leaving the yard. However, his peripherals indicate that he is a much better pitcher than his 3.97 ERA suggests.

Over the course of a whole season, the metrics suggests that he is even a better pitcher than he was in 2014. While that may be hard to believe for the casual fan with his ERA being a whole two runs higher, the chances of Pineda’s 2015 ERA decreasing dramatically are much higher than the changes of his 2014 ERA being sustainable for another 125 innings. Baseball is a game where the law of averages rule, and Pineda is doing all of the right things to stay on the positive side for the future.

**UPDATE: Pineda has suffered a forearm injury and will be out for the next 4 weeks. However, Yankees management expects that he will be healthy and ready to contribute for the final stretch of the season in September.

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