Why Michael Pineda, not Masahiro Tanaka, is the ace of the Yankees

Just three and a half months after trading for Michael Pineda, when the Yankees announced that the right-hander would undergo season-ending shoulder surgery, general manager Brian Cashman described the Pineda–Jesus Montero deal as a “massive decision gone wrong.” Now, with Montero recently being placed on waivers by Seattle, the trade looks like a steal for New York and Pineda is lined up to be the team’s best starting pitcher.

Despite sharing a rotation with Masahiro Tanaka, the $175 million Japanese superstar who started last year’s wild card game, Pineda should be considered the Yankees’ ace in 2016. Pineda could have been the ace last season as well, but he ran into some awful luck behind lackluster defense and a small home stadium. This coming year, expect Pineda’s luck to regress to the mean and for his standard statistics, not just his periphery stats, to improve to the point where he is considered the Yankees’ top starter.

One look at last season’s advanced stats and it’s clear that Pineda was better than Tanaka in 2015. These stats tell the story of a Pineda who was much better at limiting the damage that he could control, and unlucky in what he couldn’t control, relative to Tanaka. Even though Tanaka had a better ERA by almost a full run, Pineda’s FIP, xFIP, cFIP, and strikeout, home run and walk rates were all superior. The sample size is almost the same too, as the two pitched a similar number of innings — Pineda’s 160.2 to Tanaka’s 154.

2015 Stats ERA FIP xFIP cFIP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 IP
Michael Pineda 4.37 3.34 2.95 79 8.74 1.18 1.18 160 2/3
Masahiro Tanaka 3.51 3.98 3.29 85 8.12 1.58 1.46 154

Even the statistic that most accurately quantifies luck agrees with the aforementioned sabermetrics. Pineda’s opposing BABIP, or batting average on balls in play, was fifth-highest among the 79 pitchers who threw at least 160 innings last year meaning his bad luck is very likely to improve in 2016. If we include Tanaka’s opposing BABIP, he would have had the third-lowest in the same group, benefitting from unusually good luck.

Looking at home run to fly ball ratios, another luck barometer, Pineda’s was seventh-highest in the 160+ group, partially due to starting a bunch of games in home-run-friendly Yankee Stadium. However, we can still expect Pineda to give up less home runs because pitchers don’t have much, if any, control over how often fly balls leave the ballpark.

 2015 Stats ’15 BABIP (career BABIP) HR/FB
Michael Pineda .332 (.284) 14.7%
Masahiro Tanaka .242 (.269) 16.9%

What do all these numbers mean for 2016? First of all, the massive discrepancy between Pineda’s 2015 ERA and FIP — what his earned run average actually was and what it should have been — suggests we’ll be seeing opposing teams score a lot less runs in Pineda’s 2016 starts. In fact, PECOTA’s projection for Pineda pegs this year’s ERA at 3.34, his FIP from 2015, indicating that at least some computer models believe Pineda will receive some better luck. According to PECOTA, Tanaka is also expected to improve slightly and pitch at almost the same level as Pineda. That these starters are projected to put up similar numbers was nearly unthinkable towards the end of last year with Pineda’s second-half struggles. Projections should be taken with a grain of salt though, as most don’t see either pitcher starting 30 games — something that should be easily attainable should they avoid the disabled list.

Michael Pineda 3.63 1.17 169 2.9 186
Masahiro Tanaka 3.78 1.14 170 2.5 183

Furthermore, in a very positive sign, Pineda posted the highest ground ball rate and lowest fly ball rate of his career by far. Although this may have been an aberration, it bodes well in the context of the home run to fly ball ratio. Pineda allowed fly balls at a career-low rate, yet an abnormally high amount of those fly balls went for home runs compared with his earlier seasons. Expect that to normalize in 2016. Unfortunately, there isn’t readily available batted ball data from Tanaka’s time in Japan, but his nearly-equal 2015 innings total with Pineda is still a good gauge. In his first two seasons as a Yankee, Tanaka has posted a high HR/FB relative to the rest of the big leagues. There wasn’t a huge difference among Tanaka’s opposing batted ball percentages (he gave up slightly more fly balls and less line drives while ground balls stayed almost the same) so there is no personal mean for Tanaka to return to, unlike Pineda.

 Michael Pineda Line Drive % Ground Ball % Fly Ball % HR/FB IP
2011 18.9% 36.3% 44.8% 9.0% 171
2014 18.6% 39.1% 42.3% 5.4% 76.1
2015 21.9% 48.2% 29.9% 14.7% 160.2


 Masahiro Tanaka Line Drive % Ground Ball % Fly Ball % HR/FB IP
2014 24.4% 46.6% 29.0% 14.0% 136.1
2015 19.2% 47.0% 33.8% 16.9% 154

The biggest concern for both Pineda and Tanaka will be their health. Pineda missed the 2012 and 2013 seasons with shoulder issues and Tanaka’s career hangs by the 2-inch thick thread that is the partially-torn UCL in his pitching elbow. Additionally, Pineda’s highest innings total was in his 2011 rookie campaign when he tossed 171, but the lack of mileage can be a good thing as he enters his prime. Including his time in the minor leagues and rehab stints, Pineda has thrown 868 1/3 innings over his 10-year professional career, which isn’t a terrible amount by any stretch. For comparison, Tigers ace Justin Verlander threw over 2,000 innings in his first 10 seasons and didn’t spend a day on the disabled list.

But Tanaka, who is just two and a half months older than Pineda, has thrown 1611 1/3 innings over his MLB and Japanese careers. That’s a lot of innings for a pitcher who only turned 27 last November. Even though Pineda has had more trouble staying healthy over the course of his professional career, the innings totals suggest Tanaka may be a more likely DL candidate this season.

If both Pineda and Tanaka stay healthy for the entire season, or at least stay healthy enough to qualify for the ERA title by pitching at least one inning per team game played, then Pineda will likely be New York’s best pitcher in 2016 as his terrible luck reverses course. But Pineda was the unheralded ace last year as well, and even though Tanaka is likely going to start on Opening Day, Pineda should surpass him in the public eye early this season. Seeing as the crosstown Mets started ageless wonder Bartolo Colon last Opening Day and only won a National League pennant, Brian Cashman probably won’t be too upset if Pineda is passed up to start off the year.

Lead photo: Jonathan Dyer / USA Today Sports

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3 comments on “Why Michael Pineda, not Masahiro Tanaka, is the ace of the Yankees”


What exactly has led you to this conclusion, Mr. Gelman?? Michael Pineda has accomplished nothing for the Yankees since his first season with them in 2012. It truly is a wonderment that he is still with team due to the Yankees’ all too often lack of patience with young pitchers. Frankly, he has shown me nothing. I feel that Luis Severino is far more likely to become the Yankee ace. Pineda will never be one.


This has to be one ignorant comment coming from a clearly uninformed fan. Peripheral marks show Pineda as an above average starter who had bad luck with injuries, thank God you’re not an executive because you would ruin the Yankees.

Nice numbers, but did you watch his last start? He has a bad habit of coming unglued after giving up a HR and then throwing heat down the middle of the plate

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