Nobody seems to know what to do with Michael Pineda. The Yankees pitcher has posted a garish 6.41 ERA in 59 innings of work, but the peripherals are all sterling: A 24.7% strikeout rate, a 5.5% walk rate, and a 93 cFIP all point to a solid #2 or #3 pitcher in the Bombers’ rotation. Indeed, his league-average 4.11 DRA points to some bad luck when looking only at the ERA. Eno Sarris argued as much at Fangraphs last week, breaking down Pineda’s mechanics and pitch movement to see if he could isolate any variables. The closest he got was that Pineda was leaving his slider hanging when pitching from the stretch. So, is that all there is? Does Pineda just need to be a little more confident from the stretch and tighten that slider the way he does with the bases empty? Let’s dig in.
The first thing to note that should make Yankees fans feel better about Pineda is the defense playing behind him. As I noted last month in my assessment of Luis Severino, Yankees defenders have been bad with the gloves by every advanced measure we have. Pineda’s ridiculously high .397 BABIP and below-average 67% strand rate speak to the defense’s inability to gobble up balls in play.
Bad defense aside, though, Pineda’s batted ball profiled does seem to be trending in the wrong direction. Statcast can tell us a couple of illuminating things. Notice the below table of Pineda’s average exit velocities and launch angles from 2015 and 2016, paired with the league average:
|Avg. Exit Velocity||Avg. Launch Angle|
|2015 Michael Pineda||88.0 mph||7.1 degrees|
|2015 League Average||88.8 mph||10.9 degrees|
|2016 Michael Pineda||91.0 mph||12.0 degrees|
|2016 League Average||89.3 mph||11.7 degrees|
He’s getting hit harder and higher across the board compared to last season. We see that in his rates too, with the fly balls up and the ground balls down in 2016. The jury’s out on the degree to which launch angle is a skill—generating ground balls seems to be. Suppressing line drives, however, is basically random. We do know that exit velocity is a skill that stabilizes quickly, so things don’t look too good for Pineda, especially since that increased launch angle means that balls are leaving the park at a 1.68 HR/9 rate, way up from last year’s 1.18 mark.
All of this data shows how Pineda is being beaten, but why is he being beaten? If his velocity and mechanics are more or less stable, does it really come down to hanging a few sliders from the stretch, as Sarris suggests? The pitch is indeed crossing the plate about seven inches higher with runners on base as opposed to when the bags are empty, but overall, Pineda’s not leaving the pitch up any more than he did last year.
Are hitters doing anything differently on those sliders that are left up in the lower part of the zone? Last year, they slugged .547 on such pitches; this year, they’re slugging .579. It seems like it’s not the slider that is the singular cause for Pineda’s woes.
Could it be the fastball? When the fastball gets hit, it gets hit hard, especially when Pineda leaves the pitch up, either because it’s not cutting enough or he can’t get it to move at all. That middle-middle zone is getting pummeled, as a 106-mph home run from Evan Longoria demonstrated two weeks ago:
Austin Romine wanted that fastball down and away. The ball just leaked over the plate and was torched. But other than the home runs, the fastball has been getting the same amount of whiffs as it did last year. So it seems like the mistakes are just getting punished in a way they weren’t in 2015.
You could argue that command or pitch mix is the reason for hitters tattooing more of Pineda’s offerings than they did last year. But given the strikeout and walk rates, that case is tougher to make. It really seems like when Pineda misses, he’s missing badly. That might shake loose, but then again, maybe it won’t. This was supposed to be the year Pineda moved past the injuries and reclaimed the promise of that great rookie season with the Mariners. Instead, he’s become one of the great mysteries of the 2016 season.
Photo: Kim Klement/USA Today Sports