Sometimes, the stuff doesn’t match the production. Pitchers know that, broadcasters know that, coaches know that, and we know that. There are some guys who will sometimes reel off a really incredibly nasty pitch and still get walloped. You know these guys. There’s the fabled Great Stuff of Joe Kelly. There’s Nathan Eovaldi’s gazillion-mile-per-hour fastball. And, of course, there’s Michael Pineda.
In Pineda’s case, we at least have something of an understanding as to why it hasn’t really all come together. Injuries kept him from throwing a big league pitch between 2011 and 2014. He’s never really been the same. Pineda was great for the Mariners in 2011, but since returning, his results have been that of a back-end starter who does his best to give free souvenirs to the fans in the outfield seats.
However, despite his ERA struggles, ERA estimators love him. Our FIP-based WAR says he was worth +3.2 wins in 2016, tying him with Julio Teheran, J.A. Happ, and Tanner Roark, among others who posted strong seasons by ERA. Pineda’s ERA, though, was 4.82, ranking 67th out of 73 qualified pitchers.
And as a guy who watched a lot of Yankee games this year, I can say with certainty that watching Pineda pitch doesn’t leave one with the impression you’re watching a high-end starter. With all his home runs and loud contact, Pineda doesn’t feel like a frontline pitcher. Is he? Is he not? We’re going to try to explain what his deal is.
No stat is without flaw, of course, and Pineda gives us a fun chance to look what exactly is going on here. Just as some pitchers (Clayton Kershaw, basically everyone on the Cubs) seem adept at limiting damage on contact, others have trouble controlling that damage. Sam Miller addressed almost this precise problem recently, as he tried to find a Grand Unifying Theory of Robbie Ray by deconstructing all the various versions of pitcher WAR. Ray is another guy, like Pineda, who strikes out everyone, but still allowed lots of runs last year. Ray strikes out more batters per nine innings, and allows fewer home runs per nine, but also walks more batters. Pineda, if nothing else, is good about limiting walks.
Contact, however, was an issue for both. As we see from Tony Blengino’s series on contact management, Pineda ranked dead last in the AL in preventing batters from making authoritative comment. Most problematic, just 1.2% of his batted balls resulted in pop-ups. During his dynamite debut in Seattle, Pineda induced 25 infield flies, but last year, he got just six, thanks to the lowest infield fly rate of any qualified starter in MLB. That’s 19 fewer free outs than he got in 2011, given that infield flies are effectively the same as strikeouts.
In fact, Pineda is a different pitcher now than the guy the Yankees traded for. Working at Safeco Field allowed him to maintain a fly ball heavy approach by working up in the zone, but now he focuses on keeping the ball down. It makes sense, because Yankee Stadium is a more hitter friendly environment, and one theoretically would want to allow as few fly balls as possible, because there’s a fair chance of them leaving the yard.
However, this seems to be backfiring for Pineda. By operating low in the zone, his mistakes when he misses up with his fastball don’t result in high called balls, but middle-middle fastballs. Those sorts of pitches are an issue. And in 2016, Pineda’s fastball was a massive issue.
We’ll start from the basics and work our way up. As a whole, the league hit .271 against four-seam fastballs in 2016. Batters hit .340 against Pineda’s fastball. The following Pitch F/X charts may not be for the faint of heart. You’ve been warned.
Here’s where Pineda threw his fastballs in 2016.
Here’s the ISO breakdown against Pineda’s fastball this year.
That’s not what you want. The league slugged .459 against fastballs. They slugged .640 on Pineda’s fastball. Pineda’s fastball, per our Pitch F/X-based pitch value measurements, was worth -21 runs. Though a lot of the pitchers in the league throw their fastballs in similar locations, Pineda’s got hit a lot harder.
Why is this? That’s a bit harder to say. It’s not that his fastballs were straight as an arrow. In fact, they moved more than they did in 2015. It’s not that Pineda was playing in front of a poor defense, either. The Yankees were exactly in the middle of the pack from a defensive standpoint, though it’s possible they just played worse defense for him than they did for his teammates. Was this random baseball variance? Maybe.
But there’s also another factor to consider.
Pineda threw his changeup just 256 times in 2016. By and large, he was a two-pitch pitcher. Heatmaps tell us that Pineda liked to spike his slider and make batters chase it down. It worked, for the most part. So, possibly, batters could have just sat back and waited for one of those middle-middle fastballs to drive, rather than making themselves go down to try to golf a slider, given that they knew if they could identify a non-slider pitch, it was going to be a fastball. It’s just a theory, of course. For all we know he could have been tipping his pitches. There are many different possibilities here, and the data we have doesn’t firmly point to any one answer.
What we do know is this: Pineda threw his his fastball down the middle, and batters are supposed to crush middle-middle fastballs. You can get to the big leagues while struggling against breaking pitches if you can hit a fastball. Everyone in baseball can hit a fastball. Pineda served his up on a silver platter. Unless you’re Rich Hill, you can’t get by on a nasty breaking ball. Pineda’s strike-heavy approach with his fastball seems like it might not work, and to combat the hard contact he’s giving up, he might need better location, a third pitch, or both.
Nick is a columnist at FanGraphs, and has written previously for Baseball Prospectus and Beyond the Box Score. Yes, he hates your favorite team, just like Joe Buck. You can follow him on Twitter at @StelliniTweets, and can contact him at stellinin1 at gmail.