Michael Pineda Was Elite at Pitch Tunneling

The Minnesota Twins brought back another piece of their 2019 starting rotation when they re-signed righty Michael Pineda to a two-year, $20-million contract (pending physical). With another 39 games left in his 60-game suspension due to testing positive for PEDs (hydrochlorothiazide), the deal works out to roughly $17.6 million over two years.

Prior to his suspension in September, Pineda was instrumental in helping the Twins capture the American League Central. Anchored by a top-20 rated changeup (minimum 15% usage), Pineda accumulated 2.7 WAR (his highest mark since 2016) and posted his lowest ERA (4.01) in five years. The rest of Pineda’s stats were in line with his career averages, although his xFIP and hard-hit rate was by far the worst of his six seasons in the major leagues.

Nevertheless, Pineda was helped by an element of deception as he was one of the best overall pitch tunnelers of 2019, as exemplified in the chart below sorted by PreMax (average distance between back-to-back pitches at the tunnel point).

Top Overall Pitch Tunnelers, 2019
Pitcher RelDist PreMax PlatePreRatio
Blake Treinen 1.73 1.25 14.0
Nick Wittgren 2.47 1.27 12.3
Joe Jimenez 2.67 1.27 13.7
Jared Hughes 1.90 1.28 13.2
Felipe Vazquez 2.20 1.28 12.1
Michael Pineda 2.00 1.29 12.7
Daniel Hudson 1.38 1.29 13.1
Jacob deGrom 1.19 1.29 13.0
Blake Snell 2.29 1.31 16.4
John Brebbia 2.31 1.32 13.8
SOURCE: Baseball Prospectus

Impressively, Pineda is grouped with current back-to-back National League Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom and the AL winner from 2018, Blake Snell, along with some good relief pitchers. Since starting pitchers typically have more variables at play (i.e. more pitch options), relievers have a relative advantage when measuring overall tunneling, or at least a better probability of creating tighter tunnels with two options. With that said, Pineda was arguably the best tunneler of 2019.

Historically, Pineda has been a good command pitcher. His career walk rate through 826 innings pitched is 5.8% and, since 2011, he ranks 17th overall in BB%+. When looking at shadow (or edge) zone pitch tendencies, Pineda hits (or throws to) those spots at a rate of 42.1%. What’s more, Pineda’s .265 wOBA allowed (minimum 500 batted ball events) ranked 44th overall in 2019.

Let’s break down Pineda’s trio of pitches and see how he uses them together from a tunneling perspective. First, a glance at how his three pitches (slider, changeup, four-seamer respectively) take shape together, using Driveline Edge as our reference:

We can see that Pineda’s pitch movement profiles create a zone plot that resembles an obtuse triangle, with his changeup running arm-side off the four-seamer and his slider deviating the greatest from the other two.

Here are the three thrown in live action, having both gravity and any applicable seam-shifted wake (how the orientation of the seams affect pitch shape) influencing movement:

Pineda’s repertoire went through some changes in 2019; most noticeably his pitch velocity, which was down across the board. Despite that, Pineda’s four-seamer and changeup pitch values actually improved off his 2018 ratings. On the other hand, his slider, which he cut back on last season, was the least effective it’s ever been.

Pindea’s four-seam fastball usage was the 10th-highest in the league (minimum 100 IP) last season and is the basis for most of his pitch sequences.¬†Hitters swing through the pitch a bit more than other four-seamers, though, when contact is made, the ball is often put in the air. The end result of that contact is an above-average HR/(FB+LD) rate.

One of the best pitches of its kind last season, Pineda’s changeup was his most reliable. It doesn’t move as much as other changeups and Pineda fails to generate a lot of arm-side movement, mainly because the pitch has a heavier element of backspin compared to your average changeup spin direction (around 3:00 for RHP). Regardless, Pineda’s .253 wOBA on the changeup was good for the 27th-lowest in the league.

The slider, which tended to be a liability for Pineda, was burned for a lot of hard contact. An elevated line-drive rate and too many fly balls ending up as home runs soured the pitch in 2019.

Of those three main pitches, here are Pineda’s top five tunneling combinations, based on PreMax, using those that were thrown sequentially at least five times.

Michael Pineda’s Best Tunnel Sequences
CH|SL L 5 3.04 0.85 16
CH|FA L 18 2.26 1.01 16.7
FA|CH R 8 1.85 1.04 14.6
CH|CH L 5 1.75 1.05 10
FA|FA L 25 1.54 1.18 11.3
SOURCE: Baseball Prospectus

The best metrics of all possible combinations was the changeup to slider against lefties, which he threw only five times. However, either leading or following and independent of hitter handedness, the changeup creates the best tunnel foundation and appears four times in the list above. It should be noted that the release differential is the largest for all his combinations. Keep in mind that this is from a three-dimensional perspective which not only scales the “x and y” coordinates but factors in release extension as well.

Here’s the changeup-slider in action:

With both pitches being thrown with varied backspin influence, along with similarly ratioed velocity to spin rate (think Bauer Units), we see heavy drop with a decent horizontal spread at the bottom of the zone (approximately eight inches).

Moving on to the changeup and four-seamer, this is the only combination that appears twice. There is only about a 10-degree variance in spin axis, and coupled with his close release points, Pineda creates a good tunneling situation with these two pitches. With only a three-inch or so drop favoring the changeup, the pitches create five inches of arm-side run off the fastball, with a 1:00 four-seam spin direction versus 2:00 for the changeup.

Despite the shortcomings of the slider, it tunneled well with the four-seamer, though slightly more so to righties than lefties. Pineda has around a two-inch release point difference with about a 1.3-inch spread between each at the commit point (league average is 1.54). Here’s a closeup example of how the duo plays off each other.

It’s a little difficult to see, but notice how the spin axis is oriented in such a way that Pineda created close to pure gyrospin with minimal spin efficiency. That action, piggy-backing off of Pindea’s four-seamer, produces a decent amount of vertical separation despite his four-seamer averaging the 27th-most drop last year.

Pineda’s injury history is peppered with shoulder issues which likely impeded his full development into a potential staff ace. Pineda will turn 31 next month, and coupled with missing two full years (2012-13) along with the entire 2018 season, expecting him to be more than a middle-of-the-rotation starter at this point is likely wishful thinking. Additionally, with his PED suspension yet to be completed, Pineda’s ability to get back to a 3-plus-WAR pitcher in 2020 could be hindered.

In spite of this, considering his pitch movement profiles have been altered multiple times (especially the once-dominant slider), Pineda’s ability to command the strike zone and have control over all his pitches facilitate his understanding of how to make them work together. This is especially true if you consider how much velocity he’s lost and how (seemingly) predictable his pitch selection has become at this point in his career.¬†To repeat as champions of the AL Central, the Twins don’t need him to be a superstar, they just need him to be steady. And Pineda’s tunneling skills make for a strong crutch.

Pitching strategist. Driveline Baseball pitch design-certified. Systems Administrator for a high school by day, I also provide ESPN with pitching visuals and am the site manager for SB Nation's Bucs Dugout.

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Pineda’s hands look big enough to throw 2 or 3 different pitches at once.

Great stuff as always.