Michael Pineda’s Not Messing Around by Jeff Sullivan September 23, 2014 When the Yankees traded for Michael Pineda, they didn’t know he’d need surgery on his shoulder labrum. Had they known that, they certainly wouldn’t have agreed to the move. See, that’s because labral tears are big deals, the sorts of things that can end careers before they really get started. Anyhow, Pineda underwent the operation, and on the other end, the Yankees weren’t sure what they’d be left with. They didn’t know what a post-op Michael Pineda might turn into. If 2014’s any indication, he’s turned into Michael Pineda, only even more aggressive than before. He’s turned into the kind of guy the Yankees are thrilled to have on their payroll. This easily could’ve been a disaster of a season. In the very early going, Pineda had that humiliating incident with the pine tar. Shortly thereafter, he dealt with an injury that knocked him out for months. Between April 23 and August 3, Pineda didn’t pitch in an official game, and it seemed like the whole year could be a wash. But Pineda was able to move back to the Yankees quickly from there, and a dominant outing Monday night only underscored the fact that Pineda’s re-established himself as a building block for the present and for the future. Pineda now is 25. He was 22 as a rookie with the Mariners, and as a rookie, Pineda became known for his heat, his slider, and his control. It’s uncommon for young power pitchers to be able to stay consistently in and around the zone, and that was one of the ways that Pineda compensated for not having much of a changeup. Given what Pineda was, then, it’s not surprising he’s controlling the zone again. He’s walked just seven batters in 70 innings. It’s also not surprising that he’s lost a tick or two of velocity. He had surgery, and he got older, and it’s enough that Pineda even made it back to a mound. The Yankees aren’t going to be greedy, here. Yet Pineda isn’t just the same kind of guy — in a lot of ways, he’s even improved. You figure you’re lucky if a guy has labrum surgery and comes back as the same pitcher. Pineda’s come back an even more promising pitcher, meaning for the Yankees the season hasn’t been all bad. It’s time to throw down some numbers. For the record, 2014 Pineda has surpassed 1,000 pitches thrown. Why don’t we start with overall strike rate? 2011: 67% strikes 2014: 71% Average: 64% As a command-and-power rookie, Pineda threw strikes with two-thirds of his pitches. Outstanding! This year’s rate is even more outstanding. Do you know how many starting pitchers have a strike rate higher than Pineda’s? One. It’s Phil Hughes. And as weird as it is to think, Hughes is really great now. Pineda has prime Cliff Lee‘s strike rate. It’s better than David Price‘s. It’s better than Clayton Kershaw’s. It’s better than everyone’s, except Phil Hughes. Okay. How about pitches ahead in the count? 2011: 40% pitches ahead in count 2014: 44% Average: 37% It shouldn’t surprise you, but with Pineda throwing more strikes, he’s getting ahead more often, and falling behind less often. Pitchers who are ahead more often have the advantage of batters being more on the defensive. As a rookie, the difference between Pineda’s ahead rate and behind rate was 25 percentage points. This year it’s 32 percentage points. Again, Pineda compares well to guys like Hughes and Jordan Zimmermann. Sticking with the theme, we can look at zone rate, where the zone is the average zone that umpires actually call: 2011: 51% 2014: 55% Average: 49% More strikes. More pitches in the zone. You get it. Pineda’s aggressive. He’s aggressive because he pitches with confidence, and he pitches with confidence because he knows he still throws hard, and he knows he still has a wipeout slider, and he knows he releases the ball practically right on top of the hitter. Yet, a fun side effect of all this: Pineda also has one of baseball’s highest rates of swings at balls, because he’s around the zone often, and because he’s so frequently ahead. It’s not necessarily that batters want to swing against Pineda; it’s just, at some point they have to. Maybe even more interesting is what Pineda’s done to his arm and his pitches. I noticed that, as a rookie, Pineda threw 59% of his pitches somewhere over the plate. This year, he’s at 66%, implying that he has better command. He pitches less side-to-side, and more up-and-down. Here’s a little excerpt from 2013: Organizational pitching coach Nardi Contreras said Pineda has made “tremendous improvement” over the last several weeks, and said that his arm slot is higher than it was before the surgery, an important sign for recovery. And now here’s something from last March: “The ball gets on you a little bit faster,” [Mike Carp] said. “He’s dropped (his arm angle) down a little bit since the surgery. But he’s a deceptive presence.” All right, so that’s not helpful. Pineda has either raised his arm slot, or lowered his arm slot. What might images tell us? Here’s Pineda in Tampa Bay from 2011: Here he is in Tampa Bay in 2014: Seems like he’s a little bit higher. But then, we don’t even have to trust our own eyes, given the existence of PITCHf/x and Brooks Baseball. Pineda’s horizontal release points: And his vertical release points: That’s a higher arm slot. It’s not a dramatically higher arm slot, but it’s a higher arm slot, so Pineda’s coming a little more over the top than he used to. For the hitters, that gives Pineda something of a different look on the mound, but changing the arm angle is also going to change the movement of your pitches. And we can see that Pineda’s movements have changed, probably at least in part due to the change in arm angle, and perhaps additionally due to assorted other tweaks. First, horizontal: And vertical: Two things jump out at me. One, Pineda’s slider has picked up a little more tail. It’s running just a little bit more away from a righty. And two, and more significantly, check out Pineda’s fastball. Not only does it now have a little more drop. Look at the horizontal plot. Pineda’s fastball is basically a cutter. It’s lost almost all of its run, so its movement is up-and-down, and not so much lateral. Pineda’s fastball now is fairly extreme in its horizontal movement, and it’s also fairly extreme in its vertical movement. It has more sink than most four-seamers, and it has less run than most four-seamers, because it’s essentially a cut. And if there’s one thing we know about cutters, it’s that they work pretty well against opposite-handed hitters. When he was younger, Pineda faced a lot of questions about whether he’d ever be able to handle lefties on a consistent basis. His fastball/slider profile didn’t project particularly well, especially given velocity loss. The slider, I’ll say, is a weapon against anybody. But now Pineda’s altered his fastball to be more useful against lefties, and that’s one way to survive without developing a third pitch. And also, Pineda’s improved his third pitch. Previously, he didn’t have a reliable changeup. Let’s make an assumption: changeups are intended, generally, to be down, and frequently below the zone. So as a proxy for changeup command, let’s look at the rate of changeups below the strike zone. It’s not perfect, but it’ll do. Behold: 2011: 40% 2014: 63% So that’s pretty big. Pineda’s changeup isn’t one of the best in the world or anything, but it’s a pitch he’s comfortable throwing, and his slider also works against lefties, and his fastball also now works better against lefties. After disappearing for two years, Pineda has come back and he looks like he might be answering his biggest question from his rookie season. I won’t even go into how Pineda is throwing righties more inside than he used to. Pineda’s changing. You expect a guy to change after learning a lot as a rookie, and Pineda’s got himself a capable catcher and a capable coaching staff. Everyone understands the slider gives him an advantage against righties. He’s improved his profile against lefties, too, and he’s pounding the zone like almost nobody else, even though he probably doesn’t have to, given his assortment of other weapons. Pineda could nibble, but he’s comfortable trying hard to get ahead, and if that means hitters make contact, they generally haven’t made good contact, and this way Pineda never issues any walks. You’re probably noticing Pineda’s strikeout rate. That’s not a function of him being easier to hit — he’s still got a good contact rate. It’s just, if you keep throwing strikes, batters will swing, and the more they swing, the more they don’t strike out. But also, the more they don’t walk. It’s a perfectly fine approach. And it’s a tiny little miracle that we even get to analyze Michael Pineda’s big-league performance today. He went through the worst injury a pitcher can have short of actual brain damage, and not only has Pineda emerged — he’s quite possibly gotten better. For the Yankees, this is a 90th-percentile outcome, even without knowing where Pineda goes from here. When the Yankees acquired Pineda, he was a young strike-throwing power pitcher with his whole future in front of him. Today, he’s a young strike-throwing power pitcher with his whole future in front of him. The Michael Pineda story is back on track, after a couple years of feeling like we’d seen this story before. We’ve never seen this story.