After frittering away what was once an 11 1/2-game lead over the Indians, the Twins have reestablished firm control of the AL Central race, but this weekend, their hopes to play deep into October took a hit when Michael Pineda was suspended for 60 games for violating MLB’s Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program. Pineda tested positive for hydrochlorothiazide, a diuretic on the league’s banned substances list, and while his suspension was reduced from the standard 80 games upon appeal, he won’t be available for the playoffs, making this one of the most impactful recent Joint Drug suspensions.
Pineda’s suspension was announced amid a three-game series between the division rivals. On Friday night, he held the Indians to one run over six innings while striking out a season-high 10; he left the game carrying a 2-1 lead, but the Indians tied the game in the eighth and won 6-2 in 11 innings. The next day, MLB announced the suspension, and while a fired-up Twins team rallied late to win 5-3 and cut the team’s magic number to clinch the division to 14, they lost the rubber match on Sunday, 5-2.
In a statement released by the Major League Baseball Players Association, 30-year-old Pineda said in part:
“I mistakenly took a medication that was given to me by a close acquaintance, who obtained it over-the-counter and assured me it would safely help me manage my weight. I ingested a few of these pills without the consent of the Twins’ training staff. Testing revealed trace elements of a substance called Hydrochlorothiazide, which is a banned diuretic under baseball’s testing program.”
Hydrochlorothiazide is a medication used to treat high blood pressure and fluid retention (edema) by producing more urine, which helps the body get rid of excess sodium and water. It’s on the list of banned substances because it is often abused as a masking agent, which helps to to conceal the use of anabolic steroids by reducing their concentration in urine due to the increase in volume.
In the process of appealing his suspension, Pineda was able to present evidence that convinced an independent arbitrator that he was not using the drug as a masking agent, leading the arbitrator to invoke what’s called the mitigation provision of the Joint Drug Agreement between MLB and the MLBPA. Via MLB.com’s Do-Hyoung Park, the provision in question is Section 8.B.4 of the JDA, by which an arbitrator can reduce a suspension “if a player proves by clear and convincing evidence that he bears no significant fault or negligence for the presence of the Performance Enhancing Substance in his test result.”
While the Athletic’s Dan Hayes reported that this was the “first time in the history of MLB’s drug program the mitigation provision has been used,” it would appear that the 2016 suspension of Adalberto Mondesi (known at the time as Raul Mondesi Jr.) did so as well, albeit without anybody using the phrase “mitigation provision.” Mondesi tested positive for the banned substance Clenbuterol but had his suspension reduced from 80 games to 50 games when he was able to show that a cold medication that he had taken contained the substance. While players suspended under the JDA have been ineligible for postseason play since 2014, MLB.com’s Jesse Sanchez reported that per a league source, Mondesi would be eligible if the Royals — who at that time were the reigning world champions — qualified, which they did not. As Park noted, via the mitigation provision, a player who has his suspension reduced also retains his postseason eligibility. That’s a moot point for Pineda, as his suspension will still be in effect, but had the decision come early enough in the season for the suspension to run its course, he could have participated.
The suspension is hardly a moot point for the Twins. Pineda, who did not pitch in the majors last year while recovering from July 2017 Tommy John surgery, has posted a 4.01 ERA and 4.02 FIP (86 ERA- and 87 FIP-) in 146 innings en route to 2.6 WAR. That last figure is fourth on the team behind Jake Odorizzi (3.7), José Berríos (3.6), and Kyle Gibson (2.9), but Pineda has been the best of the bunch since early June, and appeared well on his way to garnering a substantial deal in free agency this winter (he’ll now miss the first 39 games of next season, nearly one-quarter of the schedule). Reprising a table I built for my August 13 piece on the AL Central race, published on the only day since April 9 that the team was out of first place:
|Jake Odorizzi||Through 6/2||64.1||1.96||2.87||28.0%||8.4%||2.2|
|>José Berríos||Through 6/2||77.0||3.27||3.77||22.6%||4.4%||1.9|
|Kyle Gibson||Through 6/2||62.1||3.75||3.99||24.1%||5.8%||1.3|
|Martín Pérez||Through 6/2||52.1||3.10||3.81||21.8%||8.8%||1.2|
|Michael Pineda||Through 6/2||59.0||5.34||5.27||20.3%||4.5%||0.3|
June 2 was the day that the Twins’ AL Central lead over the Indians peaked at 11 1/2 games. As you can see, since that point — during which the team has gone 48-37 (.565), compared to 40-18 (.690) prior — Pineda owns the rotation’s best ERA, FIP, walk rate, and WAR, and the second-best strikeout rate. Since the All-Star break, he’s a close second on the staff in FIP and WAR behind Odorizzi (3.55 and 1.3 to 3.47 and 1.5) with by far the better ERA (3.04 to 4.30).
The loss of Pineda highlights the Twins’ failure to land a rotation upgrade ahead of the July 31 trade deadline. As noted in the aforementioned piece, they pursued the likes of Trevor Bauer, Zack Greinke, Marcus Stroman, and Noah Syndergaard but were either rebuffed or found the price too steep. For example, the Blue Jays reportedly asked for shortstop Royce Lewis or right fielder Alex Kirilloff, the team’s top two prospects, for Stroman, while the Mets wanted both and also asked for Byron Buxton for a potential Syndergaard deal. Per the Star-Tribune‘s La Velle E. Neal III, while Pineda might have known of the positive test before the July 31 deadline, the Twins did not:
The process of being informed of a positive test, appealing the results and then receiving the arbitrator’s decision can take around 30-45 days, meaning Pineda might have been informed before the July 31 trade deadline that he tested positive. The team, however, is the last to know. The Twins were not informed Pineda had failed a test until early Friday evening. So a handful of Twins officials knew Friday that Pineda was making his last start of 2019.
Pineda’s suspension comes at a time that Gibson is on the injured list due to ulcerative colitis, which had caused him to lose 10 pounds over a month and a half, though he’s expected to return this coming Thursday, when he’s scheduled to start against the Nationals. The Twins filled the two turns he’s missed in with opener Randy Dobnak. On September 3 against the Red Sox, Dobnak, a 24-year-old rookie righty, threw one scoreless inning before yielding to Lewis Thorpe, a 23-year-old rookie lefty who was cuffed for three runs in 3.1 innings. On Sunday against the Indians, Dobnak allowed two runs in two innings before Devin Smeltzer, a 24-year-old rookie lefty, took over and allowed two more runs in four innings.
Twins manager Rocco Baldelli has not offered specifics for how he plans to handle Pineda’s absence, but that trio of rookies, who all have starting experience, figure to be in the mix. Of the trio, Smeltzer, who is 23rd on the team’s prospect list, has thrown the most innings for the big club (36, with a 4.00 ERA and 4.63 FIP). Thorpe, the most highly-regarded prospect of the trio (14th on the team’s list), has the highest WAR (0.5 in 18.2 innings, thanks to a 2.68 FIP that stands in marked contrast to his 5.30 ERA), while Dobnak has the lowest FIP and ERA (1.64 and 2.12, albeit in just 11 innings). While Perez has made four solid starts out of his last five, his struggles for most of the summer mean that he’s probably not guaranteed a postseason start just yet, particularly given his problems against righties; here it’s worth noting that Astros righties have pummeled lefties for a 135 wRC+, second among AL teams behind only the Twins (137), with the Yankees (121) third. Gulp.
In terms of its impact on a playoff-bound team, the closest parallel for Pineda’s suspension is probably that of Bartolo Colon, who tested positive for testosterone while pitching for the A’s in 2012. The then-40-year-old righty was in the second year of his post-injury comeback; he had pitched to a 3.43 ERA and 3.82 FIP in 152.1 innings before his 50-game suspension was handed down on August 22, 2012. His 2.6 WAR was a close second on the team at the time. When the A’s faced the Tigers in the Division Series, their starters — Jarrod Parker twice, and Brett Anderson, A.J. Griffin, and Tommy Milone once each — pitched well, allowing just 10 runs (nine earned) in 29.2 innings, but Parker was touched for four runs in six innings in Game 5, and the A’s went down in defeat.
We’ll never know whether Colon’s presence would have changed the course of that series, and likewise, how far these Twins could have gone with Pineda. For what it’s worth, via our playoff odds, the team’s chances of winning the World Series dropped from 8.4% at the end of Friday to 7.6% at the end of Saturday despite their victory. Projected to finish with 99 wins, they’re still a force to be reckoned with, and hardly alone among AL contenders in facing postseason rotation uncertainty (hello, Yankees). Nonetheless, this is the kind of bad break that no team in pursuit of a championship wants, and if the Twins make another first-round exit — something they’ve done in each of their last five Division Series appearances dating back to 2003 — Pineda’s suspension will cast a long shadow.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.