The Potentially Historic Comeback of Michael Pineda

The big righthander reared back and fired one last time, and Dodger catcher John Roseboro popped it up to shortstop Luis Aparicio to cap a 6-0, four-hit complete-game shutout, giving the Orioles a 2-0 lead in the 1966 World Series that they would go on to sweep. It was an eclectic Series game to be sure – it marked Sandy Koufax‘ last major league appearance, and was marked – you might say defaced – by an amazing six Dodger errors, including an incredible three by center fielder Willie Davis. Perhaps most notable, however, was the identity of the pitcher who tossed the shutout.

At age 20, Jim Palmer had now truly arrived, following up a 15-win regular season with this heroic effort. The future could not appear brighter for a kid who, unbeknownst to anyone at the time, would pitch all of 49 major league innings over the next two seasons due to a serious shoulder injury. Why is any of this relevant? Because this is as close as anything in baseball history to a successful precedent for the comeback currently being attempted by the Yankees’ Michael Pineda.

Pineda’s 2011 debut with the Mariners was stellar by any measure. He was dominant through the season’s first half, and after a six-inning, 7 K outing on July 4 against the A’s. his record stood at 8-5, 2.58, with a 106/34 K/BB ratio and only 75 hits allowed in 108 innings. At age 22, his future appeared as bright as Palmer’s had almost 45 years before. He pitched in the All Star Game, but was hit hard in the three starts surrounding the midsummer classic. For the remainder of the 2011 season, Pineda never again pitched on regular rest – he was already bearing down on his career high of 139 innings in a season – as the club tried to find a middle ground between a regular starter’s workload and a total shutdown.

That offseason, he was traded to the Yankees along with minor league hurler Jose Campos for Jesus Montero and Hector Noesi, a deal that appeared to be a washout for both clubs entering this season, as Pineda lost all of 2012 and 2013 to surgery for a significant labral tear in his shoulder. Based on Pineda’s first two starts this season, this deal might still have a pulse on the Yankee end.

Let’s take a couple of different approaches to attempt to find situations comparable to Pineda’s faced by past starting pitchers. First, going back to 1938, pitchers who qualified for an ERA title for the first time by age 22 and then did not again qualify until age 25 were identified. Only nine pitchers met this criteria, which had no qualitative restrictions of any kind attached to it.

J.Palmer 1966 20 49 1969 23 Shoulder
Koonce 1962 21 73 31 1965 24 Ineffective/Minors
K.Wood 1998 21 137 2001 24 Elbow (TJ)
T.Underwood 1975 21 156 133 1978 24 Swingman
Greinke 2005 21 6 122 2008 24 Social anxiety/Swingman
D.Alexander 1973 22 114 133 1976 25 Swingman
Rusch 1997 22 155 5 2000 25 Ineffective/Minors
Ol.Perez 2004 22 103 113 2007 25 Ineffective/Toe
Broberg 1972 22 119 29 1975 25 Ineffective/Minors
Pineda 2011 22 ? ? Shoulder

A wide-ranging list, to be sure. Most of these players didn’t qualify for ERA titles in the two seasons immediately following their first qualification for the same reason – they weren’t established as true major leaguers from a talent perspective. Cal Koonce, Glendon Rusch and Pete Broberg meet that strict definition, and while Oliver Perez certainly had the talent, his mechanics continually wavered, and left him unable to display it on a consistent basis.

Tom Underwood and Doyle Alexander were useful big league contributors in their two intervening seasons, but were fifth starter types who also did some work out of the pen, not accumulating enough innings to qualify for the ERA title. Zack Greinke’s situation was quite unique, as he stepped away from the game for almost the entire 2006 season to address social anxiety issues, and then was used primarily out of the pen in 2007.

That leaves only two pitchers who didn’t qualify for ERA titles for two consecutive seasons after their first qualifying season at age 22 or younger who lost those seasons specifically due to injury – Jim Palmer and Kerry Wood. Wood’s injury was to his elbow, and after missing all of 1999, he came within 25 innings of qualifying in 2000, before returning to the qualifying ranks in 2001. While a Tommy John surgery is serious business, one has a much better chance of recovering from a serious injury to the elbow than to the shoulder.

Palmer clearly comes the closest to matching Pineda’s scenario. While Pineda is the only one of this group to log zero major league innings in the two seasons after his first qualifying season, Palmer pitched by far the fewest among the above group. Most importantly, he is the only one of the group to miss almost all of those two seasons due to a serious shoulder injury. Palmer pitched through his shoulder pain – he walked 54 batters in 71 minor league innings in 1967 and 1968, and even pitched in winter ball before miraculously coming out of the other end of the sausage grinder intact, and somehow primed to pitch 3600 innings and win 245 games over the next 16 seasons, beginning in 1969.

Now let’s put some qualitative restrictions on pitchers with comparable situations to Pineda. Below is a list of starting pitchers who A) since 1901, qualified for the ERA title for the first time at age 22 or younger, B) had a K/9 IP ratio of at least one full standard deviation higher than the average of their league’s ERA qualifiers that season, and C) missed qualifying for the ERA title for non-performance-based reasons at least once within two years of their first qualifying season.

Nolan 19 1.55 22 6 28 Shoulder
Ankiel 20 2.01 N/A 1 20 The Thing
P.Dean 20 1.92 21 2 21 Shoulder
Correa 20 1.76 N/A 1 20 Shoulder
K.Wood 21 3.80 24 4 26 Elbow (TJ)
Ba.Johnson 21 1.81 26 2 26 Knee, back, etc.
T.Griffin 21 1.35 26 3 33 Various injs.
Ol.Perez 22 2.44 25 3 26 Toe, mechanics
Prior 22 2.34 24 2 24 Elbow, shoulder, etc.
Youmans 22 1.41 N/A 1 22 Shoulder
Harden 22 1.11 N/A 1 22 Shoulder, elbow
Pineda 22 1.46 ? ? ? Shoulder

A very interesting list of “could have beens”. Gary Nolan was a young, fireballing phenom for the 1967 Reds, striking out 206 batters – and walking 92 – in his age 19 season. His shoulder issues robbed him of his best stuff very early in his career, but he pitched through the pain, willing his way through four 200-inning seasons, with his K and BB rates plunging all the while. He adapted and still had solid big league success (110-70 record, 117 ERA+), mostly as a finesse guy, but fell far short of what was once envisioned.

Rick Ankiel famously unraveled in the 2000 playoffs, walking 11 batters in 4 IP over two starts after a sparkling age-20 regular season in which he struck out 194 batters – and walked 90 in 175 innings. He only pitched 34 more innings in the big leagues, though he did carve out an enduring career as an outfielder through last season. Paul Dean, Dizzy’s younger brother, pitched a total of 503 innings in his age 21 and 22 seasons combined, winning 19 games both years. He would only pitch 284 more major league innings over seven seasons, striking out only 94 batters after his shoulder injury.

Edwin Correa struck out 189 batters – and walked 126 – in his age-20 rookie season in 1986. He too hurt his shoulder, and only pitched 70 more big league innings. Wood was briefly discussed earlier – he did return from his Tommy John surgery to unfurl three more Kerry Wood-esque seasons from ages 24 through 26, but was then struck down by a succession of injuries to his triceps, shoulder and then elbow again, which many trace to the heavy workload that he and Mark Prior (see below) were forced to carry during the 2003 season, when Wood was 26. He ended up fashioning a reasonably successful second act as a reliever, pitching until 2012.

Bart Johnson was basically the Rick Ankiel of his era. He struck out 153 – and walked 111 – in 178 innings as a starter/closer in 1971 at age 21, but was then hindered by knee and back injuries, and even became a position player in the minors for awhile before a rebound season as a finesse guy in 1976. Tom Griffin was a journeyman who qualified for three ERA titles at ages 21, 26 and 33, an interesting combination. In his rookie 1969 season, he struck out 200 batters – and walked 93 – in 188 1/3 innings, but then never again struck out more than 110 batters in a season in an injury-plagued career.

Oliver Perez is somehow still active, and was quite effective in 2013. After a strong age-22 season in 2004, he broke his toe and his mechanics went haywire, and he couldn’t get anyone out for two years. He has alternated between feast and famine cycles ever since, but has lived to tell about it. Mark Prior was the best pre-injury “pitcher” of this group, the only one who exhibited strong control in his first qualifying season, posting a 245/50 K/BB ratio in 211 innings in 2003 at age 22. He broke his elbow in 2004, and after a reasonably strong bounce-back season in 2005 was then derailed by the shoulder injury that ended his career.

Floyd Youmans struck out 202 batters – and walked 118 – in 219 innings at age 22 in 1986, but only pitched 243 MLB innings the rest of his career, whiffing only 74 batters in his last 127 innings. Shoulder surgery again was the culprit. Rich Harden struck out 167 batters – walking 81 – in 189 2/3 innings at age 22 in 2004. He was beset by a barrage of shoulder and elbow injuries, but did manage to pitch 664 more MLB innings over the next seven seasons, including three years with more than 125 innings, striking out 715 batters along the way. The stuff never left, but the durability never came back.

What can we learn from these pitchers and apply to the Pineda situation? First, there aren’t many success stories here. Gary Nolan and Kerry Wood went on to have the best careers among the group, but both still fell what short of what might have been. Most notably, all of these pitchers with the exception of Prior and Paul Dean had below average control prior to their first significant career-interrupting injury. High K and high BB totals equal high pitch counts, and added potential for overuse at a young age. Without their Grade A stuff, all of the below average command guys except for Nolan and Wood were unable to appreciably improve their strike-throwing enough to have a post-injury future.

Michael Pineda did not have poor command in his rookie season. In fact, his calling card as he advanced through the minors was his unusual combination of upper-90’s heat and very low walk rates – he walked barely over two batters per nine innings over his minor league career, and averaged under three per nine innings in his 2011 rookie season. Let’s take a look at all of Pineda’s 2011 plate appearance outcome frequencies to see how the pre-injury version got things done:

Pineda % REL PCT
K 25.4% 141 94
BB 8.1% 106 65
POP 14.1% 166 95
FLY 27.5% 99 45
LD 22.5% 106 76
GB 35.9% 76 18

On the positive side, both his K and popup rates are at the extreme high end of the spectrum, with 94 and 95 percentile ranks, respectively. That’s a devastating “free out” combination that gives him tons of margin for error regarding the relative authority of other types of contact he can allow without materially negatively impacting his overall performance. His line drive rate was high (76 percentile rank), but that may regress going forward. Pineda was a fly ball pitcher in 2011, with a very low grounder rate (18 percentile rank). His BB rate was above average for a starting pitcher (65 percentile rank), but that was influenced by an upward late-season spike as his partial shutdown phase was implemented.

Repertoire-wise, Pineda dominated in 2011 with basically two pitches – a fastball that averaged nearly 95 MPH and a wipeout slider that averaged 84 MPH, with the odd changeup mixed in. The lack of a legit changeup was the prime reason for his fairly large platoon split (110 relative OPS+ vs. lefties, 89 vs. righties). His swing-and-miss percentage of 11.9% ranked second among AL ERA qualifiers in 2011.

It’s only been two starts, but so far, the 2014 version of Michael Pineda looks an awful lot like the 2011 model. His swing-and-miss rate is even better, at 14.1%. His popup rate is high, and he is showing a strong fly ball tendency. The big platoon split is still there. His average fastball velocity is down by over 2 MPH to 92.3, though he is throwing his slider and changeup at almost exactly the same average speed, and is throwing them the almost exact same percentage of the time as he did in 2011.

Michael Pineda needed to accomplish two exceedingly difficult tasks to get back to being the dominant starter he was in 2011. The first was to get back to being the same guy qualitatively – the early returns suggest that he has done that. Only Kerry Wood and – briefly – Mark Prior on the second list above were able to do so, even for a short period. The second task is to make it stick – to hold up over time, to pitch enough innings to qualify for an ERA title, and beyond, experiencing enduring major league success. The jury is still out on that one.

This brings us back full circle to Jim Palmer. The link between Palmer and Pineda just might be the key to the latter’s chance of making it stick. In that 1966 World Series Game 2 shutout, Palmer recorded seven popups among his 21 contact outs. Palmer outperformed his K rate by one of the most significant margins in baseball history. Part of this was due to exceptional defense behind him – all-time great defenders supported Palmer at third base (Brooks Robinson), shortstop (Mark Belanger) and center field (Paul Blair) for most of his career – but only part of it. Palmer was one of the greatest contact managers in the game’s history, due in large part to his ability to generate popups – a true, measureable skill that Michael Pineda happens to share.

Pineda is not the athlete that Palmer was – but Palmer did not have the bat-missing ability that Pineda has. If Pineda can stay on the mound, continuing to show the strikeout/popup package that he has shown both before and after his shoulder injury, the sky is the limit. What he is in the process of doing is basically unprecedented in baseball history – baseball fans of all stripes should be able to get behind a positive outcome here, one that should be a lot of fun to watch unfold.

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Rick Ankiel. Reason: “The Thing”. This is so shockingly, sadly accurate…

SS Cabathia
SS Cabathia

That was probably my favorite part of this whole article.