The Very Simple Explanation for the Better Michael Pineda

As I check the latest version of the leaderboard, I see that Michael Pineda currently leads all pitchers in WAR. Granted, it’s by only a little. Granted, a chunk of that just happened Sunday. And granted, WAR is a rough tool, especially for pitchers. Lots of stuff going on there. But something we know for sure: higher-WAR pitchers are better than lower-WAR pitchers. The guys at the top of the leaderboard are better than the guys at the bottom. And Pineda’s got an extraordinary strikeout-and-walk differential. Not only is it really good; in terms of K% – BB%, Pineda has gotten better by 10 percentage points, relative to last season. Only Danny Salazar is showing a bigger step forward so far in the American League.

Whenever you see a bump in performance like that, you have to wonder what changed. The first place a lot of people look is repertoire. And looking at the repertoire has a few steps — people look for new pitches, or new movement on old pitches, or new pitch mixes, or changing velocities. Sometimes people also look for changed release points. So goes the search for improvement explanations. As for Michael Pineda? He’s not throwing anything new. He hasn’t changed his movements or his arm slot, and his pitch mix is fairly similar. His pitches aren’t going faster. The explanation here seems to be one of the most difficult to prove, but also the simplest to convey. Pineda, from the looks of things, just has better command.

He’s never been wild. He’s always been a strike-thrower, even through the minor leagues. It’s one of the things that made him stand out as a tantalizing power pitcher. Pineda already had a lot of things going in his favor. Quality stuff. Control. Deceptiveness, apparently:

“It’s really tough to pick up his delivery. When guys like that are on, it’s really tough on hitters, Hardy said. “Very deceptive.”

But while Pineda’s location was fine, even prime Cliff Lee had room for improvement. You can always try to better your command, and Pineda’s taken strides forward.

It was in last week’s chat, I think, someone asked how you can measure command. To be honest, you can’t. There has been such thing as COMMANDf/x, available to teams, but we’ve pretty much never heard anything about it. You can guess at command, based on other things, or you can try to look for proxies. You can’t measure overall command because pitching sequences are complicated, and they don’t follow obvious pitch-to-pitch patterns. But sometimes you can isolate pitches that seem like they were trying to do the same thing. As one example, let’s consider Pineda throwing two-strike fastballs.

What Pineda has demonstrated is that he likes to elevate his heater when he’s close to a strikeout. He’s like a lot of other guys, in that way. What that doesn’t mean is that every single two-strike Pineda fastball has been intended to be high, but we can still look at the data. For the last two years, here are Pineda’s rates of two-strike fastballs thrown in or beyond the upper half of the zone:

2014: 72%
2015: 88%

That suggests that Pineda has been locating his fastball better. Here’s a high-but-not-too-high fastball from Sunday’s dominant outing:

pineda-high-fastball

Right on target, outer edge, near the belt. The two previous pitches were similar, but that didn’t make a difference.

We can try something with secondary pitches, too. Pineda throws both a changeup and a slider, and while some of them probably were supposed to stay up, the majority of these pitches are supposed to be low. High sliders are hanging sliders. High changeups are hanging changeups, or Jered Weaver changeups. These pitches are generally supposed to be around the knees, or lower. So let’s look at the rate of secondary pitches thrown no more than two feet above the ground:

2014: 51%
2015: 60%

That’s also indicative of improvement. A perfect slider, and for a called strike to boot:

pineda-slider

There’s still something else, that has less to do with location statistics. Michael Pineda’s changeup has been a priority for years. He came up as a fastball/slider guy, and much of the conversation was about how he could use a third pitch to keep lefties honest. The change has been a project. Last season, his changeup rate increased a little bit. This season, it’s increased more, and Pineda has also shown a good number of changeups to right-handed hitters, which requires a certain confidence. What seems to be the case is that Pineda has better command of both his secondary pitches.

A low changeup, for a ball, but a good ball:

pineda-changeup

It’s interesting also that, overall, Pineda has been working down more often, and his groundball rate has suddenly shot north of 50%. Not only does that speak to the secondary pitches — it’s some evidence that Pineda has been locating his fastball lower in the zone earlier in counts. He was more of a fly-ball guy in the past, but this change could be another effect of better location. This, as an example, is an extremely tough fastball, and by commanding a low heater and a high heater, Pineda basically gives himself two different weapons:

pineda-low-fastball

What hasn’t been proven is that Michael Pineda has superior command. Yet, there’s reason to believe that’s true, that he’s been better able to spot all three of his pitches. Where does better command come from, in the absence of meaningful mechanical tweaks? The answer is just boring old consistency. Consistency in throwing motions, of pitches and between pitches. Fewer little deviations. Fewer cases of letting the game speed up. Greater control of the whole body. It’s an improvement you can’t see in a graph or a .gif. Not conclusively and directly. Yet it’s the most important sort of improvement for any given pitcher in the professional ranks. Command isn’t everything, but it’s a greater amount of everything than everything else.

Yet there’s the uncertainty. Two kinds of it, really. There’s not knowing whether you’re really seeing better command, and there’s not knowing how sticky it is, if what you’re seeing is true. What it looks like is that Pineda has had better command this season to this point. That would be, without question, encouraging. But, how encouraging? How predictive is a command improvement? I don’t know the answer to that. It’s easier to get a grasp of changes to delivery or arsenal. Those are more cut and dry. I don’t know how long it takes for a pitcher to prove he’s got a more consistent throwing motion.

But for Michael Pineda, everything’s pointing up. That much, we can be certain of. His numbers are getting stronger, he’s becoming increasingly dependable, and even his velocity is ticking north. At the beginning, it felt like the Yankees’ fate hinged on the health of Masahiro Tanaka. Now it’s not even clear whether he’s the No. 1.





Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Jesus Montero
7 years ago

Why no article on MY improvement this year?

http://www.fangraphs.com/statss.aspx?playerid=5514&position=C/DH

Lenardmember
7 years ago
Reply to  Jesus Montero

Because you’re in AAA with a 1.7% walk rate and a .382 BABIP.

Paul
7 years ago
Reply to  Jesus Montero

Why are you worried about an article when they made a whole movie about you called Bull Durham.

Bryz
7 years ago
Reply to  Paul

I don’t recall any ice cream sandwich incidents in Bull Durham, though.