There probably hasn’t been a bigger story in any camp this spring than Michael Pineda’s missing velocity. After throwing 94-97 in Seattle last year, he’s been 89-93 so far this spring, though he did pump a few 94 MPH fastballs in his most recent start on Tuesday. While it’s still important to realize that this reduced velocity isn’t entirely new, you also would have expected Pineda to throw harder by now if he was physically able to do it at this point.
Once his velocity became such a big story, it would have been fairly simple for Pineda to calm everyone’s nerves by tossing out a 96 or 97 MPH fastball if he was just holding back and not throwing at full effort. That he’s only been up to 94 suggests that, whether due to conditioning or some other factor, he’s probably not able to throw as hard at the moment as he did last year. That doesn’t mean he won’t be able to again, but it does create some questions about what the Yankees should do with Pineda now that the season is just a couple of weeks away.
My suggestion – follow the Madison Bumgarner model and have him begin the season in Triple-A.
The situations aren’t exactly analogous, since Bumgarner only had 10 Major League innings under his belt when he showed up for spring training in 2010. However, like Pineda, Bumgarner was experiencing a dramatic shift down in velocity, sitting in the high-80s when he’d previously been clocked in the 92-95 range in the minors. Bumgarner’s 2010 spring was a total disaster, as he walked seven guys and failed to strike out a single batter in seven innings of work. The Giants optioned him out to the minors, and even for his first four starts down there, he was a wreck – 17.1 IP, 16 R, 10 BB, 9 K.
But, with some adjustments, the velocity and the performance started to come back. He started missing bats in Triple-A, getting minor league hitters out, and by mid-summer, the Giants called him back to the big league club. He still wasn’t throwing quite as hard as he had previously, but he had learned to be effective without his top fastball. And then, as the season went on, his previous fastball came back.
By the end of the year, Bumgarner was throwing in the 91-95 range again, and by September, he was dominating, running a 32/4 K/BB ratio in 32 innings. He hasn’t stopped pitching well since.
The Yankees should look at Bumgarner and be encouraged. Not every pitcher who has mysteriously lost their top end fastball has had to live without it forever. If Pineda is not compensating for an injury (and at this point, there haven’t been any indications that he is), there is a real chance that his velocity could return. However, it may behoove the Yankees to let him get his fastball back in the minors, at least to begin the season.
For most teams, they wouldn’t have the luxury of sending Pineda down, but the Yankees have six starting pitchers for five spots. No, Freddy Garcia is not a world beater, but he mixes his pitches well enough to be a serviceable back-end starter. Having him make three starts in April isn’t going to inflict significant damages on the Yankees chances of winning the AL East, and because of the off days in the early season schedule, the Yankees can shift his starts around to give him the most favorable match-ups possible.
The gap in expected runs allowed between Garcia and Pineda is around 0.35 runs per start, so over three starts in April, the Yankees should expect Garcia to give up approximately one more run than Pineda would in those same three starts. And, honestly, that’s with a fairly rosy projection for Pineda given the uncertainty around his performance due to his current diminished velocity. The reality is that, over three starts, there’s really not going to be much of a gain or loss either way.
However, giving Pineda the chance to begin the season in the minors could benefit the Yankees in two real ways:
1. He gets a chance to build his arm strength back up outside of the fishbowl that is New York, where every pitch he throws will be highly scrutinized.
2. The Yankees will convert Pineda’s free agent eligibility in 2016 into a year of team control through arbitration instead.
While I wouldn’t argue in favor of a team sending down a pitcher solely for the purpose of gaming the service time system, Pineda has lost his ability to argue that he has nothing further to gain from a short stint in the minor leagues. The Yankees can easily justify the decision to send him down as a baseball related decision, and reap the rewards of the extra year of team control without needing to do anything underhanded in order to get it.
If Pineda was throwing 95-97 and looking strong, it wouldn’t be a consideration. At 90-94, and taking 20+ pitches to get through an inning against spring training competition, it should be. Especially with Andy Pettitte on the comeback trail, the Yankees do not need Michael Pineda to begin the season. The goal should be to get him throwing well by the end of the year so that he can prepared to be a real weapon for the team in the playoffs. Sacrificing a few early-season Major League starts may just be the best way to get Pineda in the best shape possible for October, and could get the Yankees an extra year of service from him in the process.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.