Michael Pineda is having a hard time right now. Not when it comes to plate appearances ended by the umpire — his strikeout minus walk percentage is 21st in the big leagues, just ahead of Jake Arrieta’s. Usually that’s good enough, since K-BB% was once shown to be the best in-season predictor, and because it’s hard to be bad if you’re striking a bunch of guys out and not really walking anyone.
Usually. But not right now. Not in the Bronx, at least. Because, since 2000, nobody has recorded a K-BB% over 15% (Pineda is at 17.7% currently) and suffered from a worse batting average on balls in play. Nobody has allowed more homers per nine innings in that group, either. After contact, the ball has not been Pineda’s friend.
Still, we might just chalk it up to luck and call it a day. We might, if it wasn’t so obvious from watching Pineda that he’s having trouble with command and that things aren’t quite right.
The homers are the most obvious thing. You might think a guy with mostly just a fastball and a slider would have troubles with lefties. He’s given up eight homers to righties against three to lefties, in similar samples (112 lefties faced, 136 righties). So it’s not just a bunch of hanging sliders to lefties.
Let’s try and blame a pitch. Maybe one of these is worse than the others.
That one really leaps off the page at you, huh? The changeup! He’s never given up a home run on the changeup before this year. He’s given up… (scans the page)… two this year! Take those two homers out and he’s giving up 1.5 homers per nine. Huh. Even though he hasn’t trusted his change as much this year, that can’t be it.
Command still seems important here. If only it weren’t the hardest thing to quantify. Bill Petti’s Edge% shows that, currently, Pineda is throwing fewer balls in the heart of the zone than ever before. But his overall zone percentage is also the lowest he’s ever recorded, so he’s throwing more non-competitive pitches.
How about hanging breaking balls? I developed a few measures to try and quantify breaking-ball command for The Hardball Times Annual last year. I looked at average height in the strike zone and average drop for curve balls in one-strike counts. In those counts, pitchers most likely want a swing and a miss, so it seems most fair to judge those breaking balls by how low in the zone they cross the plate, and how much drop they have.
|Year||Average Height||Average Drop|
Pineda’s slider is the tiniest bit flat this year. But he’s also burying them, nearly a full four inches lower on average. There’s no smoking gun here.
If it’s not one pitch, perhaps it’s all of them? Strangely, Pineda’s vertical release point is the highest of his career and he’s seeing the worst drop of his career on all of his pitches. Maybe not so strangely — we know there’s a relationship between arm angle and rise, so basically he’s getting more rise on his pitches, and it’s not working out to his advantage. He did lose some cut on his breaking pitches, but has righted the ship on that front to some extent.
Is it something we can see with our eyes? Here’s a still upon (fastball) release from last year (left) and this year (right). Doesn’t seem very different.
To sum up so far, Pineda’s relationship of strikeouts to walks is about the same as it’s been previously in his career. That relationship is in good shape. He’s been getting spanked on balls in play, and subjectively, the command looks off, but none of our metrics for command tells us much. His breaking ball is moving about the same as usual and crossing the plate lower than usual, and he’s missing the heart of the plate more than usual, not the sort of indicators you normally associate with poor command.
What we can say is that he’s not getting the ball in the zone as much, his arm angle is a little different, and his stuff is the tiniest bit flat this year. Looking at the non-competitive pitches — a pitch more than 2.5 feet from the center of the zone per the working definition August Fagerstrom used for a post this past November — he’s throwing 1.8% of his pitches in the non-competitive zone, mostly on the plate or in the dirt this year, compared to 1.0% last year.
There’s no indication that any of these things are flaws Pineda can’t correct. As much as it seems impossible, the facts remain that Pineda is still getting the whiffs, not walking the ballpark, and not showing signs of injury. It might even be a matter of confidence — get hit around a little and you will probably finish some of your sliders so hard that they bounce on the plate. Whatever it is, the fix will probably be less drastic than the (seeming) problems.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.