Michael Pineda is a big guy with a power pitcher's reputation, but quietly, he's become much more dependent on command and control. Luckily, there's evidence that he has some of the best of each in all of baseball.
The Twins re-signed Michael Pineda to a two-year deal worth $20 million back in December, on the premise that he had regained his pre-Tommy John form down the stretch and proved himself as a viable mid-rotation starter.
Despite the suspension that will steal a quarter of his 2020, Minnesota’s front office believes he can provide stability and upside for the balance of the season, based on last year’s progression.
Pineda is a very tough pitcher to figure out, though, and whether or not the team made a good bet depends heavily on whether his good command can continue to outweigh his pedestrian stuff.
By most of the currently popular pitching metrics, Pineda is somewhat unimpressive. His cFIP (a Baseball Prospectus metric that isolates factors over which a pitcher has the most control, but which does not fall victim to some of the oversmoothing tendencies of other fielder-independent statistics) was 105 in 2019, marking him as worse than an average hurler. Statcast has six buckets into which it sorts tracked batted balls. Pineda gave up the two most damaging types — Barrels and Solid Contact — in a higher percentage of opponent plate appearances than all but 14 other pitchers.
His average fastball velocity has dipped over the years, and is now lower than the average for a right-handed starter without exceptional durability. His spin rate on the fastball is in the fifth percentile among all qualifying pitchers, which leads to heavy movement on the pitch — but because it’s still relatively straight, batters are able to lift it consistently.
His slider once had considerable movement separation from the heater, but that’s become muted over the last two seasons in which he’s pitched, leading to fewer grounders on the slider, too. Indeed, Pineda was once a reliable ground-ball guy, but last year, 114 of the 130 pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched had higher ground-ball rates than he had.
Pineda’s always been vulnerable to hard contact, and even during his strong finish to 2020, he gave up a fair amount of that, with opponents’ average exit velocity against him in the upper quartile of the league. Even worse, now that he’s not getting grounders, Pineda also allows a lot of that contact within the launch-angle band in which batters have the most success.
Of the 129 pitchers who allowed at least 300 batted balls in 2019, Pineda allowed the 24th-highest Sweet Spot percentage. His changeup isn’t great, either, which makes containing left-handed batters and getting through opposing lineups for a third time a constant struggle for Pineda. However, he did throw his fastball and changeup more (and his slider less) against lefties in 2019 than ever before, and that led to more success than usual in those situations.
When it comes to sheer whiffs per pitch or swing, Pineda is impressive, fitting into the top quartile of the league. However, he’s not even in the top tertile of the majors in actual strikeout rate. It seems as though, because Pineda’s repertoire remains limited, batters are able to guess along with him in certain counts and situations, minimizing the value of his granular, pitch-for-pitch numbers.
Despite all that, however, Pineda had a 4.01 ERA, in a league that averaged 4.60. The only AL hurlers who topped 100 innings and allowed a lower walk rate were Mike Leake and Ryan Yarbrough. Without sexy stuff or a deep arsenal, Pineda was very good for most of 2019, and projects relatively well for 2020, because he does a simple and vital thing very well: he fills the zone with fastballs, and expands it with breaking stuff.
Over 400 pitchers threw at least 200 four-seam fastballs in 2019. Among them, Pineda ranked in the 97th percentile for Called Strike Probability — in essence, the average likelihood that fastballs he threw would have been called strikes, if batters didn’t swing.
Some 245 pitchers, meanwhile, threw at least 200 sliders. Pineda’s Called Strike Probability for that pitch ranked in the seventh percentile. An average fastball from Pineda had a 59 percent chance of being called a strike, and given the lack of either extreme velocity or rising action on the pitch, that made hitters very eager to attack. However, if they saw fastball but got a slider, they were likely to find themselves waving at a pitch that otherwise had a 36 percent chance of being called a strike.
Unlike more straightforward, quantitative stats, Called Strike Probability is an extremely nuanced characteristic. It’s captured in a single number, but it’s hard to say what the optimal number is for any individual pitcher or pitch, except by understanding the pitch’s place in the pitcher’s repertoire and the constellation of characteristics that make up that hurler.
For Pineda, however, it’s pretty easy to see how this works. Fastballs have to be strikes consistently, or else a pitcher starts racking up far too many walks. Breaking balls, and especially sliders, need to end up consistently outside the zone. Pineda did that better than ever in 2019, burying the slider not only more consistently, but further below the zone, reducing the chance that a hitter would even happen to reach down and golf a shin-high pitch somewhere.
His lack of power or strikeout skill gives Pineda a thin margin for error. He has to repeat the command gains he made in 2019, especially since he’s unlikely to get back the velocity he once had. However, the Twins made multiple bets on command over stuff this winter, suggesting that they trust Wes Johnson and their support staff to help pitchers maintain that trait. That makes the deal to which they signed Pineda a reasonable risk, even if it seems a bit old-fashioned.
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