In his first start in almost a year, Michael Pineda went to his slider more often than he had in any game since April 2017. The pitch has become his bread-and-butter, and it’s just what the doctor ordered as the Twins ponder their key matchups this September and October.
Over the course of his decade-long career, Pineda has changed strikingly little, in terms of his essential pitch mix and approach. He has a four-seam fastball, a slider, and a changeup, with the changeup a third pitch restricted mostly to occasional use against left-handed batters. He works from the first-base side of the pitching rubber, uses a three-quarter delivery, and generates considerable natural cutting action on his fastball.
Because of that cut on the heat, Pineda’s slider has always been deceptive and effective against right-handed batters, because the spin axes of the two pitches are not terribly dissimilar. In fact, Pineda tweaked his release a bit in 2017, while he was still with the Yankees, making the fastball cut a bit less, but the slider break more vertically, and bringing the spin axes of the offerings more closely in line.
The black line connects the clusters representing his fastball and slider from 2011-16. The red line connects the clusters representing those pitches from 2017-20. The spin hitters try to pick up on a typical pitcher’s slider is very, very difficult to pick up on Pineda’s, because his fastball has such similar spin. Even the spin rates of the two pitches match more closely than those of many hurlers’ heaters and sliders, and those rates are quite low.
Most of Pineda’s movement comes from the plane he creates, by being 6-foot-7 and using a relatively upright delivery, along with the aforementioned arm angle. Since the start of last season, 331 pitchers have thrown at least 1,000 total pitches, and Pineda has the 24th-highest average release point. Unlike many of the pitchers releasing the ball at a similar sheer height, though, he doesn’t have an over-the-top delivery. That makes his stuff funky, even though it seems pretty vanilla in a cursory reading of his velocity, spin rate, and movement data. It also allows him to fill up the strike zone better than most hurlers, although as a result, he can be somewhat vulnerable to hard contact.
All of this was on display Tuesday night, as Pineda sliced and diced the White Sox with 36 sliders in just 81 total pitches. Chicago sent out their parade of league-leading mashers, but the majority of them (Tim Anderson, Eloy Jiménez, José Abreu, Edwin Encarnación, and Luis Robert, for instance) are right-handed. Pineda had an answer for them, in the form of a steadier diet of sliders than he has fed any lineup in years.
The Twins are, notably, cranking up the slider usage on virtually all of their pitchers this year, and not just against same-handed batters. Pineda, who has had virtually neutral platoon splits in recent years, gets much of his effectiveness from the vertical movement he creates, so he’s not usually as slider-heavy as other, lower-slot righties with more sweeping breaking balls would tend to be against a lineup like Chicago’s. However, Tuesday night was an early proof of concept: when he’s commanding that offering, and throwing it with conviction and regularity, he can be tougher on righties.
At this stage of his career, Pineda has a fairly flat fastball. It’s not as heavy as it was when he was younger, and when it straightens out inside the zone, it becomes very hittable. There’s a case to be made that he should ratchet up his slider usage even more in the future, forcing hitters to sit on that pitch and then going to the fastball as his change of pace. If Tuesday was progress on that front, it’s a welcome development. The White Sox are heavily right-handed, but the same can be said of the Astros (especially with Yordan Álvarez out for the year), Yankees, and Blue Jays, who are all prospective early-round playoff opponents. Pineda should keep developing comfort with the slider, because it’s the pitch that will take him as far as he can go for the Twins in 2020.
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