If at any time in the last few months, you’ve found yourself thinking about how done you are with 2016, you probably have something in common with Michael Pineda. The enigmatic righty has had a soap opera of a career with the Yankees, filled with injuries, a pine tar-related suspension, a sky-high ERA, and promising peripheral stats. Even individual games feel like a roller coaster ride with Pineda. It seems like every time he pitches, he will strike out eight or nine hitters through four innings, only to implode in the fifth.
Despite having 10.61 K/9 in 32 starts, Pineda had a 4.82 ERA, due largely to his 1.38 HR/9 and a .339 opposing BABIP. After two seasons of poor batted ball numbers, it is tough to attribute his struggles to bad luck alone. He throws a fastball or slider over 90% of the time, and hitters put up a 1.001 OPS against his fastball in 2016. His heater has a below average spin rate, which could exacerbate the problems presented by his poor command.
Since the holidays should be about positivity, Pineda did appear to address one of the issues preventing him from living up to his potential. In July, I noted that Pineda was one of the least-effective pitchers in baseball with runners on base. My theory was that the strike-throwing Pineda tried too hard to avoid walking hitters with runners on base and ended up leaving fastballs over the heart of the plate.
After the All-Star break, Pineda showed a greater willingness to attack the corner of the strike zone, even with runners on base. Here is how he used his fastball with runners on base in the first half:
With runners on, Pineda’s fastball crept towards the middle of the strike zone. We all know what happened then. Here is how he located his heater in the second half, again with runners on base:
While he still threw some pitches down the middle, Pineda appeared to make a greater effort to keep his fastball on what would be the outside corner against righties. Even though he still gave up an unfortunate amount of home runs, his numbers with runners on base improved. His left on base percentage (LOB%) jumped from 66.7% in the first half to 75.7% after the All-Star break. Overall, his ERA dropped from 5.38 to 4.15.
The Yankees will gladly take a 4.15 ERA from Pineda over a full season. Assuming his extreme aversion to walking hitters was the reason for his horrendous numbers out of the stretch, it is reasonable to think he can pitch at a similar level in 2017. Of course, there is no substitute for fastball command or another secondary pitch. However, in the very least, Big Mike has taken a small step in the right direction.
Data is courtesy of FanGraphs, charts are courtesy of Baseball Savant.