I’m writing this to the time travelers who came from 2014. Hello. First of all: nice to see you, and thanks for taking the time to come to our world. Second of all, don’t look at a newspaper because it’ll probably be really confusing. Thirdly, I’m assuming you’re a Yankees fan. If you are, then Michael Pineda is great!
Actually, Pineda isn’t great. He’s very bad. He may have put up a 1.89 ERA in 76.1 innings in your time, but in ours, we know that was mostly smoke and mirrors. In the 336.1 innings since then, he has posted a measly 91 ERA+ and just 2.9 rWAR. He has some statistical pluses: he struck out 595 batters in just 583.2 innings; he is also a FIP/DRA darling, rating near the top of the league in FIP- and DRA- despite having terrible results. This is a common theme in recent Yankees history, and in baseball history in general: a high ceiling and potential, but few results.
Even for someone unfamiliar with Pineda, like someone living in 2014, this pattern isn’t new, even though Yankees fans may pretend like it’s new. Here’s a brief history. First in our memory is AJ Burnett, who was a classic case of excellent talent but uneven results. While with the Yankees he helped the team win a World Series and in 2009 put up a respectable 114 ERA+, he only put together a 92 ERA+ total with the Yankees. He had a strikeout rate near eight batters per nine innings, but walked half that. The story was the same, that if only his command and situational awareness was better, then he would be nearly an ace. That nasty breaking ball reminds me of Pineda’s slider—it was as effective as it was erratic.
There was also Phil Hughes. Thought to be the next Roger Clemens, Hughes has had a respectable career that has still disappointed. He had four decent years: his setup role in 2009; his 18-8 record in 2010; a league-average ERA in 2012; and his 111 ERA+ and 0.7 BB/9 in 2015 with the Twins. It wasn’t as akin to Pineda and Burnett, but similar. If only everything clicked, then he would be the best pitcher in baseball.
If you go back even further, there was the likes of Jose Contreras, famed Cuban pitcher who only pitched a year and a half in pinstripes and was shipped to Chicago for Esteban Loaiza. Contreras, like with Burnett, shares the story of performing better after leaving New York; Contreras ended up having a league-average ERA over 900 innings with Chicago, nothing like we saw in the Bronx.
I could go on, and you can if you search through the old statistics. The point is that this is a common theme in Yankees history, and throughout baseball. Baseball talent, as Bill James once said, is like a pyramid. Every step that you move up the pyramid as far as talent goes, the pool of players cut in half. With each step it’s harder and harder to move up the pyramid, no matter how talented you are.
The fact is that the Yankees are dealing with a pitcher who is immensely talented, among the tippy-top of talent of baseball players in the entire world throughout human history. The little things—moving your slider a half-inch upward, for example—is what separates Michael Pineda from baseball’s truly elite. All we have is the talent, and all we can see is that it’s largely squandered.
The problem, then, lies in the placement of said talent. In those previous examples, that pitcher was not the sole provider. There were numerous pitchers throughout that era who more than compensated for a lack of performance from this crop—Mike Mussina, Roger Clemens, CC Sabathia—and those are the players who made that extra step. The problem is other than Masahiro Tanaka, there is no other pitcher or great talent to soften the blow.
That leaves you with a team that relies on high probability outcomes, the case where everything falls together. This becomes more problematic when you’re not spending as much on free agents, as those previous pitchers were, because those are the pitchers that provide coverage for said risk. I get that fans want to wait for the prospects to develop, and I feel that way as well, but relying heavily on a Pineda (or Eovaldi, even) is a side effect.
There will be more Pinedas and Burnetts. There will be. It’s up to the Yankees to provide the surrounding talent to allow them to fail or flourish without having the team’s season upon their shoulders. When that day comes, Yankees fans will still complain, but at least the team will be good. Now hold on, a guy is calling me from 2019 telling me that Michael Pineda won the Cy Young in Pittsburgh.