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Exploring a new way to analyze Michael Pineda

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We’ve tried to decipher Michael Pineda since the dawn of time, and, for the most part, our efforts have been fruitless. Perhaps a different approach is needed.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at New York Yankees Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

I promised myself I’d be done with Michael Pineda articles, moving on from the forever perplexing and paradoxical hurler. I thought I was finished after writing a piece that can be summarized with the ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ emoji. I threw in the towel on understanding how a player with so many strikeouts, so few walks, and such dazzling spurts of dominance can somehow end up with two straight seasons of an ERA over 4.30. Alas, the allure of Pineda has brought me back.

The single factor that causes me to fixate on Pineda is his amazing quality of his performance when he’s “on.” The former top prospect has a knack for making you feel that he’s suddenly discovered how to be an ace. It’s different from when a typically mediocre starter has a great game. Mike Leake has thrown seven innings of shutout ball before, but you’re still aware that it’s just Mike Leake on a very good day, not the discovery of an elite starter. With Pineda, he truly does look the part of a top-flight pitcher at times.

“Big Mike” may seem untouchable when dominating batters, but he’s equally hittable when things start to go off the rails. Whether it’s a result of a loss in fastball command, a slider that seemingly morphs from Randy Johnson’s frisbee to Boof Bonser’s meatball, or a combination of the two, Pineda’s bad days are just as extreme as his good days. That makes for an infuriating volatility that’s nearly impossible to grasp and understand.

This radical mix of good and bad has turned Pineda’s statistics into a muddy mess, with two distinct ways to view the pitcher that combines into nigh-worthless data. The numbers from Pineda on any website aren’t painting a true picture of who he is, as one can’t simply average out his performances and call it a day. With that in mind, it may help to analyze Pineda from a different viewpoint—by separating his best and worst days. That way, we can see him from two different perspectives, not just a single, combined one.

Elite Pineda Not-So-Elite Pineda
Elite Pineda Not-So-Elite Pineda
6/2, 6/25, 6/30, 7/20, 7/25, 9/20 4/6, 4/24, 5/11, 5/28, 7/15, 9/30
36 IP, 6 R (1.50 ERA), 55 K, 25 H, 9 BB, 3 HR, 142 BF 28.2 IP, 35 R (11.17 ERA), 35 K, 44 H, 9 BB, 14 HR, 141 BF

The table above lists Pineda’s six best and worst outings by Game Score; six is just an arbitrary number, but the Game Scores should provide an accurate measure of his success. While the statistics in the table alone aren’t too helpful in uncovering much about Pineda—it’s not shocking that he allowed more hits and home runs on his worst days—some observations stand out. Pineda walked the same number of batters in each group (in nearly equal sample sizes), remaining consistent in his low BB/9. This serves as part of the evidence to help reinforce a theory for the righty’s struggles: he has control (general location in and out the strikezone) but lacks command (specific location inside and outside the zone). His strike-throwing abilities don’t steer him astray, so what about his command?

It will be important to pick out which pitches Pineda struggles to spot. Of the three offerings, we can easily cross off the changeup as the culprit, as its low usage rate of 7.34%, combined with the fact that it’s often out of the strike zone (a ball 61.1% of the time), means it doesn’t have the game-changing effect we’re looking for. His primary pitch, a cutter, might be the culprit.

When Pineda is throwing well overall, his fastball is used half the time to the tune of a .457 slugging percentage against, a mark that is interestingly only about league average. We’ll come back to that later, but the notable part right now is what happens to that slugging percentage on Pineda’s worst days. Shockingly, it leaps to 1.164, which is unfortunately not a typo. When Pineda’s struggling, his fastball is absolutely pummeled, so this pitch could be the answer to the puzzle.

The heat maps pictured above show Pineda’s cutter location when things are good (left) and bad (right). The most significant takeaway is Pineda’s inability to stay away from the outer third of the zone with his fastball on his bad days, which can result in this:

Pineda’s four-seam/cutter hybrid leaks away from righties, and he easily loses control of the pitch, causing it to end up on the outside corner of the plate. This doesn’t sound awful, but the results show that Pineda should avoid pitching there at all costs.

Successfully staying away from that location will be a pivotal part of Pineda’s success, though he clearly had trouble doing so over the course of last season. That’s a result of shaky command. Pineda also has some trouble consistently climbing the ladder, but when he does, it often has better results. His fastball is nearly unhittable when spotted up (batters went just 3-for-29 last season on heaters above the strikezone), the result of a change in eye level after working with two pitches (the slider and changeup) which live down in the zone. Considering the lack of other places for him to go with the fastball, it’s especially important for Pineda to hit that spot when the catcher calls for it.

On the subject of his fastball, I should probably flash back to Pineda’s mediocre .457 slugging percentage allowed on the pitch on his best days. The reason for this is simple: Pineda’s fastball is flat. Yes, he gets above-average velocity on the pitch, but it both lacks in horizontal break and drop. Combine this with command issues and a shallow repertoire, and it’s easy to hit Pineda’s fastball regardless of where it’s thrown. Because of this, even when Pineda’s command is great, the pitch itself is only average, making his slider all the more important.

Pineda’s slider may be even more significant than the fastball when it comes to determining the success of starts. When Big Mike is throwing well, his slider is nearly untouchable, with opposing batters slugging just .153 against it in his six best outings. When things go haywire, the slider jumps to a .439 slugging percentage against. Considering the fact that this mark isn’t exactly awful despite Pineda’s struggles, one can see just how much pressure is placed on his swing-and-miss pitch to be dominant given a lack of other plus pitches.

Even though the slider isn’t disastrous when Pineda is, something clearly goes wrong that causes the slugging percentage on it to nearly triple. Surprisingly, it’s not a lack of break on the pitch:

Elite Pineda Not-So-Elite Pineda
Elite Pineda Not-So-Elite Pineda
1.38 in. horizontal movement 1.36 in. horizontal movement
1.12 in. vertical movement 1.14 in. vertical movement

Instead, the slider regression seems to be nearly entirely location-driven, and our handy homemade heat maps quite clearly show what goes wrong:

Pineda’s slider can be dominant, but it needs to be buried beneath the strike zone for that to happen. Down there, it’s very tough to hit (which is why he has such high strikeout totals), and when batters do manage to make contact, it’s almost impossible to lift and drive. So, when Pineda can pin the ball down on a consistent basis, things tend to go well. When the slider starts to float around the strike zone, it goes poorly. If nothing else, this could explain the massive differences between Pineda’s best and worst starts.

It remains a mystery whether or not Pineda can manage to correct his biggest issues—fastball and slider command—and turn into an above average pitcher next season. While the jury is still out, I have a less-than-optimistic outlook. Given Pineda’s flat fastball and lack of a real third pitch, the 27-year-old’s slider would need to be nearly perfect if he wanted to limit runs, and, well, it’s not.

To really improve next season, Pineda’s slider and fastball command will have to improve, and his changeup will also have to develop. Expecting all of those things to happen after two straight seasons of stagnation is foolish, so, unfortunately, it’s hard to envision Pineda taking a true step forward in his walk year.