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Location is key to Michael Pineda’s early success in 2017

The Yankees right-hander struggled with two-strike counts in 2016. Could that be a thing of the past?

Baltimore Orioles v New York Yankees Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Michael Pineda worked himself into early trouble against the Orioles on Saturday. In the first inning, he faced Manny Machado with a runner on and only one out recorded. After falling into a 3 - 2 count, the Orioles third baseman fouled off several of Pineda’s best offerings. On the twelfth pitch of the at-bat, Pineda buried a slider in the dirt. Machado swung right over it.

This battle impressed me for two reasons. First, Machado is a consistently tough out. His career 118 wRC+ almost undersells that. On Friday night, he launched the longest home run of the 2017 season. Machado absolutely punishes mistakes. Second, Pineda seemed to struggle in these situations last season. He would jump out ahead early but could never finish batters off. It was especially bad with runners on base. He wilted in those situations.

That’s not a dramatization, either. Sometimes narratives can exaggerate, but the numbers back this one up. Batters hit .187/.246/.286 against Pineda in two-strike counts last season. This mark registered well below league average. In the early goings of 2017, however, Pineda seems to have reined in those numbers. Batters have hit .137/.137/.196 against him in two-strike counts this season. That’s a noticeable improvement.

What could explain this development? The popular narrative suggested that Pineda suffered lapses in concentration. Social media broadcasted a number of armchair sport psychologists who noted that Pineda’s problems resided in his head, not his arm. I find those answers unsatisfying, however. In the age of information, it makes more sense to consult the data before writing off a problem as concentration-related.

A cursory glance of some pitch charts reveal an interesting trend. Last season, in two-strike counts with runners on base, Pineda left a number of pitchers over the plate. Most of those were cement-mixer sliders. Batters turned on them and made Pineda pay.

This season, however, Pineda is avoiding the danger zone. His slider is breaking downward. It has a sharper bite to it. Could the difference stem from increased concentration? Perhaps, but that’s impossible to measure. The tangible evidence suggests that Pineda is locating his out-pitch more effectively.

Granted, the season is still young, so the sample sizes are inherently wonky. The trends, however, are still worth monitoring. After five starts, he has established a baseline. I’m also inclined to give these measurements some credence because Pineda said he would do as much. He identified this problem as an area in need of improvement.

“I watch my games from last season, and I need to be better focused when I’m pitching,’’ he told Pete Caldera in spring training. “(When I get) two strikes, I need to finish – especially after two outs.” So far he appears to be have done just that. With improved command, he’s tackled a problem that plagued him for all of 2016.

The Yankees currently own the best record in all of baseball. For that to happen, a team needs contributions on both sides of the ball. The lineup needs to hit and the pitchers have to record outs. Pineda has been a solid force in the middle of the rotation. His improvement with two-strike counts is a pleasant development, and a factor in the Yankees’ success.

Data courtesy of FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, and Baseball Savant.