Somehow we’re already into the second week of 2022. As the temperatures plummet in the Northeast, there appears to be little chance of lockout talks thawing, at least not for the next two weeks. Just like the icy relations between union and owners, the Yankees remained frozen in place prior to the expiry of the last CBA, choosing not to reinforce a flawed roster.
Despite the group of impact starting pitchers signed in November, it never appeared the Yankees were interested in any of them. As Jake pointed out yesterday, New York may be content with the roster — in particular the rotation — as it stands, viewing it as good enough. Indeed, the rotation was one of the lone bright spots of last season, outperforming expectations, and the unit again projects to be one of the stronger units in baseball. As such, I won’t hold my breath for any big-money signing, with any reinforcements likely coming in the form of back-end additions. To that end, could a reunion with Michael Pineda be in the cards?
2021 Stats: 22 games, 109.1 IP, 3.62 ERA, 4.21 FIP, 4.29 xFIP, 7.2 K/9, 1.7 BB/9, 1.4 fWAR
Pineda originally joined the Yankees in 2012 in return for massively hyped top catching prospect Jesús Montero. He wouldn’t pitch his first game for the Yankees until the 2014 season after suffering a serious shoulder injury in 2012, and despite two solid campaigns in 2015 and 2016, saw much of his Yankees tenure hampered by injury. A UCL tear in 2017 eventually led to New York letting him walk in free agency, and he would play three seasons in four years for the Twins. Still, there were some memorable moments including a 16-strikeout, no-walk gem on Mother’s Day in 2015 — moments that left Yankees fans yearning for more from the promising righty.
Fast forward five years and Pineda once again hits the open market, this time as a soon-to-be 33-year-old veteran. He’s no longer the hard thrower he once was in the Bronx, but he showed in 2021 that he still has something left in the tank — when he was on the field.
Unfortunately for Pineda, that wasn’t too often. He once again saw a season interrupted by injury, landing on the IL for three separate stints with thigh, elbow, and oblique issues. It’s a constant story for the 6-foot-7, 280-pound righty, as he has missed two full seasons and over 500 days total to various injuries. He’s only breached 160 innings three times — most recently in 2016 — and has only pitched 378.1 innings since the start of 2017.
That alone might be enough to scare the Yankees away, but if not, let’s look at the aspects that made Pineda effective in his eighth big league campaign. Pineda excels in two areas above all else: limiting free passes and getting hitters to expand the zone. Among starters with at least 100 innings pitched in 2021, Pineda placed fifth overall in walk rate (4.6 percent) and chase rate (37 percent), a quite remarkable feat when you consider the names around him on those leaderboards.
He achieved this thanks to a pair of nasty secondary pitches. His slider is his main put-away pitch, sitting around 35 percent whiff and strikeout rates. It’s a pitch that rarely exceeds a .250 xwOBA against and tunnels well off his four-seamer.
The changeup is the pitch that intrigues me the most. Dating back to 2017, his offspeed routinely achieves 90th percentile or better horizontal movement. Considering the success pitching coach Matt Blake has had in developing the changeup across the Yankees pitching staff, I would be interested to see what he could do with Pineda’s change.
All this being said, there we some clear signs of decline in 2021 that should raise some red flags. Pineda posted career worsts in exit velocity, hard hit rate, barrel rate, xwOBA, and xwOBA on contact, and sat in the bottom third of the league in virtually every Statcast metric outside of walk rate and chase rate. A year older and having suffered three more injuries, it’s fair to worry about those trends for Pineda.
Pineda will always be one of those tantalizing “what could have been” pitchers who never realized his full potential due to injury. He’s not someone you can pencil in for 28-plus starts or 160-plus innings per season, and certainly should not be the only addition to a rotation that’s a few hands short. However, as a pitcher who can still reliably get outs and with some serviceable upside when healthy, the Yankees could do worse than a reunion with Big Mike as one of several moves to shore up the back-end of their rotation.