When Masahiro Tanaka was sent to the DL, it was assumed by most Yankee fans that Michael Pineda would be the de facto ace of the staff. Pineda's ability has been well known for a while, as the Yankees traded catcher Jesus Montero for him. Montero, believe it or not, was once a super-prospect who drew comparisons to Mike Piazza. After a labrum tear that which sidelined him for the 2012 and 2013 seasons, Pineda pitched in 13 games in 2014, impressing fans over a small sample size.
One pine tar-related incident aside, Pineda was very good in 2014. He pitched to a 1.79 ERA, a 2.71 FIP, and maintained a 8.4 K/BB ratio. This season, the K/BB ratio is even higher early on at 12.7, and he is continuing to impress wherever he pitches. But is this incarnation of Michael Pineda the real deal? His peripheral stats seem to point in that direction.
The pinpoint control shown by Pineda thus far should not come as a surprise. However, his groundball rate has increased drastically, jumping from 39.1% in 2014 to 54% this season. When trying to guess whether Pineda is really this good, a logical first step would be determining which year's groundball rate was a fluke. Neither his 2014 season nor his 2015 campaign provides a great sample size, but looking at his repertoire, it seems like the groundball-inducing Pineda is here to stay.
Ironically, the blazing four-seam fastball that attracted the Yankees to Pineda is pretty much gone from his arsenal. During his time on the DL, Pineda quietly added a cutter. Depending on who you ask, his cutter has either partially or completely replaced his traditional fastball. Brooks Baseball says he hasn't thrown a four-seam fastball this season, while FanGraphs says he has. Regardless, FanGraphs puts the average vertical movement of his four-seamer at 6.7 inches, which is more in the cutter range. Whatever you want to call it, his hard stuff should continue to generate a good amount of groundballs.
His increased usage of his changeup provides more evidence that he should be getting groundballs. Baseball Prospectus has his average changeup velocity at 87.72 mph, which puts him at eighth place among pitchers who have thrown at least 50 changeups. Throwing a changeup at a higher velocity is known to correlate positively with groundball percentages, so it is not surprising that he is keeping the ball out of the air this season.
So will Pineda come crashing down to earth? I wouldn't bet on Pineda keeping a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 12 throughout the season. Then again, I wouldn't bet on anyone doing that. Still, it is important to realize that almost everything he has done this season has been with diminished velocity:
Pineda quietly started the season sitting around the low 90's. Perhaps his stellar results kept people from caring too much. But he seems to be creeping back up on the radar gun. Any minor regression he sees in command should be offset by his pitch speeds returning to normal. His velocity has been decreasing throughout games as well, so there could be an element of Pineda still building up his stamina. Still, it looks as if Big Mike is officially here to stay. Move over, Matt Harvey, Gotham's reckoning is here.