Towards the end of the last decade, A.J. Burnett used to consistently frustrate Yankee fans, as it seemed like he was as likely to throw a shutout as he was to get tagged for eight runs. Last season, Shane Greene showed the ability to make an opposing lineup look silly at times, while failing to even find the strike zone on other days. In Greene's case, that trend has continued with the Detroit Tigers. Now it's starting to look like Michael Pineda is the same way.
Among the many confusing facets of Pineda's 2015 campaign is the fact that almost halfway in, he is still a major BABIP victim. So far, only Cleveland's Carlos Carrasco and Toronto's Drew Hutchison have a greater ERA minus FIP value. He has a groundball rate above 50%, more than one strikeout per inning, and just over one walk per nine innings. Like Carrasco, he gives up a lot of hard hits. Carrasco is 11th among qualified pitchers in hard hit percentage, while Pineda is 28th.
So he has strikeout stuff and barely walks anyone. If anything, he should have a lower BABIP and less hard-hit balls in play, right? Maybe not. Of the 104 qualified pitchers in the majors, Pineda is 22nd in Zone%. He is extremely aggressive when it comes to pounding the strike zone and getting ahead of hitters, which is inherently a pretty good thing. Falling behind in counts is never something to encourage, especially against MLB hitters.
But Pineda has also been one of the more deceptive pitchers in baseball. Hitters swing at 32.6% of pitches he throws outside the zone, good for 30th among qualified starters. There is also a lot of disparity between how hitters do when they swing at pitches inside the zone vs. outside the zone for Pineda. When it comes to contact rate on pitches in the zone (Z-Contact%) minus contact rate out of the zone (O-Contact%), Pineda's "Z-Contact% minus O-Contact%" is 18th among qualified pitchers. In the zone, hitters make contact on 85.7% of pitches. Outside the zone, that figure drops to just 59.1%.
The enigma continues when taking a closer look at his slider. According to Brooks Baseball, Pineda throws his slider a very substantial 33% of the time. His slider generates a respectable 17% whiff rate and generates grounders 57% of the time, a very encouraging sign. Interestingly, the average batted ball velocity on his slider is at 90.35 mph, the highest of his three pitches. For a comparison point, Max Scherzer's slider is hit at an average of 82.51 mph, also courtesy of Brooks Baseball. Not so surprisingly, hitters are only batting .196 against Pineda's slider. Also not very surprisingly, six of the nine home runs Pineda has surrendered have come on breaking balls.
Even if he is a strike thrower to a fault, pounding the strike zone is what gives Michael Pineda a fighting chance. In reality, Pineda might just be more of a strike thrower than a command artist. He throws almost all cutters in lieu of normal fastballs, which are inherently difficult to locate. There is a reason Orioles GM Dan Duquette has chosen to ban the pitch altogether. Throwing an abnormally large amount of sliders isn't exactly good for command, either.
For the time being, Larry Rothschild will have to try to develop some sort of contingency plan in case his slider isn't working on any given day. Pineda's changeup is coming along very nicely, so if he feels like he is having a "bad stuff day," he might consider throwing his changeup more instead of relying so heavily on his slider. Perhaps as he gets more repititions, Pineda's consistency will improve, and he will become the ace we have caught glimpses of in 2015.
Unless stated otherwise, data is courtesy of Fangraphs.