It’s the classic Michael Pineda reaction—his arm flung through the air, straight from release to his right hip, his whole body twisting to watch the path of the ball as it leaves the park, and his confounding countenance as he scratches his head, shocked that yet another pitch has found its way into the outfield stands for a home run.
Without fail, Pineda finds a way to look astonished, staggered, and simply confused at how he’s given up yet another run. Even by the end of the season, when the 27-year-old held a 4.82 ERA over 175.2 innings, each and every runner crossing the plate was a curious and unexpected wound that Pineda couldn’t possibly have seen coming.
Despite the many small (and large) failures of Pineda, it’s not completely unfathomable that he’s confused by the end result. Hell, we’re just as befuddled by the struggles, which explains the constant stream of articles trying to get to the bottom of Pineda’s unbelievably good 2014, disappointing 2015, and horrific 2016. A player with as much talent as Pineda simply shouldn’t be as hittable as he is, so it’s only natural for baseball fans, analysts, and even the players themselves to wonder what has gone awry.
Given that one of the best statistical predictors for future success is K-BB%, Michael Pineda should lie in the upper echelon of pitchers. Possessing both huge strikeout stuff (he had the fifth highest K/9 in baseball last season) and a very solid ability to keep the ball in the strikezone (40th best BB/9 in the league), all the ingredients are there for Pineda to be an elite arm.
Pineda’s performance last season didn’t stop at perplexing mere humans, though. Complex statistical systems, such as Baseball Prospectus’ DRA, were simply broken by his nonsensical performance. He was worth 5.6 WARP in 2016 with a 2.58 DRA—both marks better than pitchers like Noah Syndergaard, Madison Bumgarner, Jon Lester, and a bevy of other sure-fire aces—despite a painful 4.82 ERA that was seventh worst in baseball among qualified starters.
Still, the breaking of human and computer minds is understandable considering Pineda’s incredible peripherals, which all point to a pitcher who should be stingy with runs. Only eight starting pitchers since 1901 have managed to post a K/9 and BB/9 as good as Pineda (10.61 and 2.72, respectively), and all have names that strike fear into batters’ hearts. Pineda seems just a bit out of place among Syndergaard, Chris Sale, Clayton Kershaw, Curt Schilling, Jose Fernandez, Max Scherzer, Pedro Martinez, and Randy Johnson, and so does his performance.
Those aforementioned eight arms combined for a 2.49 ERA in the seasons they accomplished the requisite K/9 and BB/9 values, and the highest ERA among any of them sat at 3.41 (Chris Sale in 2015). Pineda had a 4.82 ERA last season, because of course he did.
Even when looking past the numbers and onto Pineda’s performance on the field, it’s obvious why many have such high hopes. On any given day, Pineda can come step onto the field with an arsenal containing a fastball that tops out at 98 mph and sits in the mid-nineties, a nasty slider that can be unhittable, and a pair of secondary pitches in his changeup and cutter which both flash plus movement. When all four pitches are working, the results are otherworldly—over the past two seasons, he has tallied up starts with 16, 12, 11, and 10 strikeouts, each time looking like the ace the Yankees hoped they snatched from the Mariners in the infamous Pineda-for-Montero trade.
Unfortunately, all four pitches are rarely on, and, in the most frustrating of scenarios, some of his offerings can teeter between good and bad, before deciding to hang up in the zone, asking to be pummeled into the seats for a home run. That high-octane fastball is disappointingly straight, and the slider can switch from Noah Syndergaard to Jered Weaver in the blink of an eye. The changeup can morph from a pitch that looks like it weighs 100 pounds to one that floats into the middle of the strikezone, and the cutter quickly turns into a fastball with Kyle Hendricks’ velocity but none of his elite command.
As soon as the slider goes south, things can quickly implode. If hitters don’t have to watch out for that offering, the fastball becomes far too easy to hit, especially if his secondary offerings come out of the gate flat. Even if the slider fails for a single pitch, it can be pounded, and any of his other “weapons” are just as liable to be taken deep.
To make it worse, Pineda’s low walk rates are deceptive. While he can place his pitches somewhere in the rectangular strikezone, he can rarely pinpoint where those strikes end up. There’s a big difference between a ball right down the middle and one on the outside corner, and these few inches often end in disaster for Pineda. It’s the key difference between control and command, and have crippled the 6’5” man in the past.
For a pitcher with the upside, pedigree, and talent Pineda flashes, he’ll be given plenty of second, third, and fourth chances despite failure on the mound time and again. Even during a ruthless mid-summer stretch that saw Pineda’s ERA top out at 6.92, the Yankees refused to pull Pineda from the rotation, and he responded with a good-but-not-good-enough performance: just enough to give everyone hope for next season, but not enough to fully resuscitate his and the Yankees’ season.
Pineda will, of course, dazzle at times, but far more often he’ll disappoint, and it’s unlikely this will change. It’s impossible to quantify a maddening trend of hanging just one too many pitches in an at bat, so his peripherals will always be far too optimistic. It’s just as challenging to move past Pineda’s sometimes incredible performances and look at him with a much more pessimistic, but realistic, eye.