clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Can Michael Pineda do the impossible and pitch himself out of the Yankees' rotation?

The bulk of Michael Pineda's Yankee tenure has been about potential, improvement and rehabilitation. Now he's just a guy trying to prove he's worth keeping around. He's not doing it all that well.

Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Around this time last year I was fan-crushing hard on Michael Pineda and arguing that he could be the Yankees' ace ahead of Masahiro Tanaka. In the poll attached to that article, 60 percent agreed with me, while CC Sabathia voted 19 times for himself. The wait was finally over...the career-threatening torn labrum and the surgery to repair it, the 811 days between the trade that sent Jesus Montero to Seattle in 2012 and Big Mike's eventual Yankee debut in 2014 and the pine tar and muscle strain-addled stops and starts of that season.

2015 was supposed to be the year we'd get to watch an elite talent sprint into his prime, and in the early goings, Pineda did not disappoint. On June 1st, the 6'7 right-hander was 7-2 with a 3.33 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP. Through 70.1 innings he'd struck out 76 while walking just 7.

Where that guy is now, I'm not so sure. Pineda allowed four of his AL-leading seven homers to Tampa Bay on Sunday afternoon while getting shellacked for seven earned runs and ten hits over five innings of work. Through the weekend he was the fifth worst pitcher in the league by FIP at 5.59. The last time Pineda recorded an out beyond the sixth inning was July 10th of last year. He's made fourteen starts since then. In the second half of 2015 his 5.80 ERA was seventh from the AL bottom among pitchers who threw over 50 innings. His K-rate dipped from 9.39 pre-All-Star break to 7.45.

Watching Pineda's rough starts and early exits is like sitting through a TV series that has great actors, smart writing and an interesting story but somehow still isn't good. If you list out all the things that should make a successful pitcher, Pineda seems to have them all. High velocity? Check. He might not possess the blazing heat he had in Seattle pre-labrum, but his average fastball has held steady around 93 since his return in 2014. It's averaging 92.7 this year. Stuff that's hard to connect with? You got it. Pineda's swinging strike rate this year is a ridiculous 16.6 percent. In 2015 it was 11.9, very close to the 12.0 he managed for the Mariners in 2011 while throwing 95. Control? He's got that, too. His excellent 2.05 walk rate so far is actually high compared with his 1.84 career mark. That's rare, especially for someone who has racked up about a strikeout per inning.

Yet the results aren't there. Pineda's ERA exceeded his FIP by 1.03 a year ago and by 1.36 this year so far. The 26.9 percent homer-to-fly ball ratio he's given up so far isn't sustainable and neither is his .377 BABIP, but there's a lot more to this than just bad luck. Pineda doesn't get enough soft contact. 86.8 percent of balls in play against him this year have been either medium or hard-hit and 62.7 percent have been line drives or flies. He supplies too much power for opposing hitters by leaving too many pitches up in the zone, especially fastballs, against which batters have OPS'd 1.519 this year and .861 in 2015.

He also seems to have trouble bearing down when he really needs an out. Career-wise, hitters hit .268/.342/.538 in high-leverage spots vs. .236/.377/.388 in low-leverage and .260/.304/.464 with runners on base vs. .226/.270/.362 with the bags empty. So it isn't just that he makes too many mistakes. It's that he tends to make them at the worst possible times.

Pineda's problems aren't impossible to fix, but it's getting a little late in the day for him to fix them as a Yankee. Despite all the waiting the Yankees and Yankee fans have done for Big Mike, the team doesn't really have that much invested in him. They're paying him a svelte $4.3 million in 2016. Even if he winds up posting a solid year, his final arbitration figure in 2017 should be proportionally reasonable. No matter what happens from here on in, as long as he doesn't spiral into ice cream sandwich chucking madness like the guy he was dealt for - or honestly, even if he does - the Yankees have already won the trade by miles and miles.

That makes you wonder just how long his leash might be. All spring the talk was about how long it would be before Sabathia was replaced in the rotation by Ivan Nova, but could Pineda eventually be the one to get Nova-caned? The awkward spot Nova's in now - not a part of the team's plans, but just kind of there - is one Pineda could find himself in soon. He could also be trade bait, especially if the Yankees aren't in the thick of things at the deadline. There's probably a team out there who thinks they can get more from him than the Yankees have.