Michael Pineda was a popular pick to breakout prior to the beginning of the 2016 Yankees season. Pineda struggled through a rough start to the season against the Astros, but given his exciting arsenal and excellent career peripherals, those who pegged Pineda for a breakthrough this season shouldn't be discouraged by one bad game. However, in that lackluster first outing, Pineda displayed many of the same problems that plagued his 2015 campaign; problems that, if not addressed, could negatively impact his year to come.
Pineda had a lot of trouble when it came to preventing hard contact last season. It's tempting to designate his .332 BABIP and 14.7% home run to fly ball ratio as signs of bad luck, but Pineda's line drive rate and hard contact rate in 2015 were both above league average. Pineda certainly may have been somewhat unlucky, but a good portion of his struggles were a result of his own inability to suppress hard contact.
The issues prevalent in 2015 were again present on Wednesday night. Pineda did strike out five and walk none, but he was knocked around for six runs and several well struck hits. After allowing line drives on 21.9% of batted balls in 2015, Pineda allowed line drives on 23.5% of batted balls in his first start of 2016. A third of the batted balls he yielded on Wednesday were hard hit, up from an already substantial figure of 30.1% from last season (all batted ball data courtesy of FanGraphs).
What could be causing Pineda's trouble with hard contact? Perhaps it is his propensity for living in the strike zone. According to FanGraphs plate discipline data, Pineda threw pitches inside the strike zone on 48.1% of the time last season. The league average rate typically hovers around 44-45%.
To help visualize Pineda's strike throwing tendencies, here's a look at his zone profile from 2015, courtesy of Brooks Baseball:
Compare Pineda's zone profile to that of Francisco Liriano, a pitcher known for his ability to work outside the zone:
Liriano threw just 36.2% of his pitches in the strike zone, well below Pineda's mark. Notice the concentration of pitches in the heart of the plate in Pineda's profile, and how adeptly Liriano works on the edges of the zone. A contrast like this helps explain how a pitcher like Liriano, with a strikeout-to-walk ratio not quite as impressive as Pineda's, can post an ERA (3.38) about a run lower than Pineda's (it should be noted Liriano does also possess some pretty great stuff, to go along with a strong defense behind him).
Pineda's habit for tossing pitches in the zone continued in his first start this season. 56.5% of the pitches Pineda threw in that start were in the strike zone, and the results were uninspiring. Take a look at the pitch Pineda threw to newfound Yankee-killer Carlos Correa in the first inning:
Pineda threw a slider right over the heart of the plate and Correa made short work of it, notching what was his second homer of the season. Here's Correa vs. Pineda during the fifth inning:
It looks like Pineda left a changeup in the middle of the zone, and the result was one of the more impressive home runs this version of Yankee Stadium has ever seen. It's hard to be overly critical of giving up dingers to a budding star like Correa, but Pineda must know that he can't get away with serving up pitches like this right down the plate.
Nonetheless, it was only one start, and it came against Houston, who last season fielded an offense that ranked 4th in the majors by wRC+. Pineda also had to deal with the cold weather, which could have made it more difficult to command his stuff (though warm weather alone hasn't been enough to prevent Pineda from posting a career 4.67 ERA in July/August).
However, if Pineda continues his habit of throwing so many pitches in the strike zone, he may continue to post pretty strikeout-to-walk ratios, but he may also perpetuate his tendency to allow hard contact. Should those tendencies progress, he could end up looking like a fellow frustrating former Yankee hurler, Phil Hughes. Hughes throws an even more extreme percentage of his pitches in the zone, and has spent much of his career posting minuscule walk rates but unimpressive run prevention numbers.
Pineda is far from resigned to that sort of fate, not with his kind of potential. That being said, it is potential that could remain unlocked if he doesn't start being a bit less blunt about staying in the zone.