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What is behind Michael Pineda's disastrous 2016 season?

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It is no secret Michael Pineda has had a trying season. What is going wrong?

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Michael Pineda finally had a good start this week, quelling the Tigers lineup for 5.2 innings. Yankees fans could be forgiven for forgetting what a good Pineda start even looked like. Now eleven starts into his 2016 campaign, Pineda has lowered his ERA all the way to 6.41. Even with a quality start under his belt, Pineda's season has still been pretty awful, and his spot on the roster can't quite be considered safe.

Pineda has given up 43 runs in 59 innings this year. It is difficult to yield runs at such a prodigious rate without several things going wrong. In Pineda's case, some of the most glaring issues this season have been his problems in certain situations. More specifically, he has had particular trouble with two outs, and with men on base.

The overall slash line Pineda has yielded this year, .320/.356/.564, is obviously poor. His opponents' line of .440/.477/1.327 with two outs is downright unsightly. Prior to this season, Pineda didn't have a pronounced difference in how he pitched depending on number of outs. What has changed with two outs in 2016?

From Baseball Savant, here is Pineda's heatmap with zero/one outs, followed by his heatmap with two outs:

With two outs, Pineda has clearly left more pitches right out over the plate, as opposed to a tendency to keep the ball low in other situations (it is worth noting that in all situations, Pineda's pitches get a good amount of the plate). So Pineda has pounded the absolute heart of the strike zone when he has the opposing offense on the ropes, and thus, they have hit .440 against him with two outs.

Pineda has been similarly poor with men on base, where he has allowed a .959 OPS, to go along with a .973 OPS with runners in scoring position. Interestingly enough, Pineda has 34 strikeouts and just three walks with men on, compared to a 33-to-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio with no one on base. These anecdotal results seem to lend credence to the idea that Pineda tends to pound the zone in certain situations, leading to great strikeout-to-walk ratios, but also many hard-hit balls.

Still, even beyond Pineda's struggles in those specific situations, Pineda has truly struggled in all scenarios. To get a better idea of why Pineda has been worse overall, let's look at the granular details of his actual pitches. Here are the profiles of Pineda's two most prominent pitches, his cut-fastball and his slider, over 2015 and 2016:

Velocity Horizontal Mvmt. Vertical Mvmt.
2015 Cutter 93.34 -0.97 6.15
2015 Slider 86.11 2.63 0.25
2016 Cutter 94.28 -2.38 7.91
2016 Slider 86.70 0.84 0.68

Pineda has actually gained velocity since last season. Overall, however, his pitches have not moved the way they did previously. His slider has less bite, and his cutter now has pronounced arm-side movement, as well as even more rise. At 94 mph and with -2.38 inches of horizontal movement, his cutter essentially has the shape of a straight four-seamer, which may help explain why Pineda has been so hittable.

To illustrate the difference, here is Pineda using his hard stuff in 2015:

And 2016:

In the first GIF, Pineda misses his spot, but the cutter runs in on the left-handed hitter, dealing with him easily. In 2016, the fastball has definite tail, and even at 95 mph, is probably the more hittable pitch.

Pineda has had success in the past featuring a slider and a four-seamer. As a rookie in 2011, Pineda struck out 173 batters in 171 innings with a 3.74 ERA, relying almost exclusively on his slider and 95 mph four-seam fastball. If there is a mechanical quirk that is causing Pineda to resemble his 2011-self, it seems it would be up to him and pitching coach Larry Rothschild to decide if Pineda should embrace his hard and straight fastball, or try to revert to the cutter that was reasonably successful in 2015.

Finally, it's always somewhat important to touch on the matter of luck when discussing Pineda. Pineda is polarizing when it comes to luck, as his fielding-independent numbers are shiny, while his run prevention figures lag behind. This year is no different, as his FIP and xFIP are just 4.25 and 3.43, respectively. This is largely due to his sky-high BABIP of .397.

A BABIP that near to .400 is probably at least partially the result of misfortune. Digging into Pineda's batted ball splits, it becomes clear where his issues have been:

Batted Ball Type
BA SLG OPS
Groundballs .296 .346 .642
Fly balls .314 .922 1.223
Line drives .800 1.320 2.120

Pineda has been absolutely crushed on fly balls and line drives. The league average OPS on fly balls is .948, while the league average OPS on line drives is 1.577. I have no reasonable way to discern whether Pineda's far above average OPS figures on fliers/liners are solely his fault, or the result of poor fortune. The most likely answer lies in the middle, where Pineda surely takes some responsibility for his batted ball troubles, but is also the victim of some bad luck.

With only a matter of days before they lose the option of sending Pineda down, it seems likely the Yankees will keep him in the rotation. Pineda has had a nightmare season, and his struggles in higher leverage situations, as well his flatter pitches, are a part of that. It's also possible his luck will turn around soon, as even during this awful 2016 campaign, he has struck out 24.7% of batters faced, and walked just 5.5%. Pineda might always be a frustrating, polarizing figure, but he is one the Yankees will likely be forced to stick with through thick and thin.