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The little things that helped shape Michael Pineda’s big start

Michael Pineda was at his absolute best in the Yankees home opener, and he was propelled by a handful of subtle differences in his game.

Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

In the Yankees home opener, Michael Pineda came up huge. In a start reminiscent of when he struck out 16 batters on Mother's Day two years ago, Pineda dominated the Rays and had Yankee Stadium about as loud as it has been in recent years. He carried a perfect game into the seventh and struck out eleven batters while walking none in one of the best outings of his life.

Some might look for broad, sweeping changes that helped Pineda shrug off a rough first start, and frankly, a rough past year and a half or so. There were notable changes on the surface to point to: Pineda's command of his slider improved, and his velocity was a tick up. However, perhaps the most promising differences between Pineda on Monday and the Pineda of recent vintage were more subtle.

I want to lead off with a couple of small moments that loomed large in Pineda's start, moments that illustrated uncommon composure from the right-hander. Pineda's composure and fortitude in sticky situations has come under fire after a 2016 season that saw him post a .980 OPS allowed with two outs, compared to a .687 OPS with zero outs and a .663 OPS with one out. He also struggled with runners in scoring position, yielding a .830 OPS in those situations, compared to a .754 OPS with no men on.

Typically, analytically-minded observers would be loath to attribute small-sample struggles in key situations to a lack of resilience or mettle, but a careful study of the way Pineda pitches in those higher-pressure moments indicates that Pineda really does change the way he operates when such moments arise. So it was heartening to see how Pineda responded after losing his perfect game on a double by Evan Longoria in the seventh. With two outs and a runner in scoring position in what was still a close game, Pineda had to bounce back from the disappointment of allowing his first baserunner to deal with lefty-swinging Brad Miller.

First, Pineda fired two changeups for strikes (more on that later) to quickly go ahead 0-2. He then dropped a filthy slider right on the inside corner at the knees, but umpire Bill Miller—unmoved—called a ball. Pineda, rather than growing frustrated, ripped another sharp slider, which Miller whiffed on to end the inning:

An inning earlier, Pineda faced Tim Beckham with none on and two outs, on the precipice of going 18 up, 18 down. He fell behind the Rays' number-nine hitter 2-0. At this juncture I, along with surely many Yankee fans, could sense that Pineda might be about to let things slip away. Again Pineda did not grow exasperated, but instead fired two fastballs on the corner for strikes, before burying yet another crushing slider which Beckham flailed helplessly at to end the sixth:

That Pineda responded coolly and impressively in a couple of tight moments on Monday does not mean that he has suddenly turned a corner, and that his troubles with two outs or with RISP are things of the past. Still, it is highly encouraging to see him thrive in such situations early in the season. Pineda's career OPS allowed numbers with two outs and with RISP (.728 and .803, respectively) indicate there have been times when he’s performed better in those areas than he did last year, and hopefully, Monday's start was a sign he’s turned things around.

I mentioned earlier that after losing his perfect game, Pineda attacked the next hitter with changeups. This is another subtle yet encouraging sign. That Pineda would go right to his changeup in a critical spot, a pitch which he seemed to lose faith in at the end of last year, throwing it not even 30 times in September per Brooks Baseball, demonstrates a level of confidence in the pitch that Pineda has rarely shown.

Indeed, according to Baseball Savant, he fired his changeup 13 times in the home opener, up from three in his season debut, and while the results weren't great (just one swinging strike and one called strike), that Pineda is at least trying to incorporate the pitch is a good sign. Pineda can struggle at times with predictability when relying on just his two-pitch mix of fastball/slider, and a third weapon to keep hitters guessing could help his development as a starter

Finally, Pineda's fastball appears to have undergone a slight transformation. He has relied on a cut-fastball the past couple years, one with high velocity and very little horizontal or vertical movement. This year, though, his fastball resembles the four-seamer he threw when he was a rookie back in 2011. Pineda's fastball in 2017, per Brooks Baseball, has averaged 4.74 inches of arm-side movement, as well as 7.8 inches of vertical movement. That matches very well with his 2011 four-seamer which averaged 4.25 inches and 8.8 inches of horizontal and vertical movement, respectively.

Batters hit just .236 with a .400 slugging against Pineda's fastball in 2011. Across 2015 and 2016, opposing hitters crushed Pineda's cutter for a .338 average and .575 slugging, including 28 homers. It's an extremely small sample, but hitters have had trouble with Pineda's slightly altered fastball so far, whiffing on 27% of swings, and hitting groundballs on 68% of balls in play, against the pitch. It's very early, but the initial results with Pineda's heater are cause for a bit of optimism.

In all, Pineda came up big in his second start, but it was the little things that impressed me most. Even so, as Matt noted on Twitter, Pineda still is the most likely Yankee to throw a perfect game or yield literally all of the runs. This start could merely prove to be a blip, another brilliant flash that makes Pineda's inconsistency all the more frustrating. Yet if he can carry the subtle differences in his game from Monday over into the rest of the season, maybe we’ll be in for an actually fun season of Pineda.