It's been said a million times before: "Michael Pineda has figured it out." The enigmatic righty has shown flashes of brilliance intermittently throughout his odd, injury-hampered career, and he has started 2017 on a run that—again—makes it easy to claim that he has figured it out.
Of course, for a player to figure it out suggests that there was something to figure out in the first place. During Pineda's time with the Yankees, there have always been problems. From injuries, to pine-tar incidents, home run issues, or problems with plain-old hard contact, there has always been something awry with Pineda, something distracting from his evident natural abilities.
Those talents have been on full display so far this season, but they've been on display before. There have been times with the Yankees that Pineda seemed to have put it all together, only for things to fall apart just as rapidly.
With this most recent run of success upon us, though, it's tempting as always to ask: is there something different this time around? To answer this question, I took this seven-start stretch that Pineda has put together to open the season and stacked it up against his best seven-start stretches from the past couple years. Maybe this stretch will look no different than his previous flashes of brilliance, the flashes that burned out quickly as Pineda returned to being Pineda. Or, perhaps there's something unique about this current run, something to suggest that he really has figured it out.
First, let's take a surface-level look at Pineda's best runs in recent memory: his start to this season, a seven-start stretch from June 2nd to July 7th of last year, and a seven-start stretch from April 24th to May 27th of 2015, a stretch that included his memorable 16 strikeout performance on Mother's Day:
Pineda’s Best in 2015, 2016, and 2017
From a 30,000-foot view, his top stints over the past few years are pretty similar. He gave up a handful fewer runs during his 2015 stretch, put up both more strikeouts and more runs in 2016, but overall, they represent 40-ish inning stretches where Pineda was at his best.
If we're to find something different about this stretch, we'll have to go beyond measures like ERA and strikeouts. If Pineda's stuff was radically different in 2017, that could be something to point to, but there isn't a whole lot to see there. His average fastball velocity, per Brooks Baseball, is 94 mph in 2017, a bit below where it was during his 2016-stretch, which occurred during the higher-velocity summer months. Pineda has thrown his changeup more in 2017 than he did during his 2016-run, but less than he did during his 2015-run.
So it's not like Pineda's added lots of velocity or introduced a brand-new pitch. Yet his current pitches do seem to have generated better underlying results. His groundball rate during this season (51.4%) is higher than it was during the previous two stretches, and his strikeout rate minus walk rate figure (K%-BB%) of 26.7% is also better this year than in the previous years. Maybe something other than a better repertoire has propelled Pineda in 2017?
Pineda has never been renowned for his command, so perhaps he’s improved there. It's tough to pin down command, but Baseball Prospectus' CSAA metric is one of the better attempts (read here for a thorough explanation of how CSAA works). Pineda’s CSAA mark of 1.07% ranks 30th among 124 pitchers with 30 innings pitched during this young year. There's no way to look up how Pineda fared by CSAA during specific stretches from the past, but I can note that he ranked 75th out of 89 pitchers with 150 innings in 2015, and 70th out of 84 pitchers in 2016, so it's likely CSAA has rated his command as better during this run than his previous runs.
Let's go deeper on Pineda's command. Using Baseball Savant, I pulled the rate at which Pineda threw pitches on the very edges of the strike zone. If Pineda is commanding the ball better now, it seems logical that he'd be spending more time on the outskirts of the zone. In 2017, 41% of Pineda's pitches have come on the edges, a strong rate that is higher than the average of 37% among pitchers with at least 200 pitches thrown. His rate from his 2015 and 2016 runs? Both about 39%, so a modest improvement there.
How about the rate at which he's thrown meatballs? Again using Baseball Savant, I pulled the rate at which Pineda's thrown pitches middle-middle. However, there was no improvement to be found here: Pineda's thrown pitches down Broadway about 7% of the time during each of these three respective stretches. So while it’s feasible that Pineda has improved his command by staying on the edges more, he hasn’t avoided the middle more, possibly contributing to his still high home run rate this year.
If you've come to the end of this exercise unconvinced that this time around is different for Pineda, I can't blame you. If you think that the indications that Pineda's command has improved portend a breakout year, I can't blame you either. The results, as per usual with Pineda, are mixed. It does seem possible his command has been better this year than during previous hot streaks, but that's far from a guarantee that he can keep it up all season. At the very least, there's hope that something has clicked for Pineda. If he does combine his quality stuff with quality command, maybe this could really be the year where Pineda figures it out.