Michael Pineda's Dominant Spring Cements Key Role in Yankees 2014 Rotation

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMarch 18, 2014

USA Today

Hey, remember when we were treating the idea of Michael Pineda recovering to become a key member of the New York Yankees rotation as some sort of crazypants fantasy?

Well, suddenly it's not so crazy. Or pants. Or like a fantasy. It looks like it's going to happen, and not just in some far off future, either. It looks like it'll be in 2014.

If you missed it, Pineda made his third outing (and second start) of the spring on Tuesday against the Boston Red Sox. The 25-year-old right-hander went 4.1 innings, allowing no runs on four hits and no walks. He struck out five, all swinging.

This was Pineda's longest outing of the spring — also his best. Consider it another nail in the coffin of the idea that he was doomed to be damaged goods forever after undergoing major shoulder surgery in 2012, missing that season and all of 2013.

Pineda had been about as out of the picture as a pitcher can be. But now, him being out of the picture is all but in the past.

Put Pineda's entire spring thus far in perspective, and what you see is this:

Michael Pineda's Spring Training
DateOpponentIPHERKBBPitches (Strikes)
3/7DET2.0104027 (21)
3/13BAL2.2305148 (27)
3/18BOS4.1405060 (45)
Total9.080141135 (93)

Cue the obligatory acknowledgement that spring training results must be taken with a grain of salt, but even that only does so much to mask how everything you see above is encouraging.

Pineda's been hard to hit, which is good. He's been racking up strikeouts, which is better. But perhaps best of all, he's been efficient, avoiding walks and throwing plenty of strikes. That 68.9 strike percentage is awfully reminiscent of the strike percentage he had when he was at his best in the first half of 2011.

The heck of it is that said strike percentage isn't entirely indicative of the command Pineda has had. You can look up and see one moderately efficient outing against the Orioles sandwiched between two hyper-efficient outings, but Wallace Matthews of ESPNNewYork.com tweeted a possible explanation for that:

Makes sense. Spring training and everything, you know. Had Pineda been throwing more heaters in that game, he might have finished with a better strike ratio.

Speaking of that heater, the days of Pineda struggling to crack 90 in the spring of 2012 are a distant memory. According to Newsday, he was in the 91-93 range with his velocity against the Tigers and was right there again against the Orioles.

Against the Red Sox, Pineda kicked it up another notch. Here's Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News:

Now, this isn't quite Pineda's old velocity. According to FanGraphs, he sat at 94.7 miles per hour in 2011, including an even 95.0 in the first half. Given that he's topped out at 94 this spring, expecting him to return to that sort of average velocity is expecting too much.

It is, however, more encouraging that Pineda's velocity peaked in his third outing of the spring than it would have been if it had peaked in his first outing. It suggests he's getting stronger, which might mean there's more velocity to come. What's a range of 91-94 now might be a range of 92-95 later.

Regarding Pineda's slider, there's not much point in hoping it can get better. It's already back, as it was in top form at the outset and hasn't backed down.

Pineda notably made Miguel Cabrera look like a mere mortal with his slider in his first outing. Against the Orioles, two of his five strikeouts came courtesy of his slider. Against the Red Sox, all five of his strikeouts came with his slider.

All five of those strikeouts were swinging punchouts on sliders down below the knees, and it's hard to blame Red Sox hitters for going after them, given Pineda's slider was breaking down and away like a good slider should.

A point-by-point plot of one he threw to top prospect Xander Bogaerts in the first inning will give you an idea:

Images courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

While shoulder surgery and two years away from the majors seem to have taken Pineda's best fastball away, it looks like his best slider is still standing. 

That's not an insignificant victory. Pineda's slider was a lethal weapon in 2011, ranking 15th among qualified starters in runs saved above average. That it still looks like a lethal weapon means Pineda currently has at least one legit major league out pitch. One of those pretty much grants that a pitcher's floor is at a solid height.

Now, there's still a limit to how much anybody can get excited about Pineda's 2014 outlook. Just because he's had an excellent spring doesn't mean he's going to vault himself to the top of the Yankees rotation and stay there.

If Pineda breaks camp in Joe Girardi's rotation, it will be as their No. 5 starter. And even though that seems likely now, there's still a chance the club chooses to have him open in the minors to build more arm strength before tasking him as a member of the rotation.

"You'd like to see him stretched out a little bit more," Girardi said on Tuesday, via ESPNNewYork.com. "The other [No. 5 candidates] are throwing pretty well too. We've got to figure out what's best for our team as a whole." 

But since Pineda has at least proven himself to be healthy this spring, what was a question mark not too long ago is now a certainty. Rather than watching from the sidelines once again, he will have a role to play in the Yankees rotation this year, regardless of whether he's in it right away or comes along later.

But another thing Pineda has proven this spring is that he still has upside. His old velocity may still be missing in action, but that he's gotten good results with lesser velocity will do for encouraging. So will the likelihood that we haven't yet seen his best velocity. So will the fact that his slider looks like it hasn't lost any bite.

Which is good for the state of the Yankees' pitching staff. CC Sabathia is caught in an apparent decline; Hiroki Kuroda is pushing 40; Ivan Nova has a history of inconsistency. In light of these matters, the Yankees entered camp needing another high-upside starter besides Masahiro Tanaka. In Pineda, they've foun...er, rediscovered one.

Whenever Pineda breaks into the Yankees rotation, it will be as their default No. 5 guy. But as the year goes along, he may well become their No. 4 guy, or maybe even their No. 3 guy.

Such possibilities were a long shot a couple weeks ago. Not anymore.


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