How Much Has Foreign Substance Helped Michael Pineda's Electric 2014 Start?

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How Much Has Foreign Substance Helped Michael Pineda's Electric 2014 Start?
USA Today

On Thursday night at Yankee Stadium, the 2014 comeback story of New York Yankees right-hander Michael Pineda got a little dirty.

Literally.

If you had Twitter open while Pineda led the Yankees to a 4-1 victory over the Boston Red Sox with six innings of one-run ball that included seven strikeouts—in the process lowering his ERA to 1.50 through two startsthen you know what we're talking about. 

If you didn't, then you missed the mystery of the strange goop on Pineda's pitching hand.

Pete Abraham of The Boston Globe and SB Nation's Chris Cotillo were among many who offered screenshots of said goop, and it's also pretty clear in this AP photo:

Kathy Willens

Pineda, who missed 2012 and 2013 recovering from major shoulder surgery, says that what you're looking at was just a bit of Mother Nature.

Via Bob Nightengale of USA Today:

Well, if he says so.

...But it sure looked like pine tar to me.

Same goes for pretty much everyone else, including major league outfielder Dave Sappelt, who reached out to Chris Cotillo:

If it was a foreign substance on Pineda's hand, well, that's a no-no.

One of the many rules under Section 8.02 dictates that pitchers aren't allowed to put a foreign substance on the ball. There's another that says a pitcher isn't even allowed to have a foreign substance "on his person, or in his possession." 

Not that the Red Sox had any complaints, mind you. Boston manager John Farrell told Brian MacPherson of The Providence Journal that this was because the goop was gone by the time he was made aware of it.

But Peter Abraham of the Globe offered what might be the real truth:

This is in reference to what happened with Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester in 2013. Buchholz—who was Pineda's opposite number on Thursday nightfaced accusations of doctoring the ball last May. Lester was accused of doctoring the ball during the World Series. 

In light of these incidents, the Red Sox raising a stink over Pineda's hand would have been bad form indeed.

Besides which, David Ortiz didn't mind. He told the Globe's Nick Cafardo that "everybody uses pine tar" and that it's "no big deal." He apparently isn't the only member of the Red Sox who wasn't offended.

Sean McAdam of CSNNE.com had this to report:

That last part is practically the company line on pitchers using foreign substances, as Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated wrote last year: "Most pitchers, not all, use something to improve their grip."

Furthermore, former major leaguer Dirk Hayhurst wrote in a guest column for Bleacher Report last October that there's a certain protocol in baseball with pitchers and foreign substances:

There are loads of pitchers around the game who have shiny brownish or yellowish splotches hanging out on the bill, crown or back of their hat. Everyone who sees it knows it's not supposed to be there, but, despite a game that is willing to go to any length to catch cheaters, no one says a word about it. 

This is because baseball can be funny about routines players have. If you make the same balk move to first base, like Julio Teheran's wiggling-front-knee pickoff, no one will call it because it's what you've always done. If you take the mound with the same splotch of brown gunk on your hat, the same rule applies. 

In so many words: This is just one of those things that everyone's willing to let slide.

And lest you think that it's not a "routine" of Pineda's to have goop on his pitching hand, you wouldn't be 100 percent correct.

Get a load of his hand in his first start against the Toronto Blue Jays this past Saturday, in which he allowed one earned run in six innings with five strikeouts:

Image courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

If you want to be outraged, go ahead and be outraged.

But me? I'm more curious than outraged. I won't use the word "cheating," but it is worth it to ask the question of whether that goop is helping Pineda at all.

To this end, the first question is if there were any changes in Pineda's pitches on Thursday night after the goop disappeared. According to Scott Lauber of the Boston Herald, that was after the fourth inning.

A chart worth sharing is one from Brooks Baseball that Dan Brooks himself sent the way of Brian MacPherson. It shows the progression of the horizontal movement of Pineda's pitches by inning against the Red Sox:

Data and image courtesy of Brooks Baseball (with a h/t to Baseball Prospectus).

The only alarming thing here is that the horizontal movement on Pineda's slider dropped right away in the fifth inning after the goop disappeared. That it moved closer to zero means that Pineda's slider lost some movement to the right side of the catcher (away from righties, in on lefties).

But since it dropped to the level where it was in the second inning when the goop was there, we shouldn't read too much into that. Also, the horizontal movement on Pineda's slider was back the next inning anyway.

But since Pineda clearly had goop on his pitching hand in his first start against Toronto, what I wanted to check is if the movement on his pitches this year has been any different from what it was in 2011.

That's a relevant question because, as you can see here, this shot from April of 2011 suggests that Pineda wasn't gooping in those days:

Ted S. Warren

Let's assume that comparing the 2011 Pineda to the 2014 Pineda is comparing a goop-less version of him to a goopy version of him. What do the horizontal movement figures tell us, then?

According to this graph, they tell us there might be something going on:

Data and image courtesy of Brooks Baseball (with a h/t to Baseball Prospectus).

There's not much happening with Pineda's changeup. And while there's a big upward trend happening with his four-seam fastball, that's not a good thing given that said trend is taking it toward zero. 

But look at the movement of Pineda's slider. It's gone further away from zero. That's more run away from right-handed batters and in toward left-handed batters, which is good run for a slider to have.

And that puts these numbers in a certain perspective:

Opponents versus Michael Pineda's Slider
Split Swing % Whiff/Swing AVG SLUG
2011 49.3 39.1 .172 .293
2014 51.8 41.4 .133 .200

Brooks Baseball

Based on how the swings and swings-and-misses against it have gone up and the production against it has gone down, it appears the extra movement Pineda has been getting on his slider has helped.

To be fair to Pineda, however, there could be an innocent explanation for this.

For example, from both a horizontal and a vertical perspective, his release point is not the same this year as it was in 2011. It's absolutely possible that this is what's responsible for the altered movement of his slider. And while I haven't seen any reports on the topic, it's possible that he isn't gripping his slider the same way he was in 2011.

Because of the doubt raised by these possibilitiesnot to mention the way in which Pineda's slider and other pitches didn't really change after the goop disappeared Thursday night—I won't say we've stumbled on definitive proof that pine tar or whatever is responsible for Pineda's early success. It's plausible that it is, but only plausible.

Instead, I'll just say this: When you're sitting on a 1.50 ERA, you'd be a fool not to stick to what got you there.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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