New York Yankees: How Good Can Michael Pineda Be?

Phillip BrownSenior Analyst IIJanuary 14, 2012

New York Yankees: How Good Can Michael Pineda Be?

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    If you have not heard yet, the New York Yankees and the Seattle Mariners pulled off a mini-blockbuster trade.

    That trade sent Jesus Montero and Hector Noesi to Seattle and Michael Pineda and Jose Campos to New York. A major trade like this has not happened in a while. It had nothing to do with money—all players will make league minimum—and it wasn't about one team selling a star for multiple young prospects.

    It was truly a deal that helped both teams by sending young studs to help positions of need.

    I like this trade, but why? Jesus Montero has been compared to Miguel Cabrera and Manny Ramirez; how can Pineda be that good?

    I think he can. Let's find out why.


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    When you think about what it takes to succeed in New York, the first thing you think of is a power pitcher, like CC Sabathia. He has to be able to challenge batters and get them to swing and miss.

    Both CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova have fastballs in the mid-90s and they are very successful in New York. Michael Pineda's fastball is even faster.

    Let's look at Michael Pineda's fastest recorded fastball and average fastball in 2011 compared to one of the flamethrowing Cy Young winner Justin Verlander and fellow Yankee and Cy Young winner CC Sabathia.

      Fastest Average
    Pineda 99 MPH 94.7 MPH
    Verlander 101 MPH 95.0 MPH
    Sabathia 98 MPH 93.9 MPH

    Pineda had the fourth-fastest average fastball in the majors by a starter in 2011, behind only Alexi Ogando, Justin Verlander and David Price. That is very impressive for a 22-year-old.

    If he can keep that velocity up, which I think he will, he should be able to keep up his impressive 9.1 K/9 from 2011.

    Guess how many Yankee starters have struck out over nine batters an inning in their entire history. Two: Roger Clemens and David Cone. That's pretty good company.

    He is also only the second pitcher in major league history to do that at 22 years old or younger; the other is David Boswell in 1966.

    A fastball is supposed to create a lot of swings and misses, right? Well, Pineda was great at that, too. He was fifth in the majors in swing-and-miss percentage in 2011 behind only Tim Lincecum, Cole Hamels, Brandon Morrow and Mat Latos. More good company to be in.

    You may not think his overall repertoire will translate to New York and Yankee Stadium, but his fastball will because it is a true plus-plus pitch.


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    You could call Michael Pineda's slider "nasty" or "filthy," but that would be disrespectful to how good it is. When I see Michael Pineda throw his slider, I think about CC Sabathia—it is that good.

    Why is this pitch so good? It sits in the mid-to-upper 80s, which is devastating enough, but it also has a late, very hard break that make righties look ridiculous when chasing it out of the zone.

    This pitch may not be as good as his fastball, but it is still a pitch he is very comfortable with and utilizes 32 percent of the time.


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    Michael Pineda also has a changeup, but you probably would not know it unless you watch him very closely when he pitches or read his scouting reports, because he only used it three percent of the time in 2011.

    There is a reason for that: It is unfinished.

    When he has his changeup locked down, which he does occasionally, it is a true plus pitch, but it will take some work with Yankee pitching coach Larry Rothschild before he is comfortable using it as a true complement to his fastball.

    Pineda's incredibly high 0.95 HR/9 in 2011 despite pitching 45 percent of his innings at home can be attributed to this pitch. He tends to leave it floating in the middle of the zone without much drop, which means it might as well be batting practice for major league hitters.

    If he can work on this pitch and not use it very often until he has mastered both pitching and locating it, he can keep down his number of fly balls and home runs.

    When he does master this pitch, which could be sometime in 2012, he will have three pitches that he can locate and make hitters swing and miss.


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    The problem with most young pitchers is command. In their late teens and early 20s, they get a boost in their velocity and their command suffers.

    Both Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances went through this. Banuelos' WHIP jumped from 1.22 in 2010 to 1.55 in 2011, his K/BB also dropped from 3.40 to 1.76 in the same time period. Betances' WHIP jumped from 0.88 in 2010 to 1.36 in 2011 and his K/BB dropped from 4.91 to 2.03 in the same time period.

    Michael Pineda does not have that worry. His WHIP has not topped 1.11 since 2007 and his K/BB has not dropped below 3.15 since 2006. In his 171-inning stint in the majors in 2011, Pineda posted a 1.10 WHIP and 3.15 K/BB, which were good for 14th and 30th in the majors, respectively.

    Pineda has excellent command of all of his pitches and should have no problem locating them both on the inside and the outside of the plate in 2012.


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    Michael Pineda uses a pitching style called the "Inverted W." It is called that because of the shape of the arms when a pitcher gets ready to deliver. This shape is created by bring the throwing elbow above the throwing shoulder, which means when you throw the ball, your elbow is more violently rotated.

    A better picture to show this can be found here.

    This "Inverted W" delivery puts extra stress on the elbow and shoulder, particularly the UCL. Basically, look at Tim Lincecum's delivery and put all that extra stress you see on his shoulder on Pineda's elbow instead: not good.

    Let me give you a list of players who use the "Inverted W" and let's see if they have two things in common: Joba Chamberlain, Stephen Strasburg, Mark Prior, John Smoltz, AJ Burnett, Adam Wainwright, Kerry Wood, CJ Wilson and Shaun Marcum.

    They all use the "Inverted W" and have all had Tommy John Surgery.

    Could this all be a coincidence? Yes. These are not the only people who have had Tommy John Surgery and other people use the "Inverted W," such as Jarred Cosart and Ian Kennedy.

    Tommy John Surgery is no longer the end of the world. Today there is an outstanding 85 percent full recovery rate. Obviously, we still hope that Pineda does not need surgery, because even if his elbow heals up 100 percent, will he ever trust it enough to consistently reach the mid-to-upper 90s?

    If there is any way he can change his mechanics, without making him less effective, in order to keep him healthy in the long run, I would be all for it, but that is easier said that done. At 23 years old he is young enough to do it and there are not many pitching coaches I trust more than Larry Rothschild to help him.

    Other than this, Pineda has no injury issues. He missed most of 2009 with an elbow strain, but no recurring or structural damage was found, so that seems to be a non-issue.

    His large 6'7", 260-pound frame should help reduce injuries, but if his elbow goes out because of his delivery, his frame will do nothing to help.

Post-All-Star Break

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    Michael Pineda seemed destined for the AL Rookie of the Year Award at the All-Star break. He had an ERA in the low 3.00s, a lower ERA than fellow Seattle Mariner and Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez, a strikeout an inning and he made the AL All-Star team.

    He even pitched one inning with no hits and two strikeouts at the All-Star Game.

    Many people wonder what happened to Michael Pineda after the All-Star Break. Just look at his splits:

    Pre All-Star Break: 113 IP, 3.08 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, .198 BAA, 9.0 K/9, 2.9 BB/9
    Post All-Star Break: 58 IP, 5.12 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, .234 BAA, 9.1 K/9, 2.9 BB/9

    If you look at his innings pitched, you would think he wore out as the season progressed. If you look at his ERA, it looks like major league batters figured out how to hit this kid.

    Which one is it?

    I think he wore out. If you look at his K/9 and BB/9, you see they are identical before and after the All-Star Break, which makes me think Pineda was still fooling hitters.

    Rookie pitchers are not used to long seasons. In his five seasons in the minors he never pitched 140-plus innings in a season and he is supposed to go out and be dominant for 170-plus innings against better competition?

    He was also not as bad as his ERA suggests in the second half. In his eight starts in August and September, he only pitched one game where he gave up more than three runs and only pitched one game where he pitched less than five innings.

Transition to New York

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    We all know about the pressure of pitching in New York. The bright lights and over 100,000 eyes looking at you in Yankee Stadium alone can make a good pitcher shrink.

    Add in the high expectations to win every game and the high amount of scrutiny and it is a wonder anybody can pitch there.

    Ivan Nova was a huge bright spot in for the Yankees in 2011. He pitched very well in New York, especially at the end of the season where he went 8-0 with a 3.08 ERA after July 1st.

    What does Ivan Nova have to do with Michael Pineda? They are very similar people. Both were born in San Cristobal in the Dominican Republic only two years and six days apart. They also both signed before the age of 17 and were both rookies in 2011.

    They had different routes once they got to America, as Pineda was a highly-touted prospect while Nova actually was returned to the Yankees after the Rule V Draft by the Padres.

    I have little doubt Michael Pineda can handle the pressure of New York, but what about Yankee Stadium? It is not what you would call a pitcher's park like Safeco Field.

    In 2011 Pineda posted a 36 percent ground-ball rate and 0.95 HR/9. Neither of those numbers bodes well for the hitter's heaven we call Yankee Stadium.

    You can also look at his home/away splits:

    Home: 77 IP, 2.92 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, .182 BAA, 1.05 HR/9
    Away: 94 IP, 4.40 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, .234 BAA, 0.86 HR/9

    My first question is why does he give up significantly less home runs on the road when Safeco Field is supposed to be the pitcher's stadium? I have no answer to that, maybe because it was just too small a sample size.

    His ERA looks downright awful, but that is a product of his low ground-ball rate. If he can work on inducing more ground balls, even if it means lowering his strikeout totals, he will be a more effective pitcher.

    Pineda turns 23 years old in a week. He has been able to get by with pure stuff his whole life, an offseason with Larry Rothschild will do wonders.

    That .234 BAA and 1.17 WHIP are both better than CC Sabathia's .275 BAA and 1.38 WHIP on the road.

    I am obviously not saying he is better than Sabathia, I'm just saying to calm down with his splits, because those peripherals look pretty good to me.

Future in New York

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    Michael Pineda has "future ace" written all over him. If he can work on his changeup with Larry Rothschild in order to raise his ground-ball rate, he will fit in just fine in New York.

    Let's look ahead three years at the Yankees' possible rotation:

    1. CC Sabathia

    2. Michael Pineda

    3. Ivan Nova

    4. Manny Banuelos

    5. Dellin Betances

    Even if one of those four young pitchers fails, the next three years are loaded with free-agent possibilities. Next offseason, Cole Hamels and Matt Cain hit the market, the next season is headlined by Tim Lincecum and the year after that, Felix Hernandez will become available.

    The New York Yankees have a bright future ahead of them with four potential front-line starters under the age of 25.

    Michael Pineda has the potential to be a Cy Young Award winner and at the very least the major league leader in strikeouts year after year.

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