For the last few days, people have tried to shoot holes in the Yankees acquisition of Michael Pineda. Some will argue that Pineda, a pitcher who collected 34 percent of his outs via the flyout, will suffer going from spacious Safeco Field to the banbox in Yankee Stadium. Others will argue that Pineda’s second half ERA (5.12) proves he can’t handle a full workload. Instead, critics fail to address Pineda’s lefty-righty splits. Before unpacking the numbers and presenting my argument, Pineda, a fastball-slider pitcher, must develop a reliable third pitch to justify his value and more importantly–solidify his slot behind CC Sabathia.
During 2011, Michael Pineda faced roughly the same amount of lefty and righty hitters. The split below tell the full story:
Pineda vs. Lefties: 85.2 innings, 77 hits, 25 walks, 74 strikeouts, 3.99 ERA
Pineda vs. Rightes: 85.1 innings, 56 hits, 30 walks, 99 strikeouts, 3.48 ERA
As shown, Pineda was excellent against righties, showing dominance (11.63 K/9) and giving up less than one hit per inning. Against lefties, Pineda struggled, watching his hit rate climb closer to one per inning and his strikeout rate fall to 7.7 K/9. Overall, Pineda had a 9.1 K/9 which was the second best rate in the American League. However, Pineda threw either a fastball or slider 94 percent of the time, featuring his change-up only six percent of the time. As we’ve seen through the league, fastball-slider platoon is the biggest split in baseball and pitchers who develop a plus third pitch become elite (Roy Halladay, Felix Hernandez, CC Sabathia).
Pineda threw such a small percentage of change-ups that it warrants a closer look. Of the 2,700 pitches Pineda threw, only 162 pitches were change-ups. Of those 162 change-ups, 70 were balls. In other words, Pineda’s change-up was so bad that he just couldn’t place it. The question begs to be asked—
Can Pineda survive as a two-pitch, starter in a division filled with great left-handed hitters?
Throughout baseball, only a handful of pitchers threw as many fastballs and sliders as Pineda did. Players such as Jeremy Bonderman and Justin Masterson immediately come to mind while Ryan Dempster, Zach Greinke, and Joba Chamblerlain all feature predominantly fastball-slider combos. Their respective ERAs against lefties?
5.94, 4.15, 5.61, 5.07, and No Comment. All five of these pitchers are established big leaguers who clearly have issues against lefties. Clearly, these numbers prove that over-reliance on fastball-sliders can spell doom for right-handed pitchers.
In Pineda’s defense, he is only 23-years-old and is coming off an All-Star rookie season. Pineda’s average fastball velocity (94.5) ranks towards the top in the American League. Based on his velocity alone, Pineda can sneak fastballs by hitters, but that doesn’t translate into year over year success. Joba Chamberlain was highly touted, feared two-pitch pitcher when he was Pineda’s age, but the Yankees clearly didn’t handle and develop Joba appropriately. Joba never developed that third pitch to make him a trustworthy starter.
While mastering a third pitch is difficult, Michael Pineda has some pretty good team mates to learn from. As Sabathia matured as a pitcher, he developed his change-up and has thrown 17 percent of the time over last four seasons. While it’s almost impossible to master, Mariano’s running cutter would be an absolutely devastating complement to Pineda’s slider. These are just two options of many options.
Brian Cashman has been very candid about this trade. He has stated that the Yankees will have lost this swap if Pineda does not develop into a front-line starter. While Pineda is a very, very good young pitcher, he’ll need to master a third pitch if he wants to be great. The Yankees need him to become great.