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Mike the Mysterious: The Curious Case of Michael Pineda

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Where else can you find neck pine tar, banned diuretics, and an abscess?

AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

In a lot of ways, Michael Pineda’s 2021 has been an appropriate representation of his entire career. His 2021 has seen him be effective when healthy, but also deal with some injuries, including an incredibly bizarre injury. Throughout his career, Pineda has shown promise and ability on the mound, only to have any progress stunted by injury or suspension. This season, Pineda proved to be a consistent force in the Twins’ rotation, but a recent arm injury may once again stunt his season. While his “baseball card numbers” look great, a deep dive below shows that his season may have been on its way toward a downfall, injury or not.

SEATTLE SENSATION

Prior to the 2011 season, Pineda was the #16 overall MLB prospect, according to Baseball America, and he joined the rotation for the Seattle Mariners for Opening Day of that season. Pineda would burst on to the scene, posting a 3.74 ERA in 28 starts for Seattle, and making the American League All Star Team as a rookie. Pineda would finish 5th in the Rookie of Year vote after his age-22 season, and all things pointed to Pineda emerging alongside Felix Hernandez as a formidable 1-2 punch. That would not come to fruition, however, as Pineda was traded prior to the 2012 season to the Yankees for their own young mega-prospect, Jesus Montero.

BIG MIKE IN THE BIG APPLE

Normally, teams would be more than skeptical to trade an ace-caliber arm going into their age-23 season, but the Mariners decided they needed Montero’s bat and that they had plenty of pitching depth. It would turn out, both careers would go off track almost immediately. Montero would never hit MLB pitching as a member of the Mariners, and as a glorified designated hitter, his bat was his only ticket. He would post a career WAR of -0.3, including not producing a season of positive WAR in Seattle, and has been out of the majors since 2015. Montero was most recently seen in the Venezuelan Winter League playing for the Aguilas del Zulia in 2020, where he didn’t record a single hit in 18 plate appearances.

Upon reading the results of Montero’s career in Seattle, one would think that the Yankees fleeced the Mariners in the trade, but Pineda’s career was a rollercoaster in New York, and would certainly be viewed as a disappointment. Before his first season with Yankees in 2012, Pineda experienced tendinitis in his shoulder, causing him to start the season on the injured list. While rehabbing his injury, Pineda would tear the labrum in his shoulder, leading to season-ending surgery before his season was able to even begin.

Pineda’s injuries ultimately left him unable to return to the Yankees in 2013, as he only pitched in six minor league games. He would make the Yankees’ rotation of spring training in 2014, but would encounter an entirely different set of problems upon his return. In an early-April start against the rival Red Sox, a suspicious substance was pointed out to be on Pineda’s palm, but he was able to remove the smudge before any official complaint could be made. About three weeks later, Pineda was once again facing the Red Sox, but this time, he was on a major TV broadcast with a big smear of something on his neck. Before Spider Tack was all the rage, Pineda had decided to smear pine tar on his neck, with the intent to use it to gain grip on the baseball. Unfortunately, he left such an obvious smear of pine tar on his neck, that it left Red Sox manager John Farrell (Luke’s dad) no choice but to address it with the umpires. In a now-infamous mound visit, the umpires determined that Pineda was indeed using a foreign substance, and he was subsequently ejected and suspended for 10 games.

Pineda has clear pine tar on his neck against the Red Sox
ASSOCIATED PRESS/Elise Amendola

Before he would return to the Yankees after his suspension, Pineda would once again get injured, this time straining his teres major during a simulated game. He did not return to the Yankees until August, but he would end up posting an ERA of 1.89 over 76.1 innings in 2014. In 2015, for the first time as a member of the Yankees, Pineda was able to string together what would be close to a full season, making 27 starts, and ending up with an ERA of 4.37 over 160.2 innings. His 2016 season would be similar, as he made 32 starts, pitched 175.2 innings, and established ERA of 4.82. While his combined ERA of 4.60 for 2015 and 2016 may seem a little high, the auxiliary stats seemed to favor Pineda, as his combined FIP was 3.58.

In true Michael Pineda fashion, just as things were seemingly on track, they would fall apart once again. After pitching effectively for the first few months of 2017, Pineda would tear the UCL in his pitching elbow, and would require season-ending Tommy John surgery.

MINI-SOTA GETS BIG MIKE

Following the 2017 season, the Twins would sign Pineda to a two-year deal worth $10M, but it was signed with the knowledge that Pineda would miss most of the 2018 season. While Pineda’s elbow seemingly became healthy later in the 2018 season, a torn meniscus in his knee would rule out his Twins debut in 2018. Pineda would become a part of the pitching rotation to begin the storied 2019 season. He would struggle early, as his ERA was at 6.21 on April 30th. Following that, however, Pineda would become a consistent force for his next 20 starts, posting an ERA of 3.46 over that span. As is the case with Pineda’s entire career, all good things would come to an end quickly, as he was suspended by the MLB for testing positive for a banned substance. While the suspension was initially levied for 80 games, he was able to plead his case and get the suspension down to 60 games. It was determined that the substance that he tested positive for, which is normally a masking agent for steroids, was actually part of blood pressure medication that Pineda had taken.

Following the onset of a worldwide pandemic, Pineda’s suspension would ultimately cost him half of his 2020 season as well. He would pitch well in 2020, however, putting up an ERA of 3.38 over 5 starts and 26.2 innings.

THE SHOW GOES ON IN 2021

Going into 2021, it was clear Pineda would be counted on to be a stalwart in the Twins’ rotation, and be a part of a contending team. As is almost predictable now, Pineda’s 2021 season has been all over the place. Prior to a May 18th start, Pineda would be unexpectedly scratched from his start, as he needed to have an abscess removed from his inner thigh. He would return to the rotation and mostly be effective, but his season was again derailed on June 14th, as he was placed on the injured list with right elbow inflammation.

Overall, Pineda’s “baseball card” stats have been good, as he currently has an ERA of 3.70 over 11 starts and 56 innings pitched. In his first 8 starts, he was quite effective, posting an overall ERA of 2.62. Since then, he has allowed 10 earned runs in his last 11.1 innings, which raised his ERA to 3.70. While an ERA of 3.70 is certainly still good, his regression to a mean may have been quite predictable. The auxiliary numbers around Pineda suggest has been subject to some good fortune when he has been able to pitch.

When he’s on, Pineda is able to throw an almost bowling-ball like fastball, that seems to induce weak contact. He is known for pounding the strike zone with fastball, while mixing in a slider and changeup. What’s a little head-scratching is how Pineda has been able to get people out this season, as his profile does not suggest he should be having this level of success.

ERA:

  • Current: 3.70
  • Expected: 4.84
  • FIP: 4.43

BABIP against:

  • Current: .253
  • Career: .298
  • MLB Average: .297

Average Fastball Velocity

  • 2021: 90.9 MPH (16th percentile in the MLB)
  • 2020: 92.1 MPH

Fastball Spin Rate

  • 2021: 1966 (3rd percentile in the MLB)
  • 2020: 1942

Hard Hit Percentage

  • 2021: 43.6% (25th percentile in the MLB)
  • 2020: 32.1%

As you can see above, Pineda has been throwing his primary pitch, his fastball, with lower velocity and close to a league-low spin rate. On top of that, he has thrown his fastball on 53.6% of his pitches, a 3.5% increase from 2020. In 2020, batters hit .381 off of Pineda’s fastball, but had an expected batting average of .287. This would point to wanting to throw the fastball more, but the secondary stats seem to point to a different path for success. Batters have hit only .272 against his fastball this year, but the expected batting average is .313. That makes one think, has he been painting the corners and missing barrels to have this success with his fastball?

Pineda’s four seam fastball location, 2021
Baseball Savant/MLB

Barrel % Against:

  • 2021: 9.1%
  • Career: 6.7%
  • League Average: 6.5%

Solid Contact % Against:

  • 2021: 9.1%
  • Career: 6.2%
  • League Average: 5.6%

The numbers and heat map above don’t exactly point to how Pineda has been able to get people out, as he has poured his fastball down the middle of the plate, and he is giving up an above-average amount of barrels and solid contact. Normally, these are signs of disaster, and with a BABIP (batting average of balls in play) that is 45 points below his career mark, despite the harder contact, one may surmise he is getting a lot of “atom” balls (as in, right at ‘em). It remains to be seen if Pineda will return to the Twins in 2021, but if he does, he will likely have to try to recalibrate his approach to attacking hitters in order to avoid a large regression to the mean.