With all the ups and downs Michael Pineda has experienced with the New York Yankees, 2017 could be the last year the righty has to prove himself.
The then-Seattle Mariner registered 173 strikeouts that season, good enough for the sixth-most among American League rookie starters since 2000. Although New York had their No. 1 prospect in Jesus Montero, they traded him and Hector Noesi to the Mariners for the bright future of Pineda and Vicente Campos.
Montero has only played in 73 games since 2012, yet Pineda’s baffling Yankee career has turned a trade — that New York could easily have won — into a decision we’re still laboring to figure out more than five years later.
Pineda, 28, is entering his fourth year as a member of New York’s rotation, but it assuredly hasn’t been anything like his first cup of coffee in Seattle as before he even made a start in the Bronx, shoulder surgery sidelined him for the entire 2012 and 2013 seasons.
The right-hander returned to action in 2014 and although he maintained an ERA of 1.89 across 13 starts, he still struggled to stay healthy and was even suspended after he was caught using pine tar twice against the Boston Red Sox.
In 2015, Pineda looked as dominant as ever through his first seven starts (5-0, 2.72 ERA, 54 K’s) but following his ace-like start against the Baltimore Orioles on Mother’s Day, he owned a 5.04 ERA and would miss time during the dog days due to forearm soreness.
Then, 2016 came along and people considered that a healthy Michael Pineda would be able to not only supply answers to a rotation cluttered in question, but perhaps a dark horse CY Young candidate. If only…
Instead of adding success to what appears to be one of the filthiest arsenals of pitches in the game, Big Mike became the only starting pitcher in major league history to give up 25+ homers, maintain an ERA over 4.80, register a K/9 rate of 10+, and strike out 200 or more batters. His dominance yet complete lack of consistent success has baseball minds scratching their heads, but the Yankees are hoping that they can fix the issue.
“I watch my games from last season, and I need to be better focused when I’m pitching,’’ Pineda said. “(When I get) two strikes, I need to finish – especially after two outs. For me, this year, that’s my focus. When I get two outs, two strikes, I need to finish.’’
That’s a start.
With two outs last season, batters slashed .325/.383/.598 off Pineda including 13 home runs and 147 total bases in just 246 at-bats. With one or no outs, batters slashed .233/.288/.387 and totaled just 173 bases in 447 at-bats.
Pineda also has to be able to attack batters early and get ahead. When he’s ahead in the account, batters are hitting .184 with just four homers and an OPS of .487. When he falls behind, those numbers jump to .344 with 10 homers and a 1.140 OPS.
While that’s a customary trend throughout the sport, batters are also swinging at Pineda’s first pitch 43 percent of the time and are slashing .291/.300/.550 compared to .254/.331/.421 when they took the first pitch.
That’s fixed by having trust in your stuff and being able to pitch to your strengths. His wipeout slider is easily the greatest pitch he throws while his cutter gets hit out of the park on almost a nightly basis.
“I always come into spring training saying this is the year he’s going to win the Cy Young, he’s just got so much talent,” Yankees’ starter CC Sabathia said. “He just needs to put everything together. He wants to be good, he works really hard. He just wants to be that great pitcher. I think it’ll come together for him, hopefully, this year.”
Sabathia, a former Cy Young award winner himself, is completely right. Despite being 23-27 with a 4.10 ERA in 72 starts over his three-year Yankee career, his cutter that is consistently thrown at a borderline-unfair velocity of 95 mph and a deadly slider that registered a .187 batting average against last season screams “front-end-starter.”
Now, just one season before he’ll hit the free-agent market, New York’s unstable rotation is counting on Pineda to take that step and reach his ceiling. He sure has the ability to throw himself into the uppermost tier of American League starters, but if that jump isn’t made in 2017, he may never attain elite status.
At the very least, he won’t reach that plateau in donning pinstripes.