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Michael Pineda's Numbers Tell Two Different Stories

Michael Pineda is a big guy with a power pitcher's reputation, but quietly, he's become much more dependent on command and control. Luckily, there's evidence that he has some of the best of each in all of baseball.
Image courtesy of © Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
The Twins re-signed Michael Pineda to a two-year deal worth $20 million back in December, on the premise that he had regained his pre-Tommy John form down the stretch and proved himself as a viable mid-rotation starter. Despite the suspension that will steal a quarter of his 2020, Minnesota’s front office believes he can provide stability and upside for the balance of the season, based on last year’s progression. Pineda is a very tough pitcher to figure out, though, and whether or not the team made a good bet depends heavily on whether his good command can continue to outweigh his pedestrian stuff.

By most of the currently popular pitching metrics, Pineda is somewhat unimpressive. His cFIP (a Baseball Prospectus metric that isolates factors over which a pitcher has the most control, but which does not fall victim to some of the oversmoothing tendencies of other fielder-independent statistics) was 105 in 2019, marking him as worse than an average hurler. Statcast has six buckets into which it sorts tracked batted balls. Pineda gave up the two most damaging types — Barrels and Solid Contact — in a higher percentage of opponent plate appearances than all but 14 other pitchers.

His average fastball velocity has dipped over the years, and is now lower than the average for a right-handed starter without exceptional durability. His spin rate on the fastball is in the fifth percentile among all qualifying pitchers, which leads to heavy movement on the pitch — but because it’s still relatively straight, batters are able to lift it consistently. His slider once had considerable movement separation from the heater, but that’s become muted over the last two seasons in which he’s pitched, leading to fewer grounders on the slider, too. Indeed, Pineda was once a reliable ground-ball guy, but last year, 114 of the 130 pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched had higher ground-ball rates than he had.

Pineda’s always been vulnerable to hard contact, and even during his strong finish to 2020, he gave up a fair amount of that, with opponents’ average exit velocity against him in the upper quartile of the league. Even worse, now that he’s not getting grounders, Pineda also allows a lot of that contact within the launch-angle band in which batters have the most success. Of the 129 pitchers who allowed at least 300 batted balls in 2019, Pineda allowed the 24th-highest Sweet Spot percentage. His changeup isn’t great, either, which makes containing left-handed batters and getting through opposing lineups for a third time a constant struggle for Pineda. However, he did throw his fastball and changeup more (and his slider less) against lefties in 2019 than ever before, and that led to more success than usual in those situations.

When it comes to sheer whiffs per pitch or swing, Pineda is impressive, fitting into the top quartile of the league. However, he’s not even in the top tertile of the majors in actual strikeout rate. It seems as though, because Pineda’s repertoire remains limited, batters are able to guess along with him in certain counts and situations, minimizing the value of his granular, pitch-for-pitch numbers.

Despite all that, however, Pineda had a 4.01 ERA, in a league that averaged 4.60. The only AL hurlers who topped 100 innings and allowed a lower walk rate were Mike Leake and Ryan Yarbrough. Without sexy stuff or a deep arsenal, Pineda was very good for most of 2019, and projects relatively well for 2020, because he does a simple and vital thing very well: he fills the zone with fastballs, and expands it with breaking stuff.

Over 400 pitchers threw at least 200 four-seam fastballs in 2019. Among them, Pineda ranked in the 97th percentile for Called Strike Probability — in essence, the average likelihood that fastballs he threw would have been called strikes, if batters didn’t swing. Some 245 pitchers, meanwhile, threw at least 200 sliders. Pineda’s Called Strike Probability for that pitch ranked in the seventh percentile. An average fastball from Pineda had a 59-percent chance of being called a strike, and given the lack of either extreme velocity or rising action on the pitch, that made hitters very eager to attack. However, if they saw fastball but got a slider, they were likely to find themselves waving at a pitch that otherwise had a 36-percent chance of being called a strike.

Unlike more straightforward, quantitative stats, Called Strike Probability is an extremely nuanced characteristic. It’s captured in a single number, but it’s hard to say what the optimal number is for any individual pitcher or pitch, except by understanding the pitch’s place in the pitcher’s repertoire and the constellation of characteristics that make up that hurler. For Pineda, however, it’s pretty easy to see how this works. Fastballs have to be strikes consistently, or else a pitcher starts racking up far too many walks. Breaking balls, and especially sliders, need to end up consistently outside the zone. Pineda did that better than ever in 2019, burying the slider not only more consistently, but further below the zone, reducing the chance that a hitter would even happen to reach down and golf a shin-high pitch somewhere.

His lack of power or strikeout skill gives Pineda a thin margin for error. He has to repeat the command gains he made in 2019, especially since he’s unlikely to get back the velocity he once had. However, the Twins made multiple bets on command over stuff this winter, suggesting that they trust Wes Johnson and their support staff to help pitchers maintain that trait. That makes the deal to which they signed Pineda a reasonable risk, even if it seems a bit old-fashioned.

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  • Cory Engelhardt, Penthang, ToddlerHarmon and 1 other like this

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So the metrics don’t like him but he gets guys out. I think I’ll take him. Perhaps control is more important than velocity.
    • DocBauer, PDX Twin, JoshDungan1 and 1 other like this

So the metrics don’t like him but he gets guys out. I think I’ll take him. Perhaps control is more important than velocity.

Control is way more important than velocity. That’s why you almost never see guys who throw 100mph with no control have success, and why guys can who throw 88mph with good control be productive.
    • DocBauer likes this
Jan 27 2020 09:06 PM

He is a grinder. What impressed me most was he continued make the most of what he has. I enjoyed watching him compete.

    • DocBauer and PDX Twin like this
Matt, not going to lie...while I understood all the stats you there out, there comes a point with every hitting metric, and every defensive metric, combined with every pitching metric, including those you listed here, when you have to just step back shake your head, and watch the game. I know you stated the positives for Pineda as well, but if all the metrics we are inundated with were 100%, MLB would be Dungeon and Dragons for baseball and dice would be rolled in regard to player character sheets and the outcomes would be as such.

What we have here, plain and simple, is a veteran guy who has been around who "knows how to pitch". Period. He's learned, grown and adapted. Like Splash45 states, baseball is littered with guys who have tremendous velocity but never turn out.

With no disrespect to Pineda, in an ideal world, he would be our #4 SP. But I'd take the current version of him as our #3 without fuss. BUT, in regard to velocity, now a full year, (more or less), removed from surgery, I wouldn't be a but surprised to see at least a small uptick in velocity.

NOTE: Fully appreciate his ERA and all final numbers for 2019. But let's not forget he was OK initially, but once he got his legs under him, he was a much better performer from June 1st on.
    • goulik, terrydactyls1947, Strato Guy and 4 others like this

There are two different stories with Pineda. March to mid June and the rest of the season. What changed in what he did?

Jan 28 2020 11:30 AM



Thanks for the deep analysis.GOOD STUFF.


I believe you have one typo in the article.


You state "Pineda’s always been vulnerable to hard contact, and even during his strong finish to 2020, he gave up a fair amount of that, with opponents’ average exit velocity against him in the upper quartile of the league."


I believe you meant 2019 instead of 2020.


If not, I have to drop the Yoda line on you - "Seeing into the future, are we....Very dangerous this can be. :-)

I watched Big Mike get hitters out, but it was never clear to me how or why. Stashak too.
Sometimes you just gotta accept it, whatever it is.