The 6’ 7” beast Michael Pineda took the mound the other day in Fort Myers and fired off 2 scoreless innings to go with his 2 previous scoreless innings, giving him an easy to calculate ERA of 0.00 so far in spring training. Pineda last pitched in the majors for the Yankees but you might have also recognized him by his nicknames “Big Mike” or “Large Mikeal” or “Why is That Mountain Moving?” When he was signed in the offseason following the 2017 season, it was with the understanding that his value would mostly be in the 2019 season and he would most likely not pitch in 2018 for the Twins as he continued to rehab from Tommy John surgery. His 2 year $10 million deal essentially works as a 1-year deal and set the blueprint for Garrett Richards to sign a similar deal with the Padres this last offseason. Although, Pineda might have had better offers from Rick Spielman to start at guard for the Vikings for the upcoming season.
Pineda could prove to be an important bridge in an uncertain Twins starting rotation. While most teams would be happy with a 1-2 punch of Berrios and Gibson to lead the rotation, the names after them aren’t quite as exciting. Odorizzi is fine but should ideally be your 4th starter and the number of candidates for the 5th spot is as long as Santa’s nice/naughty list but has more naughtys than I care for. So getting 160-170 quality innings from Pineda could prove key to leading a strong Twins team in contending for the AL Central title against the Indians. But what does history have to say about starting pitchers who have had such an extended absence due to injury? Pineda’s last major league outing was on July 5th in 2017 which is a good 20 months ago, is it realistic to assume that he can come back and be the normal Pineda in 2019?
I looked through the long list of recent MLB starting pitchers who underwent TJ surgery between 2011 and 2017. I cut it off at 2017 because those players have not had their full season of performance yet following their surgery. Then I found the guys who hadn’t played in MLB in over 15 months after their surgery to get a sample size of guys more similar to Pineda. And finally, I only included pitchers who started the season on the major league squad so that they would have a full season of work on their plate as their first taste of the majors after surgery like Pineda and so that their innings totals wouldn’t be skewed. The list of players goes as follows:
Bronson Arroyo, Zack Wheeler, A.J. Griffin, Robbie Erlin, Lance Lynn, Matt Harvey, John Lackey
An interesting assortment of names, sure, but these are the most similar comps to Pineda that have come about in recent history as far as time off goes. Here they are broken down by innings totals in their first full year back from injury:
60-80 innings: Bronson Arroyo
80-100 innings: Zack Wheeler
100-120 innings: A.J. Griffin, Robbie Erlin
180-200 innings: Lance Lynn, Matt Harvey, John Lackey
Well, that’s certainly something. Arroyo was old and bad at this time so take that with what you will. Wheeler was seemingly in witness protection for a few years there as he was suffering from Metsitits before breaking out just this past year. Griffin missed some time due to injury in his first year back which ultimately hampered his innings total but that could very well be a problem for Pineda as well this upcoming year. Lance Lynn, Matt Harvey, and John Lackey all had seemingly normal years immediately following their extended recovery, but Harvey also presents himself as a cautionary tale of why innings limits exist for players recently removed from surgery. He went over his innings limit in 2015 and has not been the same pitcher since.
Personally, I find this data to actually be rather optimistic. While no pitcher was within that 160-170 innings total that I mentioned before, a few pitchers were able to come back and have normal years even after an extended break due to recovery. While I don’t want to go as far as thanking Lance Lynn for what he did, he is among those who represent a ray of hope that Pineda can be consistently relied upon in 2019.
Now, you might have noticed that I did not mention Robbie Erlin yet. Erlin worked this last year as a swingman for the Padres, or the Giants, be honest, you don’t know whether or not Robbie Erlin actually exists much less the team he plays for. But Fangraphs tells me that there allegedly was a player under the pseudonym “Robbie Erlin” for the Friars last year who got his innings out of the pen and as a starter, and I find that very interesting. The Padres most likely observed the Harvey fiasco and decided it was best not to follow that same path so they artificially reduced Erlin's innings totals by limiting his chances at getting a large number of outs.
Why do I find that interesting? The crafty Twins have recently been rather vague about their plans for getting outs in the 2019 season. Instead of referring to Fernando Romero as a reliever, they said that they will transition him to get him ready for “shorter stints”. Instead of saying that Adalberto Mejia is a starter, they said that he will be stretched out for “extended outings”. While GM talk is nothing new, the new wave of baseball strategy has been focused on getting the most outs you can in the most efficient way possible. Hell, Craig Counsell in his infinite wisdom just refers to his pitchers now as “out-getters”. You can say that baseball is getting more progressive in their old and archaic categorizing of pitchers, but it seems to me that teams are catching on to the most effective ways to get outs in today’s game.
Much like with the Padres and Erlin, I have to assume the Twins are also very concerned with Pineda’s innings limit. No specific number has become public, but there has to be one. And possibly as a way to limit those innings, we may see the Twins try a bevy of things for Pineda. Maybe they use an opener for him, maybe he is the opener for someone, maybe he occasionally works in long relief, maybe he closes some games! I absolutely would not put it past the Twins to try any number of these strategies to avoid a Matt Harvey situation in the future. Although that also begs the question, do they care? Is Pineda just here as a placeholder for another guy to come in in 2020? While it may be morally wrong, how much would the Twins care about ruining the arm of a guy they have no intention of keeping long term? As the season plays out, we shall see the answers to these questions, but keep in mind that it is realistic for Pineda to fire off a full season of work as a starter in 2019.