The Yankees traded for Michael Pineda two years ago, and since then he’s thrown 0 major league pitches. After a breakout rookie season in Seattle, the Mariners felt that they had enough pitching to deal for the Yankees’ Jesus Montero, so they bid farewell to their young starter. In that rookie season, Pineda looked like one of the brightest young pitchers in baseball, owning a 9.11 K/9 a 2.89 BB/9, and a 3.42 FIP in 171.0 innings pitched. He was a great young pitcher, similar to the reputations now given to Jose Fernandez, Shelby Miller, or Chris Archer.
Two years later, Pineda is one of the forgotten players in this Yankees’ pitching staff. He’s spent this time recovering from a minor labrum tear, and the recovery has been slow and methodical. When the injury first happened, Jay Jaffe took a look at how other pitchers fared after labrum tears, and the majority of the results were not good. But Pineda’s injury was not as bad as your typical tear, it was not only minor, but his rotator cuff was undamaged, something that rarely happens in the pitching world. Jaffe had three comparable players, Anibal Sanchez, Jose Valverde, and Wade Miller. Miller struggled to return, but both Sanchez and Valverde had extremely productive careers after their individual injuries, with Valverde surviving to throw in the upper 90’s regularly, and Sanchez growing into one of the most dominant starting pitchers in 2013.
The way the Yankees’ have taken to Pineda’s rehab is another positive, as they’ve been extremely patient and cautious trying to avoid re-injury. But in 2014, the Yankees now want to remove the training wheels and push Pineda back into the rotation. He’ll be a fifth starter fighting for a job, but if everything goes right, he could also be among the top starting pitchers in the staff.
Thus far, we’ve seen the Yankees’ personnel and players extremely optimistic about Pineda. According to them, he’s throwing easily with good velocity, though they’re not at the point in Spring Training to start judging velocity.
“I’m feeling so strong. I’m feeling good power,” Pineda said. “… I’m throwing the same (as before the shoulder surgery). Mechanics the same. Everything is the same. All pitches are the same. I’m the same Michael Pineda.”
Joe Girardi was equally happy with the starter’s progress, and pointed out that he was throwing 93-94 mph with his fastball in minor league starts in 2013. That’s almost exactly where he sat in 2011, and in fact, Pineda’s short minor triple-A stint in 2013 looks fairly similar to the numbers he put up in his time in Triple-A with the Mariners. For the most part, Pineda looks like the same pitcher he was before the injury.
But as Mike Axisa pointed out in his article this morning, February is the season of optimism. Players are in the Best Shape of Their Life, they have a new training program, or they’re working on different approaches or mechanics. While it’s good to stifle expectations with Pineda, his potential is too hard to ignore for some Yankee fans.
Personally, the negativity towards labrum injuries has grown a little too pessimistic even for me, someone who’s very familiar with this type of injury. The specifics of Pineda’s injury paint a different story, a minor labrum tear which many players would probably ignore, and this is coupled with no damage to the rotator cuff. The reports in his velocity and slider movement are very good, but I do take them with a grain of salt, and it’ll be hard to tell what he’s capable of until we see the radar gun in March.
Assuming he rebounds into the old Pineda, he still has to deal with some issues. Pineda was fairly fly ball prone in 2011, owning a 44.8% fly ball rate, and a high home run rate for a pitcher in Safeco Field. His change up is also a work in progress, though we’ve heard some quotes this spring that he’s worked on some things while he’s rehabbed. Knowing the way the Yankees handled both Ivan Nova and Phil Hughes over the last couple of years, I’d think the Yankees are trying to get Pineda to throw a regular sinker(as they did with Nova) and perhaps turning his changeup into a splitter(as they did with Hughes). Pitching along with Hiroki Kuroda and Masahiro Tanaka could also help Pineda developing a sinker and splitter.
Even with a healthy season, and assuming he makes an effort at adding a sinker and developing his changeup, Pineda will see his fair share of struggles. Home runs will probably remain an issue inside Yankee Stadium and the other AL East parks. The Yankees may also limit Pineda’s innings, considering the amount of pitches he’s thrown over the last couple of years and the extent of his injury. Assuming he’s healthy, I’ll put Pineda at a 4.20 ERA with a 4.35 FIP and an 8.5 K/9. I see him outperforming his FIP due to the strong outfield defense and his tendency to generate fly balls. The hardest projection will be his amount of innings, and that will be the biggest number to watch as the Yankees try to earn back their star pitcher.