It's been almost 4 months since Michael Pineda pitched for the Yankees. 16 weeks exactly. 111 days. That's a pretty long time, and with his Yankee career up to this point consisting of only the 4 starts he made this earlier season, it raises or re-raises a lot of questions about what we can expect from him tonight and for the remainder of the season. What kind of velocity will he have on his fastball? Will he be able to sustain it? How sharp will his slider be? How will his command be? How many pitches/innings will Joe let him throw? How many will he be able to throw? Will he get hurt again? It's not a short list.
In an attempt to answer or bare minimum be better prepared to answer those questions, let's take a look back at Pineda's 4 games in April and revisit what he did in his only meaningful time as a member of the New York Yankees.
Pineda's first start was in the team's 5th game of the season against the Toronto Blue Jays. He was the tough luck loser to R.A. Dickey despite pitching 6 innings of 1-run ball with no walks and 5 strikeouts. He threw 58 of 83 pitches for strikes, got 11 swings and misses, and his fastball averaged 93-94 MPH. It was more of the same in his second start in Boston on April 10th. 6+ IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 7 K, 63 strikes on 94 pitches, and 15 swinging strikes. The talk after the game was not about Pineda's performance, however, but rather the foreign substance that was easily visible on his right hand in the early innings.
Mother Nature gave Pineda an extra day of rest before his next start against the Cubs, which came in the second half of a 2-game doubleheader. Following Masahiro Tanaka's 8 shutout innings in the day game, Pineda tossed 6 of his own in the nightcap. He gave up only 4 hits, walked 1 batter, and struck out 3 while mixing pitches well and letting the overly aggressive Cubs hitters put the ball in play on pitcher's pitches.
Pineda got another few days of extra before making his last start, 6 days in fact, before facing the Red Sox again on April 23rd. As was the case in the first game, the weather was colder and wind was a factor, and was the case in the first game, Big Mike went to the foreign substance well to solve his grip problem. After a 30-pitch bottom of the 1st that saw him get tagged for 4 hits and 2 runs, Pineda took the hill in the 2nd with a very noticeable smear of pine tar on the right side of his neck. At John Farrell's request, the home plate ump checked Pineda's neck and immediately ejected him from the game. Pineda felt some discomfort in his right lat pitching in a sim game on April 29th while serving his 10-game suspension, was diagnosed with a Grade I teres major muscle in his right shoulder, and has been on the DL/slowly rehabbing ever since.
For the season, Pineda has pitched to a 1.83/2.73/4.17 tripleslash with 15 K and 3 BB in 19.2 IP. He was better than I think most of us honestly thought he would be, but there's enough in his SSS breakdown to very wisely assume that he wasn't going to maintain a sub-2.00 ERA pace for very long. He's been extremely flyball prone in his 4 starts, almost 58% of all balls put in play against him, while registering a very low 24.6% GB rate. In Yankee Stadium, that kind of contact split is going to result in some extra home run damage eventually, although Pineda had only given up 1 in his 4 starts.
The velocity numbers are indicative of someone who missed 2 years with a major shoulder injury. Pineda's velocity on his 4-seamer and cut fastballs is down almost 3 MPH compared to what he threw in 2011, and his slider is almost 1 MPH slower. This drop in velocity has led to more diversity in Pineda's offerings this season. His 4-seamer/slider usage is down from 90.8% in 2011 to 70.6% this season, with the cutter (19.8% from 4.7) and changeup (9.6% from 2.9) getting more play. Perhaps not coincidentally, Pineda has been hit harder by left-handed hitters than righties, who are less susceptible to his 2 top pitches. 6 of the 7 XBH against him have been hit by lefties, though their .308 wOBA against Pineda in 49 PA is hardly world class.
If his recent MiL rehab starts are any indication, Pineda is fully healthy and feeling good. His fastball velocity has reportedly been in the same low 90s range it was in back in April, and he only walked 1 of the 33 total batters he faced in 2 starts for SWB. It doesn't appear as though there is any lingering pain in the muscle limiting him or too much command rust to shake off from all the missed time. He isn't fully stretched out in terms of pitch count, but Joe had been limiting him to 85-90 in his April starts anyway.
The early April results suggest that Pineda, while not the big-time stuff stud he was in 2011, is still very much capable of being an above-average Major League starter. He's going to be an injury question mark from now until the end of time, but if he can approximate what he did in April over the remainder of this season, he'll be the latest incremental upgrade to the Yankee rotation.