Masahiro Tanaka's start wasn't that great on Monday, and Yankeeland went into near meltdown mode as a result. After the pesky off-day yesterday, we move from that injury concern storyline to a less serious one tonight in the form of Michael Pineda. He'll make his 2015 debut after a very strong spring campaign, one that, even in the context of watered-down ST competition, has built some of the excitement back up that he can be the upper-tier pitcher the team expected him to be when they acquired him.
With Pineda looking and pitching better this spring and with him being further removed from the shoulder surgery, I wanted to touch on a few things worth following in his start tonight. While it's equally silly to predict a monster year for him based on 1 start while fretting over Tanaka after 1 start, there are a few factors that could suggest good things to come for a guy who I still think didn't get enough credit for how good he was last year. In no particular order...
1) Fastball Velocity
While the differences in other pitchers' fastball velocities have been way overblown this spring, the drop in Pineda's velocity last season compared to his 2011 rookie was very real. In 2011, he lived 94-96 with his fastballs, which were almost exclusively 4-seamers. Last year he averaged 91-92 on his 4-seamer and cutter. That's a significant difference for a pitcher who uses his power fastball to set up his other pitches, and it's perfectly understandable when you're talking about a pitcher who missed 2 years with a serious shoulder injury. Pineda hadn't gotten a lot of work in over the previous 2 years either, so his shoulder, while healed, was likely not nearly as strong as it was in 2011 when he was throwing flames. It's not hard to start to make a connection between the diminished velocity and diminished K rate from those years (24.9% in '11, 20.3% in '14).
I admittedly haven't followed every report on every Pineda spring start, so I don't know if there have been radar readings on his fastball all the time. But from what I do remember, I believe Pineda has been a tick higher with his heater this spring, back up into that 93-96 range with the 4-seamer at times. If that's what he's throwing tonight, it would be an encouraging piece of circumstantial evidence that he's back to 100% physically and back to full strength in his arm.
The big talk with Pineda in terms of his future ceiling has always been the need for and development of a reliable third pitch. He's been working on a changeup since being traded and last season he did show it off a little more, using it 6.0% of the time according to FanGraphs' PITCHf/x and 9.3% according to Brooks Baseball.
Pineda has also added some movement to his fastball to give hitters another thing to think about, but a more improved and more regularly used changeup would be a huge weapon for him against left-handed hitters. If he's gotten good enough with it where he feels comfortable, it could also serve him well against righties. Pineda coming out and establishing his changeup as a pitch he will go to and mix in with his fastball-slider in his first start would be cool to see.
In a similar vein to the diminished fastball velocity, Pineda's stamina and ability to maintain his stuff deeper into games was an issue last year. IIATMS alum and recent RAB recruit Katie Sharp wrote about that very topic this morning, pointing out that Pineda averaged fewer than 6 IP and 90 pitches per start in 2014 and failed to hold his fastball velocity and slider effectiveness into his later innings.
Again, this is very easily attributable to his injury, surgery, and physical conditioning after 2 years away from regular starting pitching activity, and is perfectly understandable. When you haven't had to throw 95, 100, 105+ pitches a game in over 2 years, it's probably best to not jump right back into that deep end of the workload pool post-shoulder surgery.
Ideally this year we will see an increase in Pineda's pitches thrown and innings pitched per start, and a less dramatic drop in velocity in those later innings. So assuming he isn't shelled and knocked out early tonight, those radar gun readings in the later innings might be even more important than the ones in the 1st or 2nd. If Pineda is still popping the glove in the low-mid 90s late and still snapping off nasty swing-and-miss sliders, those would be more good signs that he's better equipped to make it through a full season this year and maybe even less of a risk to suffer another shoulder-related injury setback.
The Yankees were hoping to get a #1-#2 type starter when they traded for Pineda, and even though it took a while that's what they got in a small dose in 2014. He was really good last year and he's been even better this spring. He was the team's best starter in camp, period. Threw the most innings, allowed the fewest runs, and had a sparkling 23/1 K/BB ratio. If he can continue on that early path tonight, and show that some of last year's problems won't be carrying over to this year, he could help calm people's Tanaka-frayed nerves.