[I wrote this post for ESPN's SweetSpot Blog and it was originally published on Friday, March 4] The New York Yankees’ starting rotation has more than a few question marks as we approach the start of the 2016 season. Among them: Will CC Sabathia pitch like he did down the stretch at the end of last season -- he had a 2.17 ERA in his final five starts -- or was it just an aberration? Will Masahiro Tanaka’s elbow survive another full season without falling apart? Will Luis Severino build on his strong showing as a rookie in 2015? Will Nathan Eovaldi also survive a full season without arm issues? Will Ivan Nova, in his second season coming off Tommy John surgery, actually make the rotation and oust Sabathia from the fifth slot? Finally, we have Michael Pineda: Will he have a successful 2016? And what the heck happened to him in 2015?
In some ways, 2015 was great for Pineda. He pitched 160.2 innings, made 27 starts -- the most since his 28 starts in 2011 with Mariners -- and he didn't suffer any catastrophic, season-shortening injuries. The fact that he was pitching after missing full seasons in 2012 and 2013 with shoulder problems was a minor miracle in itself. In other ways, it wasn't so great. Pineda had a 4.37 ERA and a .332 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) (the sixth-highest among pitchers with at least 150 innings). He gave up 21 home runs (Diamondbacks closer Brad Ziegler has given up that many in 528 career innings), his HR-to-fly ball ratio was 14.7 percent (ninth-highest in baseball), he missed some time with a forearm strain, and he had an awful lot of trouble keeping runners from scoring.
Those numbers were particularly horrendous for Pineda, and they were one reason his 4.37 ERA was a run higher than his 3.34 fielding independent pitching (FIP). With men on base, batters hit .309/.324/.530 against him, and it got even worse with runners in scoring position, as batters hit a healthy .325/.341/.575, contributing to a left-on-base percentage of 68.6, the 10th-worst rate in the majors.
Pineda's main issue seemed to be his control, but not in the way you would think. The problem is that he pitches in the zone a lot and if his pitches aren't working, he's very hittable. If any game last season was an example of everything that was wrong with Pineda's 2015, it was his start against the Phillies on June 22. It was by far his worst game of the season, as he lasted only 3⅓ innings, gave up eight earned runs on 11 hits, didn't strike out a batter and walked one.
The game was a death-by-singles sort of contest, even though Pineda also gave up home run and a double. Seven of the pitches hit for singles were in the strike zone, and two more singles came on pitches outside of the zone -- low middle and high and outside. Seven of the hits -- six singles and a double -- came with men on. Breaking it down even further, four of those singles and the double were hit with runners in scoring position.
Here's what we're getting at: Pineda is a strike-thrower. Among those 150-inning pitchers, only Phil Hughes and Bartolo Colon had a lower walk rate than Pineda, who issued just 21 free passes. Check out his fastball location:
That's a high percentage of pitches in the middle of the strike zone. In fact, looking at all his pitches, he had the seventh highest percentage of pitches in the horizontal middle of the zone (which is the middle of the strike zone from the top to the bottom) in the majors. That's not necessarily a bad thing, as Clayton Kershaw ranked first. But Pineda obviously lacks Kershaw's deception or ability to set up pitches. When Pineda locates in that horizontal middle, batters hit .335/.338/.610 against him. So his high BABIP appears to be, at least in part, an issue of too many hittable strikes.
What's odd is that Pineda's raw stuff is actually pretty good. Again, among those 150-inning pitchers, Pineda ranked 14th in percentage of swinging strikes -- just ahead of Zack Greinke, David Price and Matt Harvey -- and 26th out of 89 in overall strikeout rate.
Anyway, after that poor outing against the Phillies, he did rebound in his next start on June 28 against the Astros, going eight innings and scattering seven hits and three runs (two earned) in a 3-1 loss. He also struck out eight batters, didn't walk anyone and didn't give up a home run.
Pineda continued to do well on July 4 and July 10, when he only gave up one total run in two starts while striking out a combined 16 batters and only walking one. And most importantly, neither the long ball nor soft hits victimized him in either start -- both wins. Then came two bad outings in which he allowed nine runs and recorded just six strikeouts, the inconsistent results that were so maddening to Yankees fans all season.
After that run, he was out July 30-Aug. 26 with a forearm strain, which didn't help the Yankees' already thinning rotation at the time. After he came back from the disabled list, his starts averaged 5.1 innings. His high was just six innings, which he reached in four separate starts, and in his last start of the season against Baltimore on Oct. 4, he only lasted 3.2 innings in a 9-4 loss.
So did Pineda run out of gas? It would seem so. It's also possible the forearm strain he suffered in July contributed to his numbers down the stretch.
In 2016, Pineda needs three things to happen to have a successful season: He needs to stay healthy, he needs to be consistent and he needs to improve his pitch location with runners on base. In his case, those three things go hand in hand.