Pineda Isn’t Ready

Dave · March 16, 2011 at 11:06 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

I’ve been sitting on this post for a few weeks now. I started writing it while I was up in New Hampshire on a ski trip, but I wasn’t satisfied that I had enough information and I was only a few days away from seeing Michael Pineda pitch in Arizona, so I figured I’d let it slide until I got a chance to see him live. I got that chance last week when the M’s played the Indians in Goodyear, but my vantage point wasn’t exactly what you would want for a good report, and so I kept asking around about him. Every scout I talked to loves Pineda. They all think he’s awesome, and trying to get anyone to do anything but rave was a challenge. So, I figured I’d watch him one more time, and try to let him change my mind with his outing last night.

It didn’t happen. The Michael Pineda I watched last night was the same Pineda I’ve seen before, and the one that I just don’t think is ready to pitch in the big leagues right now.

The first thing everyone talks about with Pineda is the velocity. He throws a legitimate mid-90s fastball, and at 6’7, he’s got enough arm extension where it probably gets on the hitter like a high-90s heater. He’s a big dude who throws really hard, and that’s generally exciting. When you add in that he can actually locate the pitch in the strike zone with regularity, and all of the sudden, you have something of an unusual prospect. Big guys who throw hard often have no idea where its going, but Pineda hardly ever walks anyone. If anything, he might throw too many strikes. And so, right off the bat, you have two really positive traits, which is why he’s considered a premium pitching prospect to begin with.

The problem that I see is that there’s a pretty gap between those strengths and the next best thing Pineda can actually do. Once you get past fastballs in the strike zone, there’s not a whole lot else there right now. His slider has some promise, but he throws it in the low-to-mid-80s and it doesn’t have a hard bite, so it’s not a classic knockout breaking ball. It’s also inconsistent, and he flattens out it at times, turning it into more of a cut-fastball. It’s not a plus pitch yet and he knows it, so his go-to pitch when he wants a strikeout is the high fastball out of the zone. This pitch gets swinging strikes, but it’s also a pretty easy pitch to lay off when you know it’s coming, and since the slider isn’t refined enough to be a really good second option, hitters are going to quickly figure out that they can look for the high heat with two strikes.

Against right-handers, this probably won’t be that big of a deal. He’s got enough velocity and command to get it in on right-handers enough that it should be a pretty effective pitch for him. They’ll also have to keep an eye out for the slider, which is far more effective against same-handed hitters, so he’ll have some element of surprise when a right-handed hitter steps up to the plate. The one plus pitch, usable breaking ball, and good control should be enough to let him get righties out with regularity.

Lefties are a whole different story, however. The slider has the largest platoon split of any pitch in baseball, and it’s generally a pretty worthless offering against opposite-handed hitters. Unfortunately for Pineda, he has to use it as his off-speed pitch against them, because his change-up is not really Major League quality at this point. When a lefty steps in, they can essentially sit on Pineda’s fastball, because they can easily adjust to the slider and pound it if it dives into their wheelhouse. He doesn’t have a weapon to keep LHBs honest.

Look through the list of fastball-slider starters who rely primarily on those two pitches, and you quickly identify one pretty clear trend – they often have very large platoon splits. Jeremy Bonderman is the classic example, as he’s a guy who basically pitched with just those two offerings his whole career and dominated righties while getting torched by lefties. The result – a reputation as a career underachiever. Oher examples of similar pitcher types are Justin Masterson (though his arm slot is a complicating factor, as he simply can’t get lefties out from where he releases the ball), Ervin Santana, and Mike Pelfrey. All three were pretty well thought of as prospects, but have had some shine come off as big leaguers. They’re quality pitchers, but none of them are aces, as they struggle to get left-handed bats out and can easily get beat by teams with LH-heavy line-ups.

For Pineda to be more than that, he’s going to need his change-up to turn into a legitimate pitch he can lean on. It’s just not there yet. It could get there, but it needs work. Ideally, to develop the pitch, he should probably be throwing it 10-20 times a game, but if he does that in the big leagues, he’s going to get destroyed – nearly every change-up he threw tonight was either out of the strike zone or got crushed. In Tacoma, the team could essentially mandate change-up usage, and make it a focal aspect of his development. In Seattle, he’d have to essentially put it in the shelf and only work on it in bullpens between starts, as it’s not good enough to get big league hitters out right now.

For Pineda to become what the M’s want him to become, he needs that change-up to get a lot better. Letting him break camp with the team will slow down the pace with which he could work on the pitch, and potentially slow down the timetable until he becomes a legitimate front-end starter. Is he better than David Pauley or Luke French right now, even without the change-up? Yeah, probably. Could he succeed in the big leagues this year? It’s certainly possible. However, the M’s focus needs to be on developing Pineda into a top-shelf pitcher as quickly as possible, and given the state of his non-fastball pitches, I think the organization is best served if he spends a few months in Tacoma trying to get the rest of his repertoire up to speed.

There are compounding factors that will go into the decision, but for me, I’m not all that worried about service time or his arbitration schedule. I’d rather see Pineda come up as a more fully polished product. Right now, he’s a pretty good raw talent, and while he might be able to survive on what he has, he’s going to need more than just his fastball to become what the organization hopes he can be. He’s just not Major League ready yet. He’s got work to do, and that work is best done in Tacoma.

Thanks to the positive developments with Erik Bedard (who we’ll talk about tomorrow), the organization has the ability to send Pineda to Tacoma without having to just completely punt the back end of the rotation. They should take advantage of that opportunity, and let Pineda get his work in down in the PCL. Everyone will be better off in the long run.


19 Responses to “Pineda Isn’t Ready”

  1. APSvensk on March 16th, 2011 11:41 pm

    I think I agree with you here for the most part. If Pineda was a prospect on a team that didn’t need him so badly last night would have been even more positive. I saw some swings and misses on fastballs, breaking balls and maybe one on a change, great command of the strike zone (to a fault?), and success against some good big league hitters. It seems to me that when a team is banking on just one guy to succeed, it can make them desperate to rush him to the bigs. If they just maintain some patience here and let him go down and work on his secondary stuff, they have a good one here.

  2. maqman on March 17th, 2011 2:47 am

    Well put Dave, I agree it would be better for the big club for him to continue his education in Tacoma. If he comes up at the beginning of the season and starts getting shelled his self-confidence is probably going to take a big hit. Additionally he could get jerked around by the club as Joba was by the Yankees and end up in and out of the bullpen. He deserves time to get it right and complete his education.

  3. meloyellow15 on March 17th, 2011 5:34 am

    If you keep Pineda down, is it worth it to invest a million bucks in someone like Kevin Millwood or Jeremy Bonderman?

  4. charliebrown on March 17th, 2011 6:25 am

    I’ve been waiting for someone to tell me a baseball related reason to keep Pineda in the Minors for a while longer and Dave comes through.

    Great post Dave.

  5. Carson on March 17th, 2011 7:16 am

    This was a nice point of view, since all the arguments seem to be around purely service time right now.

    I know you have that whole supporting a family thing going on, Dave, but I sure miss this stuff.

  6. madatms on March 17th, 2011 8:21 am

    I was also present last night and his fastball seemed to be top notch but I agree with Dave he needs work on secondary pitches.His change up (I am not the expert that Dave is)the few I noticed did not seem to fool many hitters,but he has good promise.I believe he should start the year in Tacoma

  7. Leroy Stanton on March 17th, 2011 8:59 am

    If Dave is right then I think that’s even more reason to start with Pineda in the rotation. If he does struggle in the majors that will give the M’s a better idea of what he needs to work on and then they can send him down. That takes care of the service time issue and the readiness issue. Seems like a win-win.

  8. GarForever on March 17th, 2011 9:50 am

    As much I like the idea of a Hernandez-Vargas-Fister-Pineda-Bedard rotation (which could potentially give opposing teams fits), and while I take Leroy’s point, I find myself more in agreement with Dave. While this year’s team will almost surely be more competitive, I don’t think it likely that two or three months’ worth of Pineda starting will be the difference between a playoff push or not, even if he exceeds Dave’s expectations for the near future. In addition to the hole it could blow in his self-confidence, there is also the issue of neck strain as big league lefties park one not-ready-for-prime-time change-up after another somewhere in the neighborhood of the Hit It Here Cafe 😉

  9. Oh The Stank on March 17th, 2011 9:51 am

    Pineda’s breaking balls against lefties last night (6 AB):
    CH – B, SS, F
    SL- CS, F, F, SS, B
    The breaking stuff was encouraging to me, especially the slider, which even lefties couldn’t touch. More please!

  10. CMC_Stags on March 17th, 2011 9:53 am

    If Dave is right then I think that’s even more reason to start with Pineda in the rotation. If he does struggle in the majors that will give the M’s a better idea of what he needs to work on and then they can send him down.

    This doesn’t make sense to me. If the M’s already know what he struggles with – repeating his delivery, consistency for his slider, and any kind of a weapon against lefties – why start him with the MLB club and then send him down after he struggles?

    I don’t want this to turn into a situation where a young pitcher comes up too soon because he’s a slightly better option in the short term to the detriment of his long term development. Start Pauley for a few weeks (he did fine in 2010 and I’d personally like to see if he can repeat it) and then bring up Pineda if/when he’s ready to get out MLB lefties.

    Just a reminder (from…
    The Angels are expected to start 1 lefty and 3 switch hitters with two switch hitters on the bench.
    The Rangers are expected to start 3 lefties with a switch hitter and lefty on the bench.
    The A’s are expected to start 3 lefties and 2 switch hitters with a switch hitter and leftie on the bench.

    That means our division rivals can stack their line-ups with 5, 6, or 7 players hitting from the left hand side against Pineda. Until he can do something against lefties, he needs to stay in AAA.

  11. thurston24 on March 17th, 2011 10:32 am

    It would be nice to see him develop a curve ball as well. I hope the minor league staff can teach a decent change.

  12. smb on March 17th, 2011 12:02 pm

    Is this not also an opportunity to show the rest of baseball that the M’s are ready to shed their ill-gotten reputation for rushin’ n ruinin’ live young arms?

  13. Alec on March 17th, 2011 12:09 pm

    I just watched Pineda for the first time (spring training is probably the only time I like Tivo’d sports). Dave, the way you summed Pineda up to me on Twitter yesterday was pretty accurate. The only time I saw the slider be all that effective was against Yuni, and getting a swinging strike against him is easy enough that I think even Fister could do it. His change up was basically non-existent. I was on Matthew and Jeff’s side on LL about sending him down, even though I sure as hell would rather watch him pitch than Pauley or French. Now I am even more on their side.

  14. dchappelle on March 17th, 2011 2:29 pm

    I wouldn’t hold my breath on Pineda’s changeup developing. There are a multitude of pitchers that could’ve been great if they had one but never learned it. Still, definitely feels like starting him in Seattle would be the wrong decision.

    Shouldn’t he also consider joining the crowd and learning a cutter? It seems a far higher percentage of pitchers have had success with it and it is very effective against opposite handed batters as well.

  15. msfanmike on March 17th, 2011 3:21 pm

    Dave, I agree with you. Pineda doesn’t get the ball down consistently enough (in and out of the zone) to be effective at the Major League level with only a fastball. He will get there eventually, but he just isn’t there yet. He needs more polishing. There is no need to rush him.

    When he does come up, he would be best served by being a 2 inning reliever … learning, developing and then someday dominating as a member of the starting rotation.

    It doesn’t even look like he has really grown into his body yet. Either that, or 1/2 of it grew and the other 1/2 has yet to catch up. He is a wide load and it is tough for wide load guys to repeat that delivery without tipping over occasionally adn fighting their delivery in the process.

    He needs that secondary and third-dairy quality pitch to be a starter. He does not yet have them. He is legitimately 1/2 a season away (maybe more) from being able to join the rotation full time (IMO)

  16. lamlor on March 17th, 2011 4:49 pm

    I was at the game as well and this was my first chance to see him pitch live and I came away thinking that is thrower at the moment more than he is a pitcher. That is to be expected with a pitcher of his age and that is not a knock on him. We can’t have every young pitcher be the next Felix this early in life. I think he will be a good one later in the year or next year, but I would send him down and have him perfect a much needed 2nd and 3rd pitch that he can get outs with. Don’t let him go down and just blow people away. That will not do a thing for his progression.

  17. Chris_From_Bothell on March 17th, 2011 9:45 pm

    Seems odd to draw this conclusion based on a handful of spring training starts, given the frequent and correct chants about how little spring training stats mean.

    I’ll put more stock in the opinions of the professional scouts who are raving about him.

  18. Dave on March 17th, 2011 9:48 pm

    Yes, this post obviously leaned very heavily on statistical analysis of his spring training results.

  19. gwangung on March 18th, 2011 8:17 am

    I’ll put more stock in the opinions of the professional scouts who are raving about him.

    I’m not sure you’re getting WHY they rave about him or WHY Dave has concerns.

    One is more general, one is more specific.

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