Pineda Isn’t Ready
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.