Game 51, Yankees at Mariners, Pineda at El Rey
King Felix vs. Michael Pineda, 7:10pm
Happy Felix Day
The broadcasts have emphasized this match-up throughout the Indians series, and with good reason. This is as interesting a pitching match-up as we’ve seen in a while, and we JUST saw Felix vs. Chris Archer. Pineda was Felix’s heir apparent, and I acknowledge the oddity of discussing the succession plann of a kid in his mid 20s, and seemed poised for a long run of success after making the All-Star team in his first big league season in 2011. Then came The Trade, and the strange back-and-forth feelings about who “won” it, or who lost it less, or whatever. For the first year, Yankee fans must’ve been wondering what the M’s knew and when, as both Pineda and 2nd piece Jose Campos went down with serious arm injuries. Fast forward a year or two – a time period marred by suspensions, whatever the hell Hector Noesi was, and flying frozen snacks, and suddenly M’s fans were wondering what the Yankees knew back in early 2012, and lamenting that Pineda was back, suddenly, in the New York rotation.
This will be Pineda’s first time facing the M’s, and it’s sad but inevitable that The Trade will figure so prominently. We’re three-plus years from the date it went down, and Pineda’s spent most of that period rehabbing from shoulder surgery and then a strained muscle in his back (near the shoulder). As a result, it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Pineda of 2015 is substantially different from the one we knew in 2011. With the Yankees (or ‘post-rehab’ if you prefer), Pineda has refined his always-good control into one of the league’s elite tools. Pineda’s walk rate this year is under 2% – he’s walked 5 in 64 1/3 IP thus far. Last season, he walked 2.4% in 76+ IP – this is a skill, and Pineda has honed that skill remarkably well. He always had it, but consider that with the M’s, his BB% was just under 8%. The strikeouts have returned this year, as his K% is 25%, which is fractionally better than it was in 2011.
His arsenal has changed in one important way, though. With the M’s, he had a very good four-seam fastball – it featured plus velo at 95-96, and average movement. Coupled with his control, it was a very effective pitch. He threw it for strikes, it got more whiffs than the average fastball, and batters hit .229 off of it, thanks in part to a low BABIP. Despite not having a ton of rise, it was a clear fly ball pitch, and given Pineda’s reliance on it, Pineda was thus a fly ball pitcher. Today, Pineda’s scrapped the four-seamer entirely, and instead features a cutter. With basically no horizontal movement and clear “sink,” it’s made Pineda a ground ball pitcher all of the sudden, and may help him avoid HRs in the compact new Yankee Stadium. It’s no longer the big velocity fastball he had with Seattle – it comes in at 92, and while it still gets some swinging strikes, it’s more of a set-up pitch. On its own, the pitch can be a little underwhelming. Batters are hitting about .300 on it since he developed the pitch, including .356 this year – that’s the highest BA-allowed on any starter’s cutter. And yet: Pineda has a FIP of 2.50 and a K:BB ratio of 13.4:1, easily the best in the league. He’s essentially become the ace M’s fans thought he would, but he simply doesn’t *pitch* the way we thought he would.
The small changes he’s made to his slider accentuate the point. The slider was his outpitch in the M’s system and in 2011, and it still is – it’s his best 2-strike pitch, and he’s been able to throw it to lefties as well as righties since he came up. In 2011, we focused on the horizontal movement of his slider because it was so different from his four-seamer’s. That distinction between FB and SL is less true now that his “fastball” is a cutter with essentially no horizontal movement at all. To compensate, his new slider has even more movement in both planes. It’s the same speed it was in 2011, so the velo gap has shrunk, but it now sinks more and cuts away from righties slightly more. Because he’s always around the zone, it’s harder for batters to lay off the pitch, and as a result, his slider’s swung at very often – the 3rd most in baseball thus far in 2015. Perhaps because of the increased “drop” on it, it’s always being hit on the ground more than it was in 2011, too. So, it’s tougher to lay off of, more likely to be hit on the ground, but still has the same whiff rate as before. Not bad.
Unfortunately for Pineda and the Yankees, all of that ground ball contact hasn’t been converted into outs. With Seattle, lots of fly balls and a solid defense helped Pineda run a low BABIP. This year, Pineda’s BABIP is an unsightly .335. Batters are hitting .280 on grounders against him, despite glove-first SS Didi Gregorius leading the Yankees in SS innings. Chase Headley’s 3B defense has been shaky, but it’s still somewhat surprising to me that Pineda’s struggled so much on balls in play. Less surprising, though, has been Pineda’s issues out of the stretch. Even in 2011, this was a problem for Pineda. Batters were helpless with no one on (wOBA-against of .253), but if one of them found his way aboard, Pineda became almost average (wOBA-against of .321) – his K rate fell, and his HR rate rose. This led to a poor strand rate, and an ERA a bit worse than his FIP. So far in 2015, the gap’s reduced, but his strand rate’s still a bit below average, which has pushed his ERA well above his fourth-in-MLB FIP. So: get aboard, M’s, and it might not be worth waiting for the perfect pitch. He’s thrown cutters on nearly 70% of his first-pitches – if it’s there, take a whack at it.
1: Morrison, 1B whaaaat?
2: Cano, 2B
3: Cruz, RF
4: Seager, 3B
5: Smith, DH
6: Jackson, CF
7: Miller, SS
8: Zunino, C
9: Ackley, LF
SP: KING FELIX
Well, that’s a different order. Of M’s lefties, LoMo actually has the top walk rate, tied with Brad Miller at 10.2%. It’s not as crazy as it looks at first glance, I suppose, though Smith and Miller both seem like good, familiar choices.
The Rainiers beat Round Rock 6-3 yesterday, as Jimmy Gilheeney got the win in a spot-start for Mike Montgomery, fueling more speculation that the lefty is headed to Seattle to start tomorrow. Franklin Gutierrez and Leon Landry homered for the R’s. That’s Landry’s 3rd HR in 2 days, after 2 on Saturday. Early game today – a before-noon start time to allow thousands of school kids to attend. The kids were treated to a terrible beat-down inflicted by Round Rock, as the Express compiled a 10-0 lead in the 4th, scoring all 10 off Tacoma starter Stephen Landazuri. Rangers prospect Anthony Ranaudo was solid, and pitched 6IP giving up 2R on a HR by Patrick Kivlehan. Leury Bonilla hit a double, but the game was long decided. It finished 14-3, with Bonilla pressed into duty on the mound. The utility IF/OF gave up 3 runs in his inning, including a HR by Jake Smolinski.
Jackson faces the Mississippi Braves today, as Edwin Diaz tries to get accustomed to AA living. He’ll face off with right-hander Greg Ross, one of those unheralded org guys who puts up remarkably good numbers. Ross put up solid numbers (though without a lot of K’s) across multiple levels in 2013 and 2014. He hasn’t been as effective this year, but he’s still been pretty valuable for an 18th round pick.
Bakersfield lost to Rancho Cucamonga 3-1 yesterday, as Jharel Cotton, just called up from the MWL, threw 5 solid innings (1R allowed, 7 Ks) for the Quakes. He was followed by Ivy League-educated reliever Michael Johnson, who struck out 7 in 3 scoreless innings. Bakersfield’s TEAM OPS this year is .616. Since 2010, only one team has had an OPS under .700 – Modesto put up a .690 mark last year. Bakersfield will try to get things going with a double header against the Quakes today.
Cedar Rapids edged Clinton 6-5 in 11 innings yesterday. The Kernels got 2 to tie the game in the 8th, then walked it off with a 2-out single in the 11th. Clinton blew a 5-0 lead in the game. Today, Clinton was held hitless for 6 2/3 IP by Twins prospect Stephen Gonsalves, who came into the year as a 10-20th prospect, but is clearly in the top 10 now after dominating the Midwest League. The final was 5-0, as Gonsalves struck out 11 in 7IP, giving up 2 hits.
Speaking of the minors, Ben Lindbergh (of Grantland) and Sam Miller (of Baseball Prospectus) got the chance of a lifetime to essentially run the baseball operations department for a pro team this year when they were hired by the Sonoma Stompers of the Pacific Association, an independent league in California. Ben/Sam get to make up the roster, tinker with strategy and try to win professional games using sabermetrics/data/gut-feel/whatever they choose, and then they’ll collaborate on a book about their year. You may have heard about this on NPR this morning, when David Greene interviewed Lindbergh. For fans of the Effectively Wild podcast, you’ve been anticipating this for months – today is opening day, and the Stompers face Pittsburg at 6:00pm. Does sabermetrics work in the Indie Leagues? Do you need to know more about the indies to know what talents are undervalued? They’re the indie leagues, with teams and, as we saw this week, LEAGUES operating on a shoestring. How can any team OVERvalue a skill in these conditions? What kind of market inefficiencies operate when teams are forced to watch every penny? I’m curious to find out. If you need an M’s tie-in to the Stompers, the club features pitcher Mike Jackson, jr., the son of former Mariner Mike Jackson.