A Pineda Split Worth Worrying About?

There might just be one split worth worrying about on Michael Pineda‘s player page.

There, among a bunch of splits that don’t have much predictive value, is one set of numbers that holds a little possibility for pain for the new potential star in pinstripes. It’s not the monthly splits — no sample of any size has shown those splits to be predictive — and Dave Cameron did a great job pointing out why even the home and away splits haven’t really shown a predictive pattern for Pineda.

But there might just be one split worth unpacking.

At first glance, Pineda’s platoon split doesn’t seem that daunting. His excellent 3.35 2011 FIP against right-handers was paired with a strong 3.49 FIP against left-handers. That doesn’t seem like a big deal, but there’s more here.

Peak over at his xFIP split (3.24 vs righties and 3.82 vs lefties) and you start to see a glimmer of the issue. Against right-handers, Pineda struck out double-digit batters and still had excellent control. Against lefties, the control was there (2.63 BB/9), but his strikeout rate fell to 7.77 per nine, an much more average number. Though he garnered below 40% of his contact on the ground against batters of both hands, Pineda was helped by a below-league-average home-run-per-fly-ball rate against lefties (7.6%, ~10% is average). Lefties should probably have hit more out.

So he struck out fewer lefties than righties and could have allowed more home runs from lefties in 2011. Doesn’t the small sample size negate most of what we learned from his work last year?

Strictly speaking, maybe. Pineda did only face 357 lefties last year (339 righties), so it’s not like we know everything about his true-talent platoon split yet. But there are other clues that tell us this could be an issue next year.

Pineda was a two-pitch pitcher against right-handed batters last year. He threw only 21 changeups to right-handed batters all year… out of 1378 total. The other thirteen hundred plus pitches were all fastballs and sliders. 94-MPH fastballs and wicked breaking sliders, but still only fastballs and sliders.

Fastballs and sliders have platoon splits of their own. Max Marchi confirmed a lot of our own Dave Allen’s work on the subject when he found that fastballs and sliders have the biggest platoon splits in baseball. There’s a reason people talk about a starter needing three pitches to succeed — once you add a more split-neutral pitch, you’re a more complete pitcher.

So now we have a big righty that has had trouble with lefties in the majors and the minors and has an arsenal that leads to platoon splits. Case closed, he’s got a platoon issue?

Not quite, of course. We have to discuss this particular pitcher before we can just label him as your typical two-pitch pitcher with platoon problems. For example, FanGraphs’ Lucas Apostoleris (using Harry Pavlidis‘ pitch classifications) found that Pineda’s slider was actually pretty good against batters of both handedness last season:

Pitch Whiffs/Swing Balls
Pineda Slider v RHB 41% 34%
Pineda Slider v LHB 34% 30%
MLB average non-FB 29% 39%
Pineda Fastball v RHB 25% 32%
Pineda Fastball v LHB 15% 31%

Righties whiffed an awe-inspiring 41% of the time they swung at a slider of his. Lefties, while they whiffed less, still drew air on 34% of their swings against the slider. In comparison, his fastball had a bigger platoon split. But, in both cases, Pineda’s main pitches themselves didn’t show shocking platoon splits on the pitch-by-pitch level.

We’re still not out of the woods. Check, for example, this tweet from Jim Bowden:

Developing a passable changeup, and harnesing the power of its’ reverse platoon split, would mean that Pineda had ended this train of thought definitively. Unfortunately, the changeup has not been there for him so far. He threw the pitch 11% of the time against lefties, but the results were not impressive. He got 15% whiffs per swing and 48% of his changeups were balls. Apostoleris found that the average non-fastball got 29% whiffs per swing with a 39% ball rate — in other words, Pineda’s changeup was really bad.

Can he succeed without it? Since 2010, only four starters have qualified for the ERA title while throwing the fastball and slider for more than 90% of their pitches (Pineda fell just short of 94%). The size of the list provides a clue that Pineda is already an outlier — these pitchers represent less than five percent of the qualified starter pool.

One name in particular stands out. Justin Masterson used the two pitches 97% of the time, and as a tall righty without a great changeup and a history of platoon issues, he’s a great comp. Last year, Masterson improved his control against lefties and rode that to a 3.88 xFIP against southpaw batters — and a career year. Pineda does have more velocity (94.2 vs 92.7 MPH last year), but Masterson’s career seems to suggest that Pineda’s rookie season is closer to his peak than Yankee fans would like to hear. Let’s say we blame Masterson’s splits on his arm slot more than his stuff — a distinct possibility — what do the other comps have to say?

The rest of the list doesn’t provide a ton of hope. Clayton Kershaw is a lefty, and he’s also the owner of a good curveball, even if his use of the pitch has declined recently. Jeremy Bonderman is a fastball-slider righty, and he has a career 4.78 FIP against lefties. Ervin Santana hasn’t used his changeup more than 6% of the time since 2008. Ervin Santana seems like a good pitcher — but he also has a 4.57 FIP against lefties and might not be quite the pitcher Brian Cashman is hoping for.

So we’ve got a pitcher with slight platoon splits that has shown worse platoon splits at times in the minor leagues. His arsenal makes him susceptible to platoon splits, too, but his excellent velocity has so far kept him out of major trouble. Can he get by on two pitches and a slight platoon problem even if he’s not an ace-level pitcher? It’s not like the players the Yankees sent to Seattle didn’t have their own questions. Is this a big deal?

Well, the change in home address suggests that it could be. Pineda is a fly ball pitcher going from a park that suppressed home runs by lefty batters five percent to one that augments that same outcome 43% — the most in the majors. Whatever luck helped Pineda keep lefty home runs down last year could run out pretty quickly with the short porch in right field. The division also has some decent lefty sluggers. The Red Sox rode Adrian Gonzalez, David Ortiz, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford (to an extent) all the way to the best work against lefties in the league last year (115 wRC+). A start against Boston at home will not be playing to Pineda’s strengths next year.

We’re left with a really good young pitcher with an asterisk. If he develops the changeup, Pineda will eliminate the asterisk and be worth every penny of Brian Cashman’s investment. If he doesn’t develop the changeup, other teams will have at least some kryptonite on this superman.

Michael Pineda is a really good young pitcher. Whether or not he will become great in pinstripes depends on one particular split worth worrying about.

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With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here or at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.

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“Against lefties, the control was there (2.63 BB/9), but his {Pineda’s} strikeout rate fell to 7.77 per nine, a decidedly average number.”

I don’t know if I’d suggest that a 7.77 K/9 is an average number, especially coming from a right handed pitcher. For all RH pitchers who threw at least 60 innings against left handed batter, Pineda’s 7.77 K/9 ranks 21/93.

So if anything, I would argue that for a right handed pitcher, that’s significantly above average.