Free Agent Joel Pineiro

Joel Pineiro is a guy who got a lot of press this season because of his drastic shift from an ok pitch-to-contact, slight ground ball pitcher to an amazing tiny-BB-rate, extreme ground ball pitcher. Now that Pineiro is a free agent, it is incumbent on teams examine the roots of this change as they evaluate him.

First, looking at his BB rate, here is his career history.
He has always been above average at limiting walks but, last year, entered the “good” range and, this year, dropped even farther to 1.14 BB/9, the lowest rate for a starting pitcher. He also had the lowest walk per batter faced, 3.2%.

At first blush the per-pitch data does not back up this extraordinary control. His Zone% is just 52.5%, which is good, but is the lowest rate of his career and only 14th best in the majors. How can this good, but not great, Zone% lead to the best walk rate in the majors?

The answer lies in his 87.7% contact rate, the highest of his career and third highest in the majors. Since he rarely misses bats, his at-bats just don’t go long enough for him to walk many batters. This is sort of the opposite of what I noticed with Scutaro and Castillo, who take strikes in hopes of extending the at-bat long enough to get a walk. Pineiro’s pitches are so hittable that at-bats rarely last long enough to reach four balls even if they aren’t in the zone at the same rate Cliff Lee or Johan Santana. On the other hand, this hittableness resulted in his 4.42 K/9 rate, third worst in the game.

So Pinerio is an extreme pitch-to-contact pitcher, but if you are going to give up a ton of balls in play, you want to do it the way he does. He led the league by a fair margin in ground balls per ball in play, which results in more double plays and fewer extra base hits. That was the second big change for Pineiro. Red is LDs, blue FBs and green GBs.
Over the past couple years, 2006 to 2008, he had a ground ball rate of 48% — good, not extraordinary — but in 2009 it jumped over 60%. Obviously this was the result of his development of and increased use of a sinker or two-seam fastball. Here are his pitch use break downs in 2007 through 2009 (the years we have the pitchf/x data, which I used to classify his pitches).

|                    | 2007 | 2008 | 2009 |
| Four-Seam Fastball | 0.54 | 0.36 | 0.11 |
| Two-Seam Fastball  | 0.03 | 0.23 | 0.59 |
| Slider             | 0.16 | 0.20 | 0.12 |     
| Curve              | 0.16 | 0.09 | 0.09 |     
| Changeup           | 0.11 | 0.12 | 0.09 |     

That two-seam fastball he is using so much more often has a 68% ground ball rate and a 91% contact rate. Thus it is the big reason he is so hittable, which plays a role in the decrease in walks, and the big reason he got so many ground balls this year.

As I wrote before, Pineiro will regress in 2010 and very likely not perform as well. This season was about the best you can expect from a pitcher who strikes out less than one batter every two innings. But assuming he keeps throwing that sinker so often, he will limit walks, get tons ground balls and be a solid pitcher.

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Dave Allen's other baseball work can be found at Baseball Analysts.

20 Responses to “Free Agent Joel Pineiro”

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  1. gnomez says:

    I’d love to see a monthly split of his gb%. I know mid-July it was somewhere around 75%.

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  2. mattymatty says:

    “Pineiro will regress in 2010 and very likely not perform as well.”

    With that in mind, I saw the headline, “Mets Intrigued by Pineiro” on and I thought, of course they are.

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    • Joe R says:

      Pineiro for Wilmer Flores, Josh Thole and Jenrry Mejia, brought to you by his Minayaness.

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      • Steve says:

        i never want to be the guy getting in the way of a good Mets’ joke, but the title of the article is…

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      • Joe R says:

        Yeah, I am an idiot.

        Well I mean, we could be optimistic of this being a trade deadline deal, which would make it even more hilarious, right?

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    • Ken says:

      And if their team defense is as bad as it was this year, the Mets would be about the last team to get much value out of Pineiro. He is definitely a case where he is far more valuable to a strong defensive team (Mariners, Rays, etc.) where at least all those balls in play have a better chance of being picked up.

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      • joser says:

        Yes, although the M’s strength is outfield defense; the infield isn’t all that special (Jack Wilson certainly improves it, but it’s a wash if Beltre leaves as a FA). The Rays, sure, but they’ve got a lot of pitching anyway and probably have better uses for scarce FA money. But your general point is dead-on: you only want to give up groundballs if your infield is going to turn them into outs.

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    • Logan says:

      I’m a Mets fan, I think Minaya’s bad, but this would be a good move. First, he’d come cheap relative to other starters (Lackey), which would allow the team to pursue a bat like Holliday.

      Also, with Reyes back and Castillo possibly traded(?), the infield defense would be improved to the point where those ground balls would be very useful.

      Even if he regresses, a 200 IP pitcher with an FIP around 4 is very useful. I’d like to see us sign him.

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      • Gary says:

        If you got 200 IP and a FIP around 4 you’d be kissing your lucky stars.

        The last time Pineiro pitched 200 innings was 2003.

        Which is the 2nd killer red flag for me. Pineiro is a ticking time bomb waiting to have tommy john surgery.

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  3. Big Oil says:

    Solid analysis. Good article.

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  4. jimbo says:

    His BB rate shows progression, but the GB % really jumped. If he maintains the BB rate, and gives back 50% of the GB improvement…what sort of results would that suggest for 2010? Or is that even enough to make a projection?

    Sorry to use a football analogy, but most teams run first to open up passing…is it possible with this refined approach that he could actually leverage it into more K’s next year? He used to be much better at getting strikeouts, and as a former Seattle resident I know he does have some swing and miss offerings.

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    • Dave Allen says:

      I really don’t think he can maintain that BB rate. It is just too good. My best guess, and this is just a guess, would be something like 4.95 k/9, 1.8 bb/9 and 0.8 hr/9. That works out to 110 Ks, 40 BBs and 20 HRs over 200 innings and a FIP of 4, which I think is reasonable. FIP is (HR*13 + BB*3 -K*2)/IP + 3.2, so if you want you can plug in your own projected K, BB and HR, and see what it predicts.

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  5. b_rider says:

    You mentioned that Piniero’s Zone% seems low. I don’t know the statistics, but isn’t that common for good groundball pitchers?

    Career Zone%
    Derek Lowe 50.1%
    Felix Hernandez 50.9%
    Brandon Webb 51.6%

    I would guess that the key to being a really good groundball pitcher is to throw pitches that look like they are going to be in the zone, but sink or move just enough that they move out of the hitter’s optimal contact zone and get hit weakly or at a downward angle. If you couldn’t hit the zone at all, no one would swing, and it wouldn’t work. Conversely, if your sinker doesn’t miss bats, and you throw it down the middle of the plate, it would get hammered (a la Carlos Silva). So a good pitch-to-contact groundballer is going to look like Piniero–with the ability to throw pitches close enough to the zone that batters swing, but not so close that they can get solid contact.

    That is not to say that it will be easy for Piniero to repeat his success. It strikes me that he has to walk a fine line to make this strategy work–he’s got to have pretty good command. We can probably expect some regression.

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  6. joser says:

    Where are all the posts by “Wrightous” and those other guys for whom any unexpected (or just any) increase in performance can only have one possible cause: the juice?

    Or have they (thankfully) been banned or otherwise gone on to posting at sites more, uh, worthy of their contributions?

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  7. joser says:

    This almost certainly was a best-case season for Pineiro, but I wonder how much of his new skills can be attributed to Dave Duncan and how much of them he’ll retain if he leaves that tutelage?

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  8. Pat says:

    Is he the rich man’s Carlos Silva? I’m sure Pineiro is a better pitcher, but when I quickly look at the two I see some similarities. I hope for the team’s sake who signs him, he doesn’t flop as bad as Silva. I’m not really sure what went wrong with Silva, other than everything?

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  9. nota bene says:

    FWIW, according to this, Pineiro’s new pitch this season was actually something called a one-seamer. There’s a picture of the grip here.

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  10. B says:

    Wow, this is a really interesting case study. I love players that are unusual and get things done in ways that don’t work for most players. You know, I always thought the whole “pitch to contact” idea was a load of crap, basically a nice thing to say about bad pitchers when you don’t have any other easy to use cliche at the ready…but the concept of being hittable so batters don’t get the chance to get anywhere close to 4 balls is interesting. You may be on to something – that letting guys hit the ball (usually a bad thing, but not so bad if theyre mostly GB’s) can have a positive effect, that effect being a lower walk rate. I wonder how many pitchers per batter Pinerio throws compared to normal pitchers, and compared to other GB pitchers.

    There are a lot of reasons Pineiro should regress next year, from his likely unsustainably high GB% and BB%, to his fluky good HR/FB…I think it’ll be interesting to see how much regression there is, though, and if he’s still a legitimately good pitcher after things trend in the direction they should…

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