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.