Michael Pineda And Trying To Make It Back

If the last few days of baseball have taught us anything, it’s that the world’s most talented players don’t always receive enough cooperation from their bodies to stay on the field long enough to get the job done. We saw that this weekend when Mark Mulder’s torn Achilles sadly cut short his comeback before it could even begin, and we saw it late last week when Franklin Gutierrez announced he’d be sitting out 2014 due to a recurrence of the intestinal issues that have plagued him for years. If it feels like it’s only a matter of time until we hear about Grady Sizemore’s next injury, well, it probably is.

For the last two years, Michael Pineda has been on that list too. In the 25 months since Seattle traded him to the Yankees as part of a deal for Jesus Montero, Pineda has thrown as many big league pitches as you or I have: zero. He has spent zero days on the active 25-man roster, thanks to a torn shoulder labrum suffered in his first camp with the team, an injury often known as a career killer for pitchers. Considering that Montero is now a Triple-A first baseman, Hector Noesi has been sub-replacement for Seattle, and Jose Campos has been injured and yet to get out of Low-A for the Yankees, this is perhaps the best definition of a lose/lose trade in recent baseball history.

You knew all that, but what’s interesting now is that nearly two-and-a-half years after he last pitched in the bigs, Pineda claims he is “100 percent healthy,” and prepared to battle the likes of Vidal Nuno, Adam Warren and David Phelps for the final spot in the Yankee rotation. With how much uncertainty is ahead of that final group in New York — Masahiro Tanaka is an unknown until he proves he isn’t, Hiroki Kuroda is 39 and CC Sabathia’s 2013 struggles have been well-documented — any boost Pineda can offer at this point will be quite welcome.

We don’t know if he’ll even make it through the spring healthy, much less show enough ability to get hitters out to prove to the Yankees they should let him back on a big league mound in a game that counts. (He does still have a minor league option remaining.) But we do know this:

  • Pineda was briefly very, very good, and
  • Very few pitchers have successfully made it back from labrum tears

Remember, for that one season in 2011, Pineda was outstanding. As a 22-year-old rookie, he didn’t look at all out of place alongside Felix Hernandez at the top of Seattle rotation. Among the 94 qualified starters that year, Pineda’s strikeout percentage of 24.9 was better than all but five others, right between Justin Verlander and Tim Lincecum, back when Lincecum was still a stud. He was so good that year that when Seattle flipped him for Montero — who was of course still highly-regarded himself — it was arguably a deal tipped in the favor of the Yankees. 22-year-olds who can miss bats like that don’t come along very often (since the strike, only Kerry Wood, Rick Ankiel and Jose Fernandez had better K/9 marks as a rookie 22 or younger), and when they do, they don’t get traded. Over the last 100 years, exactly one rookie pitcher has thrown at least 150 innings with at least a strikeout per inning and fewer than three walks per nine: Pineda.

Pineda was once a guy who had a fastball that touched the mid-90s and a slider that could make the great Chipper Jones look like this:


Pineda threw the slider 857 times that year, and allowed a line against of just .175/.220/.294 off it when he did.

Of course, that’s all in the past now. After the trade, Pineda arrived at camp overweight before injuring his shoulder, and the history of labrum tears for pitchers is just awful. I was going to investigate just how awful, but I don’t need to — two years ago, my friend Jay Jaffe did just that in the wake of the original news about Pineda. At the time, Jaffe identified 67 pitchers who had similar injuries. (Though not necessarily identical, since every pitcher has their own unique concerns, and some were combined with other woes.) 20 of them never made it back to professional baseball, and several of the ones who made it back to the minors but not the bigs are the who’s-who of names you don’t want your young pitcher to be associated with, like Mark Prior and Brandon Webb. (We’re still waiting to see what becomes of more recent pitchers, like Danny Hultzen.) That said, it’s not impossible. Jaffe found 11 pitchers who had returned well enough to throw at least 400 innings (through 2011), and we’re talking about some big names there — Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, Chris Carpenter and Anibal Sanchez among them, although as Jaffe noted, Clemens’ injury was slightly different from Pineda’s, and every shoulder injury is of course its own unique animal.

We don’t know what category Pineda will end up falling into, but he did manage to get back into 10 rehab games at three levels last summer, starting just over 13 months following surgery. At the risk of scouting a stat line, a 41/14 K/BB mark in 40.2 innings is certainly encouraging, as were June reports that he was getting his fastball back up to the mid-90s again. We can see how he looked in this clip from a June 25 start for Double-A Trenton against Erie, and while the quality of the competition can’t be ignored, we’re at least seeing some swing-and-misses:

Of course, Pineda left an August 2 start with “shoulder stiffness” and didn’t pitch again, which Brian Cashman explained away as letting Pineda rest after so many months of rehab, while also saying he “finished the year healthy.” Now Pineda is throwing in camp and we should see him on the mound in games in the next few weeks, with an early report from Buster Olney indicating that the Yankees are “quietly encouraged and excited” about Pineda’s velocity, though of course take that for what it’s worth.

Maybe he’s done, doomed to bounce around the minors for years trying to reclaim that past glory with a shoulder that won’t let it happen, although the fact that he didn’t injure his rotator cuff is a mark in his favor . Maybe he’s just done as a starter, and may prove more useful to the Yankees in short stints out of the bullpen. (Even when Pineda was flying high in 2011, the charge against him was that he was a two-pitch pitcher, with a valuable slider and fastball but a poor change.) Either way, Pineda is attempting to do something that very few pitchers have done successfully, and that’s interesting regardless of who is trying it. Considering how great Pineda was in that one healthy season, and how high-profile that failed (to date) trade was, he’s one of the more fascinating stories of the spring, no matter whether you support the Yankees or not.

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Mike Petriello lives in New York and writes about the Dodgers daily at Dodgers Digest, as well as contributing to ESPN Insider. He wrote two chapters in the 2014 Hardball Times Annual as well as building The Hardball Times and TechGraphs, and was an editorial producer at Sports on Earth. Find him at @mike_petriello.

22 Responses to “Michael Pineda And Trying To Make It Back”

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  1. Bill says:

    Matt “Fat” Albers was a more or less competent starter in Houston before he tore his labrum. He’s back as a decent reliever. So, there’s certainly hope. The weird thing here is that if Pineda only returns as a competent reliever, there is still a good chance the Yankees will win the trade. After all, without throwing a pitch, he’s already already 1 WAR ahead of Montero.

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    • Bill says:

      Sorry, I’m thinking of Patton. Albers was hurt while a reliever with Baltimore. Patton was hurt in Houston and has finally returned as a fairly effective lefty out of the bullpen while Albers has done even better.

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  2. Preston says:

    I’m kind of hoping that they don’t push him too hard in ST. Let David Phelps start the year in the rotation. Keep Pineda in extended ST, then send him to AAA, and then bring him up when you eventually need a 6th starter as teams inevitably do. There’s no reason to rush him from an injury like that and he’s inevitably going to have an innings limit after only throwing 40 milb innings last year. I think it would better to have him take it easy early on and then be able to use him down the stretch than push him in ST and then have to sit him down in September. Either way I’m excited to see him pitch.
    I also still have high hopes for Campos. He’s still just 21 and was pretty good last year coming back from an elbow issue. Hopefully he’s at full strength and can start getting the K rates back up to where they were prior to the injury.

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    • Bo says:

      It’s been two years since theinjury and surgery, if he can’t go now he’s never going to. Yankees have gone at a snail’s pace monitoring closely his pitches thrown never allowing to exceed a hard cap, and gradually raising. The have been the exact opposite of rushing Pineda

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      • Preston says:

        Well the injury occurred during ST when he was throwing through shoulder pain trying to silence critics in the media who were talking about his weight and lowered velocity. So throwing him into a 5th starter competition seems like a recipe to have him overthrow and hurt himself again. But more importantly his innings are probably capped at a little over 100 this year, so wouldn’t it make sense to avoid the competition, the cold weather and continue to take him at a snails pace, so that those 100 innings can be for the stretch run?

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  3. Cool Lester Smooth says:

    You completely misrepresented Jaffe’s article. The only pitchers on that list with the same tear that Pineda had are Sanchez, Valverde, Miller and Clemens (Jaffe was incorrect about Clemens’ having a different injury, the word “glenoidal” just specifies that it was a labrum in his shoulder, rather than his hip).

    Of those 4, only Miller, who was 29 at the time and had pitched over 1400 professional innings (more than twice as many as Pineda, Valverde, Clemens or Sanchez had thrown at the time of their injuries) failed to come back at full strength.

    If you’re going to cite something, make sure you read it thoroughly first.

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    • NS says:

      No, he didn’t. He specifically said it was a study of pitchers with “similar” and “not identical” injuries.

      This is in fact very accurate representation of Jaffe’s piece.

      If you’re going to try to call something out, make sure you read it carefully first.

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      • The thrust of Jaffe’s piece was that the pitchers Petriello listed as having had comparable injuries were NOT comparable, in ANY way, because the labrum was not fully torn and the rotator cuff was wholly unaffected and that of the pitchers with comparable injuries, 2 of the 3 (really 3 of the 4) had made full recoveries.

        Carpenter’s and Schilling’s recovering are competent irrelevant to Pineda’s chances, as are Webb and Prior’s failures. That goes for literally 94% of the “sample size.”

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        • Ed says:

          Quoting the article: “In the end, Dawkins offered three pitchers as reasonable comps based upon the fact that they weren’t SLAP tears and hadn’t suffered any rotator cuff damage”.

          So I’ve got to go with Cool Lester Smooth on this one.

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        • NS says:

          I’m sure you’re going to define “thrust” quite creatively there to suit your purposes, but the main body of the piece (which is specifically about the history of pitchers with similar injuries) devotes several paragraphs to the data referenced by Petriello – “similar but not identical” injuries.

          Toward the end, that group is qualified down to a group a three. And a similar conclusion results. Petriello does not characterize the conclusion.

          What’s interesting about your apparent devotion to capturing only the truest realist “thrust” of Jaffe’s piece is that *you* mischaracterize the conclusion that resulted from the final compared group.

          Jaffe’s take away was that that data is “sobering”, but your summary turned that into “only one failed to come back at full stength!”

          In any event, it’s obvious to anyone who reads both that this article is nothing close to a “complete misrepresentation” of Jaffe’s work.

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        • Cool Lester Smooth says:

          From the article:

          “Those pitchers with bursa, shoulder capsule, or biceps tendon issues can be eliminated as Pineda comps, as can others once we explore the specifics of their injuries…Schilling’s injury was a SLAP tear, as were those of Carpenter, Kelvim Escobar, and several others already eliminated from the discussion via one of the aforementioned routes. Pineda’s tear is apparently not a SLAP tear.”

          So, of the pitchers Petriello named in this article, only Clemens and Sanchez serve as valid comparisons to Pineda. Prior also had significant rotator cuff damage. Webb destroyed not only his labrum and rotator cuff, but his shoulder capsule. Schilling and Carpenter each had SLAP tears, which is a far more serious form of Pineda’s injury, which only required a scope.

          So, Jaffe spent the article eliminating 4 of the 6 pitchers Petriello uses as Pineda comps, by specifically stating that they are invalid comps. The two pitchers that are valid comps each came all the way back from their respective injuries.

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    • Simon says:

      On the other hand, the article also states that Valverde’s injury was less severe, and that Sanchez took almost three years before he was able to pitch effectively. Also that Miller was not a great comp due to the increased mileage on his arm. The end result of all of that is that we’re not much further on, except that it’s good for Pineda that the rotator cuff was not damaged.

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      • That’s fair. I’d say the point was that shoulder injuries are never good, but that we should be cautiously optimistic about Pineda’s chances, as this is essentially the best case scenario as far as shoulder tears go.

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  4. SABRphreak says:

    Agreed with Phelps as #5 out of camp. Pineda mid-season call up when at full strength and needed to replace an injuried or ineffective starter. Nuno as the long man / spot starter in the pen with Warren as AAA depth or an additional relief arm. The fact is Pineda has a decent amount of upside despite the past two years and still has youth on his side.

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  5. Mr Punch says:

    What struck me was “since the strike, only Kerry Wood, Rick Ankiel and Jose Fernandez had better K/9 marks as a rookie 22 or younger.” That doesn’t look good for Fernandez.

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  6. pft says:

    Looking at all the GB Pineda gets in that clip the Yankees IF defense is going to kill him.

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    • Preston says:

      Mark Teixeira is one of the best defensive 1b in the game, Kelly Johnson is probably going to be fine at 3b, Brian Roberts and Dean Anna are probably both fine at 2b, and Brendan Ryan is going to play a lot this year. So basically your comment is Derek Jeter sucks at defense. The Yankees got a wRC+ of 60 out of the SS spot last season. I think Pineda and the Yankees would be perfectly happy to see Jeter at SS this season.

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      • Tim says:

        “Brendan Ryan is going to play a lot?”

        Where? At third? Because it sounds like you’re implying he’s going to take “a lot” of playing time away from Jeter, which isn’t going to happen (his legacy somehow would be tarnished if he didn’t end his career as a shortstop).

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        • Cool Lester Smooth says:

          Jeter’s going to be spending a lot of time at DH against lefties, and Brendan’s also likely to play a lot of second when, not if, Roberts is done for the season.

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      • Bravos4evr says:

        Texiera isn’t loved much by any of the projections on defense, in fact, none of the Yankee infielder’s has a positive defensive projection (with the lone exception of Brian Roberts and it’s a marginal positive projection assuming he plays 80+ games. Unless Ryan starts 100+ games and KJ is above avg at 3b the overall defensive ranking for the Yankee Infield has GOT to be bottom ten.

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