- FanGraphs Baseball - http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs -

Michael Pineda’s Debut

Yesterday, Tommy Rancel wrote about Alexi Ogando‘s impressive start to the season, but while Ogando pitched well and his team won, he wasn’t the big story in that game. His counterpart on Tuesday was Michael Pineda, a highly touted prospect who was making his Major League debut for the Mariners. At 6’7 and 250 pounds, Pineda looks the part of a dominating frontline starter, and after he showed off his mid-90s velocity and dispatched the Rangers on 10 pitches (despite racking up two strikeouts) in his first inning of work, it was easy to see why his arrival was so highly anticipated.

The Rangers were able to get to Pineda a couple of times later in the game, notching four extra base hits that led to three runs off the young hurler in his six innings of work, but it was certainly a successful debut overall; there’s no shame in giving up a few hits to the Texas Rangers, after all. However, while Pineda dominating the right-handed bats in the Texas line-up – they combined to go 2 for 16 with a walk and a sac bunt in their 18 attempts against him – his one big flaw was on display on Tuesday, and it’s one of the reasons why I’m not quite sure that he’ll be able to live up to the hype this year.

Put simply, Pineda really struggles against left-handed batters. Josh Hamilton and Mitch Moreland combined to go 3 for 5 with two doubles and a triple off Pineda, and while he was able to strike Hamilton out on a change-up in the first inning, that was the only good change he threw the entire night. As you can see from the Pitch F/x clusters (ignore the pitch type labels, the algorithm got them wrong), the system picked up nine change-ups from Pineda ranging from 86-91 MPH.

A power change-up is great if you can throw it at that velocity with good sink and tailing movement. Felix Hernandez throws that kind of diving hard change-up, and it’s one of his main weapons against left-handed batters. He gets them to chase that change-up as it sinks out of the strike zone, racking up swinging strikes against tough opposite-handed hitters. Pineda’s change-up doesn’t have that kind of movement, though – it’s more of just a slower version of his fastball. The one he threw to strikeout Hamilton had some sink, and he located it perfectly, but the rest of them were just “hit me” offerings.

And the Rangers did. LHBs put six balls in play against Pineda, and all of them were hit in the air. He used his slider (a significantly better secondary pitch right now, but one that is only effective against RHBs) to help him get ground balls against the Rangers right-handed bats, but when it came to the left-handed hitters, all he had was his four seam fastball and his hittable change-up. It wasn’t enough, and he was lucky that the Rangers only had two legitimate left-handed big league hitters (and Julio Borbon) in their line-up on Tuesday night.

He dodges a bullet again on Monday, facing another heavily right-handed line-up by matching up against the Blue Jays, but most right handed starting pitchers face 55 to 60 percent left-handed hitters over the course of a full season, and Pineda is eventually going to run into match-ups with teams that can run six or seven left-handed bats at him. By that time, his change-up will need to have taken a huge step forward, or else he’s going to be left attacking them with fastballs and sliders, and in general, that doesn’t really work very well.

Dominating right-handed hitters and hoping to minimize the damage against left-handed ones is the strategy essentially employed by the likes of Justin Masterson, Ervin Santana, and Jeremy Bonderman. It can work – sort of – but to be a frontline starting pitcher, you have to be able to get hitters from both sides of the plate out with regularity. Pineda can’t do that yet. This isn’t meant to be an indictment of his potential, as he’s still a 22-year-old with one of the best fastballs in baseball, and he’s really just improvement with the change-up away from being ridiculously good, but for 2011, I think it’s necessary to keep expectations somewhat realistic. Pineda is still a work in progress, and while his debut was good, his big weakness was on full display.

The future is bright for Michael Pineda, but the lack of a quality change-up makes me cringe when I hear the Baby Felix nickname. Realistically, until that pitch gets a lot better, he’s more Justin Masterson than Felix Hernandez.