Allow me to establish immediately that the title of this post is, in part, disingenuous: insofar as every player is unique, there is no “Next Michael Pineda.” There are pitchers who will surprise us with their success in 2012, for sure — some of them in a way similar to how Michael Pineda surprised us in 2011 — but none of them, obviously, will do it in precisely the same way that Pineda did.
Having said that, allow me to also submit that Michael Pineda absolutely represents a type of pitcher who is perhaps more likely to succeed than we (or, at least, than the present author) has, at one point, assumed.
To get a sense of what I mean, let’s consider the relative prospect statuses, over the last three years, of Pineda and the player (Jesus Montero) for whom he was traded this offseason.
Before the 2011 season, Baseball America ranked Jesus Montero third overall on their list of top-100 prospects. Michael Pineda was ranked 16th on that same list. While there’s obviously some kind of gap between the third- and 16th-overall prospect, it’s certainly not out of the question that, given another year of data, one might be traded for the other.
A year earlier, however, things were different. Montero was ranked fourth overall on BA’s list — which is to say ,among the top prospects in all of baseball. Pineda, for his part, wasn’t ranked in BA’s top 100, at all — was, in fact, ranked only seventh in the Mariners organization. At this point, a one-for-one trade would have been unlikely.
Montero appeared on BA’s top-100 list in 2009, as well — at 39th overall, and second only to Austin Jackson in the Yankee system. At this point, Michael Pineda was ranked just 10th in the Mariner system. Again, there’s no way to have anticipated, at this point, that a player of Pineda’s talents would eventually rival, or surpass, a player of Montero’s.
Of course, the Yankees’ decision to trade Montero for Pineda suggests that the two players are currently of similar value — and there are certainly plenty of people who believe the Yankees got the better of the deal, which also included Hector Noesi (to Seattle) and Jose Campos (to New York).
This development provokes an obvious question: what did Michael Pineda do to so greatly increase his value?
Pineda thrived in 2011 thanks, at some level, to his excellent slider — a pitch that he threw to left-handed batters (26%) almost as frequently as he threw it to right-handed ones (37%). However, his success also came in almost the complete absence of a third pitch. Per PITCHf/x, Pineda threw his changeup just 2.9% of the time — or, less than 1/4 as often as the typical starter.
Because of their armside fading movement, changeups are typically quite useful against opposite-handed batters. Despite underwhelming velocity, pitchers like Shaun Marcum and Jason Vargas are able to survive largely due to the quality of their changeups. Frequently, even if a pitcher has two plus pitches, he won’t really be considered for a starting role until he develops a third pitch.
Yet, Pineda posted an 87 xFIP- and 3.4 WAR in 171.0 innings last season despite his lack of a changeup. His success, again, was partly due to an excellent slider, but it was also due to another, likely more prominent, factor: excellent command of a very hard fastball.
It’s this combination of velocity and command that merits our attention.
Coming up through the minors, Pineda always had control*. In 2008, as a 19-year-old, Pineda walked only 6.4% of the batters he faced at Class A Wisconsin. In an inury-shortened 2009, Pineda walked just 3.6% of batters faced in the High-A California League. Then, throwing 139.1 innings between Double- and Triple-A in 2010, Pineda walked just 5.9% of opposing batters.
*Note: throughout this post, I use control (as represented by walk rate) as a proxy for command. While the two aren’t necessarily synonymous, the former is much easier to quanitfy, and thus must suffice for the present study.
The thing that changed along the way wasn’t Pineda’s command, but rather his fastball velocity. In the 2009 edition of the Prospect Handbook, Baseball America reported Pineda’s fastball as sitting in the 88-92 mph range. By the next year, the bottom end of that range had increased, such that Pineda’s reported fastball velocity was up to 91-92 mph. Then, by the 2011 edition of the Handbook, Pineda’s velocity had jumped again — even more significantly — such that it now sat at 93-97 mph.
Throwing a fastball at an average of about 95 mph while walking fewer than 7.0% of batters isn’t a particularly common occurrence. Consider, for example, the following table. It’s of all the Triple-A pitchers in 2010 who were (a) under 25 years old, (b) threw more than 50 innings as a starter, and (c) walked 7.0% or fewer batters. Alongside each pitcher, I’ve listed the low (lMPH) and high (hMPH) ends of his sitting fastball range from 2010, as best as I could find between Baseball America and assorted other scouting reports. I’ve also included a rough average of the low and high end of the fastball range. (Note: Pineda split 2010 between Double- and Triple-A. The numbers below represent only his Triple-A stats.)
Only two pitchers came within 3 mph of Pineda, on average. Erbe, unfortunately, had labrum surgery in August of 2010 and hasn’t recovered in a meaningful way. David Phelps is actually probably an underrated prospect, still as yet to throw a major-league pitch.
Extending our reach into Double-A doesn’t really increase the number of players near the top of this list, either. Among pitchers in Double-A fitting the aforementioned criteria, only Simon Castro (22 years old, 6.8% BB, 92-94 mph) and Daryl Thompson (24, 5.6%, 92-94) came close to matching Pineda’s accomplishment in 2010.
Thus, we see that Pineda was a true outlier — in terms of his combination of velocity and command — among pitching prospects in the high minors in 2010. In Part Two of this post, we’ll look at some players who approximated Pineda’s feat in 2011.