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Pineiro: Pinpoint Control, Worm Killer Extraordinaire

Last evening, Cardinals righty Joel Pineiro put on a pitching clinic that would make Roy Halladay look downright inefficient by comparison. Tossing exactly 100 pitches in a complete game shutout against the Mets, Pineiro pounded the zone for 62 strikes while generating an absurd 22 groundball outs. We’re not yet half way through the 2009 season, yet the former Mariner and Red Sock has already eclipsed his Wins Above Replacement (WAR) total for the last three years combined. From 2006-2008, Pineiro accumulated a total of 2.1 WAR. In ’09, the 30 year-old is already up to 2.5 WAR. That figure places him 13th among all starters.

How has Pineiro gone from roster flotsam to an important member of the Cardinals rotation? By calling upon a bowling ball-like sinker that has opposing batters chopping the ball into the dirt an astonishing 61.3% of the time (Pineiro’s career GB rate is 47.5%). That’s the highest rate of worm killers in the major leagues.

Pineiro’s fastball had long been a below-average offering. According to Fan Graphs’ run value pitch data, Pineiro’s heater has been worth -0.64 runs/100 pitches since 2002. And if anything, that’s understating the pitch’s lack of effectiveness: his fastball was worth -1.48 runs/100 in 2006, -1.19 in 2007 and -1.57 in 2008. In 2009, Pineiro’s fastball has a run value of +0.88 per 100 tosses, a dramatic reversal.

Looking at Pineiro’s Pitch F/X data, the change in his fastball has been dramatic. Take a gander at the horizontal and vertical movement of the pitch over the past three seasons (X is horizontal movement- a negative number indicates movement in on the hands of a right-handed batter. Z is vertical movement. The lower the Z figure, the more downward break on the pitch compared to a ball thrown without spin):

2007: -4.3 X, 9.6 Z
2008: -5.5 X, 7.2 Z
2009: -7.0 Z, 5.3 Z

Pineiro sacrificed fastball speed (from 91 to 88 MPH) for movement, gaining nearly three inches of tailing action in on righties with over 4 more inches of sink. Pineiro has also whipped out an even livelier sinker at times. Pitch F/X shows him throwing a two-seamer 18% of the time, with 9.3 inches of break in on right-handed batters and just 3.7 inches of vertical movement.

The Puerto Rican native is missing next to no lumber (3.88 K/9, the fourth-lowest rate among qualified starters), but he has compensated with nearly spotless control on top of the grounders. Pineiro has issued just 1.17 walks per nine innings, the third-lowest figure among starters. He’s getting ahead 0-and-1 or inducing contact from the get-go: Pineiro’s 66.1 First-Pitch Strike% is well above the 58% MLB average and places fifth among starters.

Joel Pineiro is certainly not a sexy name among fantasy players, given the paucity of strikeouts that he generates. But that doesn’t mean he should be ignored, either. He’s a fundamentally different pitcher than the guy who took the hill in Seattle and Boston, unleashing a nasty sinker, generating weak contact and walking next to no one. Whether he can continue to get this many grounders while issuing so few walks remains to be seen, but Pineiro’s sinker gives him the chance to enjoy a nice second act to his career.

(Quick scheduling note: the “Closer Report”, which has been appearing on Wednesdays, will now be posted on Fridays. Sorry for any inconvenience.)