You probably remember when Michael Pineda was a blue-chip prospect in the Mariners’ organization, the guy who was supposed to develop into Felix Hernandez Jr. You probably also remember that all those plans went to hell when Pineda needed shoulder surgery and was shipped off to the Yankees. If you’ve forgotten about Michael Pineda, now’s the time to start paying attention again, because he struck out 16 guys yesterday and is currently the best pitcher in baseball.
It’s true! As of this writing, Pineda sits atop the WAR leader board for pitchers. Sure, you can’t take WAR as gospel this early in the season, and he’s likely to drop at least a few spots as the year goes on, but still: Michael Pineda is very much out here. His numbers so far—54 strikeouts in 46 innings and a 1.93 FIP (the best in the majors)—are sparkling, but what sticks out is the fact that he’s surrendered just three walks on the season. If there’s one thing you can point to to explain Pineda’s newfound success, it’s his control.
Pineda started 28 games for the Mariners in 2011, his first season in the majors, and walked nearly three batters per nine innings over 171 innings. That’s not bad at all for a rookie pitcher, but after missing the next few seasons with hard-luck injuries, Pineda somehow came back with even better command. He started 13 games at the tail end of last season, and only walked seven batters in 76 innings. Combine those stats with what he’s put together so far this year, and Pineda is one of the sharpest pitchers in the game. In 20 starts as a Yankee, he’s walked less than a batter per nine innings while striking out better than 10 per nine innings. That’s good for a 11:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, an absurd number that would make even peak Greg Maddux jealous.
Pineda has also seen a big spike in his ground ball rate—a jump from 39 percent in 2014 to 53 percent this year—which, combined with the fact that he’s finding the plate, makes him the deadliest kind of pitcher: one that will either strike you out or put you on the ground.
The most heartening thing about Pineda’s strong start is that it doesn’t seem to be the result of any massive changes in his approach or repertoire. According to Pitch f/x data, Pineda is basically throwing the same mix of pitches that he was in 2014 (his fastball has been reclassified as a cutter, but it’s the same pitch), and getting roughly the same amount of whiffs (again, ignore the sudden disappearance of the fastball):
He’s just succeeding with the tools he’s always had: great control and great stuff. The fact that he’s striking out 3.5 more batters per nine innings than he did last year suggests that Pineda isn’t ambushing hitters with one unstoppable pitch, but rather beating them with an overall approach that has gotten sharper (remember, strikeout rates tend to stabilize after just 70 batters faced). He’s pounding the zone with his fastball to get ahead in the count—he’s throwing first-pitch strikes 67 percent of the time, good for 13th-best in the league, according to FanGraphs—and then either finishing hitters off with his wipeout slider or inducing ground balls. And he’s doing this while refusing to ever walk anyone. In short: he’s throwing all the right pitches in exactly the right spots.
The Yankees are clearly crossing their fingers over his health—he missed all of 2012 and 2013, and made just 15 starts in 2014—but this is the Michael Pineda we’ve been waiting to see ever since he was first touted as The Next Big Thing. Meanwhile, the best thing that can be said for Jesus Montero, the catching prospect that the Yankees shipped to Seattle in exchange for Pineda, is that he’s not fat anymore. If Pineda keeps this up, that trade will be remembered for a long time.