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Michael Pineda - The Dogma of Disappointment Returns

In fantasy baseball, there’s always that player who underperforms during a season and gets plenty of hype going into the following year. We all have the belief that good fortune will come at a low cost. For most of his career, Michael Pineda has been the epitome of this type of player. If you’ve ever rostered Pineda, you know the aches and pains of having him on your roster. One game, he’ll toss six shutout innings and the next game he’ll get yanked in the second. He has been one of the most unpredictable starting pitchers in recent memory.

In 2018, these fantasy managers practically rejoiced in the fact that he was recovering from Tommy John surgery. For once they didn’t have to tempt themselves with the idea of rostering Pineda to see if he could finally live up to his untapped potential. A torn meniscus in his right knee further derailed his comeback last season, and he is now ready to return in 2019.

It's been a year and a half since we last seen Pineda pitch in the majors, so we must reacquaint ourselves to the former Yankee. There was a lot to love and a lot to be frustrated about, so let’s get into the details and refresh our memory.

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The Walking Band-Aid

Missing a significant amount of time is very familiar territory for Pineda. Coming up in the Seattle Mariners farm system, he missed time in 2009 with an elbow injury that forced the Mariners to limit his innings in his 2011 rookie season. After an offseason trade in 2012, it turned out to be all for naught as he injured his throwing shoulder in spring training. Forced to go under the knife to fix the tear of his labrum, he missed the entire 2012 campaign and half of the 2013 season due to ongoing recovery. Pineda spent the entirety of this half-season in the minors though, before getting a spot in the rotation for the 2014 season. To no one's surprise, he only threw 76.1 IP in 2014 before re-injuring his shoulder. Pineda spent a month on the disabled list as well in 2015, this time it was a forearm strain.

Then something remarkable happened, Pineda went the entire 2016 season making 32 starts injury-free. An amazing feat, this built up his draft hype going into the 2017 season only for owners to see him go down in July to undergo TJS. Now a member of the Minnesota Twins, it’s hard to believe that there’s anything left to for him to injure moving forward, but we should expect an innings limit on his arm regardless.


The Underperformer

Despite the glaring innings concern, there are a few aspects in Pineda’s game that are excitable. He has some positive underlying metrics that analysts have always been aware of which has given him the most hope of improvement. The big right-hander has routinely underproduced his ERA in his three “full” big league seasons as well as his career:

2011 3.74 3.42 3.53 3.35
2015 4.37 3.34 2.95 3.09
2016 4.82 3.80 3.30 3.40
Career 4.05 3.60 3.33 3.38

We saw in 2015 and 2016 that his ERA was over a full run more than all of his metrics, so it was no wonder why fantasy analysts were waiting for him to right the ship. With these numbers being a trend, how is it that they maintained way below his actual ERA?

The first thing to take into account is his propensity to give up the home run. Rewinding to his rookie year in 2011, Pineda had given up a 9.0% HR/FB and 0.95 HR/9, both below league average numbers. Since his move to New York his HR/FB jumped to 15.1%, and as a result, he allowed 1.29 HR/9 in his four big league seasons with the Yanks. The league average marks in this 2014-17 span were 11.9% HR/FB and 1.08 HR/9, making him nowhere close to being ordinary.

Now that Pineda is out of the Yankee Stadium bam box there is some optimism to look at in this category. His home and away splits are on completely opposite sides of the map. Serving up a 1.60 HR/9 and 18.1% HR/FB at home, he had a much more respectable 0.90 HR/9 and 11.2% HR/FB away from the Bronx. Moving to the spacious confines of Target Field in Minnesota will undoubtedly keep his fly balls in the ballpark in 2019.

What also made Pineda underachieve was his struggles with strand rate. When it rained, it poured, as batters hit .265 off him with runners on base compared to .235 with the bases empty. This inability resulted in a paltry 71.4% LOB%, nowhere near the strand rates that you’ll find with hurlers that have similar pitching repertoires, which we’ll discuss next.


The Strike Zone Commander

A drool-worthy attribute Pineda carries is his elite command of the strike zone. Take a look at these K/BB leaders from 2014-17:

1.Clayton Kershaw 8.02
2.Chris Sale 6.05
3.Corey Kluber 5.32
4.Max Scherzer 5.19
5.Madison Bumgarner 5.16
6.Masahiro Tanaka 5.11
7.Michael Pineda 5.04
8.David Price 5.03
9.Stephen Strasburg 4.90
10.Carlos Carrasco 4.82

You can’t get into any better elite company than that. His minuscule 1.80 BB/9 in this span was also a top-six finish, and his 9.09 K/9 was good enough for 13th best. An issue that Pineda faced with his excellent control was that players knew he’d be around the strike zone. Batters swung more often on his first pitch and hit it to a disastrous .354 AVG and .661 SLG. He has given up a whopping 19 long balls on this delivery, that's 20.9% of his lifetime total. The next closest mark was serving up 10 big flys on 1-0 pitches because you guessed it, the batter knew he wouldn’t throw back to back balls.

When Pineda could get a batter to miss a pitch, it was mesmerizing. Utilizing his slider as his primary swing-and-miss pitch it seen improvement as he’s matured. A 30.1% Whiff% in 2014 improved to 33.5% in 2015 and then hit a peak in 2016 with an extraordinary 45.4%. It took a dip in his shortened 2017 down to 39.9%, but still a very commendable number. With the TJS it will be important to watch in spring training to see if his slider has the same sharp break. An elbow injury like this could affect his ability to spin the ball, but for what its worth, Pineda managed to get nine strikeouts in 12 IP during his brief time in the minor leagues last year.


2019 Impending Value

Pineda is going relatively unnoticed in drafts so far with an ADP of 374. There isn’t much risk with a selection this low, but we must remember that Pineda’s health is a risk in itself. Failing to eclipse 100 IP in five of eight possible seasons since he debuted with the Mariners is a long and lousy track history. The transfer from the AL East to the AL Central is a considerable upgrade with the vast park sizes in that division. His home run susceptibility will level out now that he’s far away from Yankee Stadium, but there will likely be a bit of rust to shake off that right arm. The 30-year-old will have some work to do to regain his fastball velocity, which sat at 94 MPH in 2017 before the elbow injury, as well as honing back in on that slider. Pineda shouldn't have lost his pinpoint control in his year and a half absence, but more walks for fewer balls over the fence would be a good trade.

With that late ADP, depending on your league size, Pineda could be left on your waiver wire to begin the year. Until we see how he holds up this spring and into the early stages of the regular season, he might be a better option to use as a streaming option rather than an every game option. There certainly is a lot to like with this former top prospect, but don’t fall back into that trap of expecting it to all come into fruition, at least not yet.

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