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Michael Pineda is Finally Good

Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge is getting all the hype, but Michael Pineda has been equally important to New York's strong start.

by Rian Watt
May 9 2017, 3:59pm

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees' 6-foot-7, 260-pound starting pitcher Michael Pineda, who is two inches shorter and about twenty pounds heavier than Kevin Durant, has the kind of pure blistering stuff that makes big-league scouts—usually scathingly skeptical people—sit up and take notice.

In 2011, Baseball America ranked Pineda the 11th-best prospect in baseball. That year, Pineda made his big-league debut for the Mariners at age 22—he pitched 171 quality innings, striking out almost a quarter of the batters he faced. Then Seattle shipped Pineda cross-country to New York for then-stud catching prospect Jesus Montero. Eventually, Montero flamed out, and Pineda promptly missed the 2012 season with a torn labrum.

Pineda didn't make it back to the majors until 2014. Since then, he's been both an ace-like dynamo and a dinger-prone disaster—often at the same time. In between, Pineda has even found time to get himself mixed up in a silly pine tar controversy.

But this year, as the Yankees demolish their opponents behind the mighty power of Aaron Judge (another 6'7" monster), Pineda seems to be putting it all together, pacing the New York rotation with a 3.12 ERA and a sky-high 11.19 strikeouts per nine innings.

Read More: The Mariners Are Screwed

In the American League, only two starters have been better at striking batters out, and one of them is named Chris Sale. It's a vindication of sorts for the 28-year-old Pineda, who's always suffered under the weight of the outsized expectations placed upon him as a prospect back in Seattle. He has been cursed to be good, but not as great as he was dreamed to be, and that has forever tipped the scales against him.

Pineda is having the best season of his Yankees career. Photo by Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

We look at Pineda and see everything we'd want from a top-line starting pitcher. He has the size, build, and three good to very-good pitches—a slider and two fastballs, including one that cuts. When you watch him pitch a few innings with that big body, or send a particularly devastating slider spinning off his fingers, you wonder how any batter could ever get a hit off him.

Then, of course, he gives up a massive bomb to Logan Morrison, and you suddenly know exactly how.

Despite his wipeout stuff, Pineda has a worrying tendency to stay up in the zone with his fastball, which gives hitters trying to hit fly balls a head start, and contributes to his league-worst 25 percent HR/FB rate. Hitters homer once every four times they get the ball in the air against him. That doesn't help. He also goes through stretches where he can't find the strike zone with his slider, which can drive up his walk rate tremendously.

But he also strikes out nearly 12 batters a game. It seems Pineda's many talents are enough to make him a very good but not truly great starting pitcher. And so what? Expectations are funny things. Kyle Hendricks, who has no prospect pedigree to speak of and hits 89 mph on his fastball on a good day, has been forced to put up stellar results every year just to prove that he's actually good. Pineda has had something of the opposite experience: He's had to put up solid if unspectacular bottom-line results every year just to prove that he's only good.

And yet, "only good" Pineda is still a real treat to watch, with his cutter that cuts and his slider that slides. This year, Baseball Prospectus's DRA statistic—a nifty little number which, unlike ERA (which it's scaled to) credits or debits a pitcher for his share of responsibility for nearly every event that happens on a baseball field—rates Pineda as among the five best in the league so far this season.

Pitch well despite a tight zone called by an ornery umpire? DRA knows, and gives you some extra credit for your effort. Throw poorly at Coors Field? That's not as big of a deal as if you get lit up at Petco. Lose a few balls over the fence on a hot summer day in Arlington? DRA knows it could happen to anybody. ERA tells you what did happen. DRA—as well as any statistic can—tells you what might happen in the future, given what a pitcher's done so far in context.

And what it tells us for Pineda is what we've known for a while: he is pitching even a little bit better than the sum of his still-excellent results to date. He's locating better this year, and sequencing better too. But if he located perfectly every time? He could make a lot of American League hitters look foolish this season.

Don't hold what could be against him, though. Pineda will probably never be the best pitcher in baseball, or even the best pitcher in the American League. Those are the dreams of a decade ago. This year's reality is different, but no less compelling. Pineda is, right now, the best pitcher on the best team in baseball. He has a fastball that will laugh at you as it goes by. And he has something to prove. What more could you want out of summer baseball in the Bronx?