"Excellent rotation and spin on that pitch."
David Cone would know. The former All-Star pitcher turned Yankees TV announcer can tell the difference between a slider and a great slider, and saw the aforementioned excellent rotation and spin while scrutinizing Michael Pineda's slider last Friday, during his second start of the spring. Those watching on TV could see it, too. I don't have Cone's level of expertise, but in this instance, I didn't need it. All you needed was the batter's reaction: Flinching and taking or weakly cutting and missing, then U-turning for the dugout. The slider was humming. In the 2 2/3 innings Michael Pineda pitched, he struck out five while walking just one.
Yes, this is spring training, when statistics mean little, and a tiny sample size at that. Still, those are promising signs for maybe the biggest question mark on one of the most pivotal teams in baseball.
The projection systems see Pineda's Yankees winning somewhere around 83 to 85 games, a respectable showing but probably not enough to reach the playoffs. There are error bars around every prediction, though, and in this particular case, the error bars are even bigger. The Yankees could, more than most teams with similarly modest expectations, outperform their projections by a lot -- but to do so they'll need a lot of questions answered affirmatively. Can new Yankees Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Masahiro Tanaka adjust to, in order, a new team, a new league and a new country? Is C.C. Sabathia still an ace? Is Hiroki Kuroda still effective at 39 following a somewhat rough end to last season? Can Mark Teixeira and Derek Jeter return successfully from the major injuries that caused them to miss most of last season, and can anyone in that infield simultaneously play baseball and not get hurt? And coming in at the top of that lengthy list of questions is this: Can Michael Pineda still pitch?
When the Mariners brought Pineda up in 2011, he turned heads. Few pitchers experience that kind of success at 22 years old. And Pineda did it with sheer stuff, dazzling almost as much with dreams of what he could be as with the reality of what he was. Of course, the reality was he was pretty good. As Baseball Prospectus noted, only five pitchers in history bettered his strikeout rate at his age.
Most starting pitchers need at least three pitches they can throw for strikes, but Pineda was primarily a fastball/slider pitcher with the very occasional show-me change-up. He made do with just the two pitches because both were so extraordinary. The fastball sat in the mid-90s and the slider was brutal on hitters. According to FanGraphs, Pineda had the 15th best slider in baseball among qualified pitchers, and the 16th best fastball. The future was opening out before him like a red carpet.
Then, during spring training in 2012, Pineda tore his labrum. Pitchers undergo surgery all the time now -- it sometimes seems every other pitcher in the majors has gone through Tommy John surgery -- but this was different. The success of labrum surgery is nothing like the 85-90 percent success rate you hear quoted with Tommy John surgery. After the announcement Pineda would need surgery, Jay Jaffe wrote about other pitchers who had suffered similar injuries and went under the knife. The results weren't pretty. Jaffe found just 11-of-67 pitchers return to throw 400 or more innings in the majors (through 2011). Suddenly the phenom was staring down the very real possibility his career was over.
The good news was that, unlike many of the pitchers who suffered labrum tears, Pineda's rotator cuff was undamaged. Further good news came from Jaffe's study: both Curt Schilling and Roger Clemens came back from labrum tears to have Hall of Fame careers. While many more didn't find that kind of success, or the health necessary to make a run at it, to quote the great American Lloyd Christmas: "So you're telling me there's a chance."
After missing the entirety of the 2012 season, Pineda managed 40 good innings last year in the minor leagues. He struck out more than a batter per inning while walking a few more than he had in 2011, but still an acceptable amount (3.2 per nine innings). His fastball hit the mid-90s again. His slider hummed. Pineda finished the year on the disabled list due to shoulder stiffness, but the Yankees proclaimed him healthy anyway and ready to compete for a spot in the rotation when spring rolled around. So did Pineda.
Positive signs or not, the projection systems were and remain pessimistic. FanGraphs publishes the results of three different projection systems, not one of which sees Pineda throwing more than 82 innings or being worth even a single win. Baseball Prospectus's PECOTA projection system is thinking along similar lines, projecting less than 50 total innings pitched and a value of less than a win.
Now, we're talking about the Yankees' probable fifth starter here, and most teams don't get a whole lot out of their fifth starter. But Pineda, still just 25 years old, could make a big difference. First there's the matter of all the questions surrounding the Yankees starting staff, as mentioned above. A healthy season from Pineda would make it much easier to survive a tough season from someone else.
Meanwhile, FanGraphs projects the Yankees to win 83 games, two games behind Tampa and Oakland for a wild card spot. A healthy and effective Michael Pineda will make up that two game difference. Baseball Prospectus projects the same 83 win total for New York, four games behind the Angels for the second wild card. Those four games could be made up through a good season from Pineda.
It's not so much the specifics of those projections that are important. The point is the Yankees are in the mix for a playoff spot. If things break right, they'll be in; break wrong, and they'll miss out. Michael Pineda is one of the highest variance players in baseball. If he returns from his injuries like Curt Schilling, Roger Clemens and the others in Jay Jaffe's 11 and pitches like it's 2011 again, the Yankees aren't an 83-win team. They're an 86- or 87-win team -- and then there's the deadline and trades and good managing and it's October and the Yankees are in the playoffs again. That's what's at stake.
But we're not there yet. We are in Tampa. It's still spring training. Michael Pineda, hat stylishly off center, stares into catcher Brian McCann while a series of second- and third- string Orioles come and go from the batters box. Pineda dispatches them with ease.
This is the part where I tell you how dominant Pineda was, how impressive he was, how he'll return to the majors this season and it'll be 2011 all over again. There will be unicorns, rainbows, rainbow unicorns and all will be right with the world. But I'm not going to do any of that. Pineda looked good on Friday; his day was a rousing success. Beyond that, there are questions. Pineda was frequently behind hitters. His fastball never reached higher than 92 mph (according to the YES radar gun) and was frequently clocked at 90 or 88. The batters he struck out had names like Quintin Berry, Ryan Flaherty, Xavier Paul, Caleb Joseph and Henry Urrutia. This was not the Orioles starting lineup. This was not a major league starting lineup.
Pitchers don't typically start off the year at peak velocity. Command takes time to return, and if we're being fair, likely more time in Pineda's case given his recent medical maladies. Like everyone else in March, Pineda still has time on his side. As David Cone kept saying, the stuff is there. You can see it. I could see it. Will Pineda's command and velocity return? History says the odds are against it. But Pineda is on a mound throwing pitches to hitters in a major league spring training. He's battling for a spot in the New York Yankees rotation. That's already a kind of success.