Michael Pineda returns to the mound for the New York Yankees on Wednesday night sporting a clean bill of health, a 1.83 ERA in 19 2/3 innings this year before his shoulder injury and hopefully some better hiding spots for his pine tar. The only question is, has he arrived too late to save the Yankees' season?
Maybe that's an unfair question. No one pitcher or player can ever really make or break a team's season, right? Well, ask Orioles fans how they feel about that one after Manny Machado's knee gave out Monday night early in the first game of Baltimore's three-game homestand against New York, or even Yankees fans how they felt after Masahiro Tanaka went on the disabled list with an elbow injury.
Outside of extreme outliers in very bad divisions, no one player is ever going to drag a baseball team from third or fourth to first place, but in a tight division race, the Yankees only getting 19 2/3 innings out of Pineda so far this year instead of more than 100 could easily impact their perch in the standings relative to the rest of the wild card teams, let alone Baltimore and Toronto.
But is Michael Pineda actually a 1.83 ERA pitcher? Probably not. That sort of gaudy run prevention in the modern MLB is relegated to extremely small sample sizes (like Pineda's) and Clayton Kershaw. Pineda, who hadn't pitched in the majors since 2011 with Seattle before his return with the Yankees this year, suffered a torn labrum in his right shoulder before the 2012 season got underway and didn't return to a major league mound until this past April.
Labrum tears are no joke; it's a ring of strong tissue that helps define and support the shoulder joint itself, and the tear itself occurs at the point where the labrum attaches to the bicep (more here). For someone doing something as insane and unnatural as hurling a baseball over 90 miles an hour in a straightforward fashion, or gripping and twisting that baseball in an even weirder way while throwing a breaking ball in the 80s, injuring that connective tissue or the entire shoulder apparatus around it in anyway can be a serious impediment to long-term success on the playing field -- and Pineda full-out tore it.
Given proper rest and rehab, it was always believe that Pineda would probably be able to get most of his fastball velocity back, if not quite the same movement -- but whether or not he'd continue to be even a league average starting pitcher was predicated on his slider remaining a MLB-quality offering he could throw with confidence at any point during an at-bat.
The Yankees have also spent a lot of time and effort during Pineda's rehab not only working on getting and keeping him healthy, but on developing a changeup that was distinctly underdeveloped during his time with the Mariners. However, when Pineda toes the rubber, somewhere between 25 and 30 percent of the pitches opposing batters see will be his slider. If that pitch no longer works, Pineda's no longer a starter.
For the first 19 2/3 innings of 2014, the slider worked. The changeup worked, even. His average fastball velocity was down a bit -- from about 94 mph in 2011 to 91-and-change in 2014 -- and will likely remain so, but whatever his repaired and rehabbed shoulder brought to the table earlier this season, it was effective. Not just in terms of preventing earned runs but in controlling his own destiny on the mound, too: he was striking out five batters for every one that he walked, and while the control numbers might be just another edition of small-sample-size theater (1.4 walks per nine in 2014 vs. 2.7 MLB career), it's not crazy to suggest that he's improved his command overall to some degree until he shows otherwise.
That brings us to the pine tar. I won't argue that the pine tar incident wasn't extremely embarrassing (it was) or that it wasn't extremely funny in its utter absurdity (it was that, too), but baseball has a long and storied history of pitchers using various substances to improve their grip on the baseball in order to gain better control over where it's going and how. There are ways for him to continue to improve his grip on the baseball without slathering his neck with pine tar and he may very well avail himself of those, and anyone wishing to tut-tut on this or turn it into a grave moral predicament is gently reminded that this is the sort of general chicanery that was lionized in ballplayers from the first half of last century.
Regardless of the long-term sustainability of his success, he rejoins the rotation at a crucial time for the Yankees, who continue to see themselves (and will always see themselves in any instance in which the delusion is even slightly socially permissible) as contenders not just for a spot in the playoffs, but for the division itself.
There are certain roads that lead the Yankees not just to the postseason in October, but to the top of the AL East as well -- and Esmil Rogers isn't going to lead them there. Chris Capuano isn't going to lead them there. It's even unlikely Shane Greene and Brandon McCarthy alone are going to lead them there, though both men are pitching rather well right now. Put a healthy Michael Pineda in front of the group for the next six weeks -- the guy we saw back in April -- and suddenly the Yankees' playoff hopes seem a lot less far-fetched.