Fantasy Baseball: What Should We Make of Michael Pineda?

Pineda has tantalizing skills as a pitcher, but his numbers in 2016 didn't match up with his excellent peripherals. What should we expect this season?

Michael Pineda is the worst.

With apologies to Pineda in the unlikely event he's reading this, last year Pineda went 6-12 with a 4.82 ERA. Among qualified starters, that was the seventh-worst ERA in the league. I guess we can move on.

Except we can't.

As anyone who has followed Pineda knows, the reason he's the worst isn't because he's an unskilled pitcher, but because his peripherals show a pitcher who should be so much better than this.

His strikeout rate (27.4%) was the tied for seventh-best among qualified starters. His 14.1% swinging-strike rate (SwStr%), a strong indicator of strikeout success, made him one of only four qualified starters with a SwStr% over 14% -- behind just Max Scherzer (15.3%), Noah Syndergaard (14.2%), and Jose Fernandez (14.2%).

Furthermore, ERA estimators liked Pineda a lot, as his FIP (3.80), xFIP (3.30), and SIERA (3.40) were all better than his actual ERA. In fact, his SIERA was the best mark in the American League and fifth overall while his xFIP was third overall (also tops in the American League).

Pineda also had a reasonable walk rate (7.0%), so that wasn't a problem, either.

What the heck? Shouldn't Pineda be a top level pitcher with these numbers? Or at the very least a whole lot better than this?

Right Down the Middle

Like with so many pitchers, it starts with the fastball, and in Pineda's case it usually didn't end well.

Velocity wasn't a problem. According to Brooks Baseball, where Pineda's fastball is classified as a cutter, he had his highest fastball velocity in the past three years (94.75 miles per hour).

The location on the other hand? Not so much. As noted by FanGraphs' Nick Stellini, Pineda threw most of his fastballs right over the heart of the plate. A quick glance at his fastball zone profile paints an ugly, red splotch in the hitter's wheelhouse.

To make matters worse, Pineda is often characterized as a two-pitch pitcher, generally relying on his fastball and slider. This was no different last year, as Pineda threw those pitches a combined 93% of the time.

The results are about what you would expect. Pineda's cutter was crushed to the tune of a .347 batting average, .619 slugging percentage, and .272 isolated power.

And yet, despite some dubious fastball location and the limited pitch selection, Pineda still somehow managed all those strikeouts. That slider was wicked, striking out batters 41.1% of the time, with an astounding 24.3% swinging-strike rate. Only Chris Archer had a better strikeout rate with the slider.

How did Pineda accomplish this if his fastball was getting crushed?

Ineffectively Wild

Pineda appears to have sold out for strikeouts at the expense of his control.

As noted earlier, Pineda's 7.0% walk rate gives the impression that he had fairly good control last year. However, a look at his last three seasons show that while that number seems fine on its own, when taken into context, it's part of a concerning trend.

Although it was across a smaller sample of 76 1/3 innings in 2014, Pineda put up a sparkling 1.89 ERA. That season he had a fairly average 20.3% strikeout rate but a minuscule 2.4% walk rate. Since then, Pineda's strikeouts have steadily risen the last few seasons, but his previously stellar walk rate is more than double what it used to be. This is due at least in part to throwing fewer and fewer pitches in the strike zone (Zone%).

Normally that wouldn't be a big deal on its own, but it has also come at the expense of hitters making better contact, as shown by a rising hard-hit rate (Hard%) and declining infield fly-ball rate (IFFB%). Pineda's 2016 infield fly-ball rate was the worst among qualified starters, a disturbing change since pop-ups are pretty much the equivalent of strikeouts. And although a 32.7% hard-hit rate may not seem that bad, it was the 20th-worst among qualified starters.

There may also be a little bad luck in play here, which we can see from his BABIP and home-run-to-fly-ball ratio (HR/FB).

Year ERA K% BB% SwStr% Zone% IFFB% Hard% BABIP HR/FB
2014 1.89 20.3% 2.4% 11.4% 49.6% 11.8% 26.8% .233 5.4%
2015 4.37 23.4% 3.1% 11.9% 47.7% 9.1% 30.1% .332 14.7%
2016 4.82 27.4% 7.0% 14.1% 42.4% 3.8% 32.7% .339 17.0%

Pineda's BABIP and HR/FB rate were on the extreme end -- his BABIP was the second-worst among qualified starters, and his HR/FB rate was the fifth-worst. Pineda has a career average .300 BABIP and 11.9% HR/FB rate, so these numbers will almost certainly regress.

However, the sharp decline in infield fly balls, and rise in hard-hit balls, likely also contributed to those poor marks.

In totality, while Pineda was able to rack up strikeouts last year, his other numbers suffered mightily as a result.

Consistently Inconsistent

This erratic, strikeout-heavy approach also produced some wacky month-to-month numbers.

April 6.33 1.59 24.2% 6.5% 34.1% .359
May 7.52 1.71 23.4% 5.7% 29.4% .420
June 2.75 0.97 34.3% 5.6% 29.1% .281
July 4.80 1.27 27.6% 9.5% 38.8% .280
August 5.08 1.31 21.7% 4.4% 35.7% .366
September 3.21 1.39 31.7% 10.6% 29.0% .323

June was the only month in which Pineda got everything to align, raising his strikeout rate well above 30% while keeping his walk rate and hard-hit rate in check. If he could pull that off night in and night out, he would be a sight to behold.

Unfortunately, that's just not the case. Outside of May, which looked more like an unlucky month due to that astronomical .420 BABIP, every other month suffered from a high hard-hit rate and/or walk rate, damaging Pineda's ERA and WHIP.

While solving what ails Pineda is hardly simple, it does appear that dialing it back a bit to regain some control might help Pineda becoming more consistent, and unlock what made him successful in 2014. A look at his 2014 fastball zone profile shows a wider distribution of fastballs up in the zone. That season the cutter was much more effective, only allowing a .212 batting average, .299 slugging percentage, and .088 isolated power.

Cautious Optimism

The skills are there, but the question remains whether Pineda will ever figure out how to fully utilize them.

His Steamer projections suggest that he will, predicting a 10-8 record with a 3.45 ERA and 1.12 WHIP. They also project a 25.5% strikeout rate and 5.8% walk rate, splitting the difference between his 2015 and 2016 numbers.

The only negative might be the conservative 152 innings and 26 games, likely due to both his injury history and inability to pitch far into games. However, he successfully made 32 starts last season, and he is fully capable of pitching further into games if he improves his approach.

In NFBC drafts, Pineda's average draft position is outside the top 200 overall and outside the top 50 starting pitchers. He's fittingly priced next to fellow enigma Robbie Ray, along with question marks like Sonny Gray, Drew Smyly, and Taijuan Walker.

At this price, Pineda makes a lot of sense as a late high-risk, high-reward pick, but taking him much sooner than that is probably not worth the trouble.

Keep in mind that the closest thing to a productive full season Pineda has ever had was way back in 2011, before he had shoulder surgery. While 2014 effort showed plenty of promise, it was in just 76 1/3 innings, and it's been downhill ever since.

Whether it's resorting back to what worked in 2014, expanding his pitching repertoire beyond his fastball-slider combination, or simply learning to locate his fastball better, it's clear that something must change for Pineda to fully realize his promise.

However, Pineda is only 28, so he still has time to make those flashes of greatness turn into something more than just fleeting.