Big Time for Big Mike

The Twins Starter is riding high. Can he keep it up?

Years removed from being the up-and-coming pitching Prospect for the Mariners and the unlucky starter for the Yankees, Michael Pineda is finding his groove in Minnesota. He has battled through injuries to get to the point where he is now. The 9-year veteran is throwing the ball great to open the year for the Twins. Pineda is attacking hitters with a simple game plan that has led to great results, but how long will those results last? 


Simple and Effective


Early in his career, Michael Pineda offered a multitude of pitches ranging from a four-seam fastball, a cutter, a sinker, a slider, and a change-up. Yet, as the years have gone on, he simplified his approach on the mound. From five pitches to three, relying purely on the four-seam fastball, slider, and a change-up. For him, keeping it simple has proven to be effective. He made the change in 2020 and is keeping it going in 2021, so I’m going to dive into the repertoire and what makes it so effective. 

Starting with Pineda’s fastball, he throws it 55% of the time and you wouldn’t expect it to be as effective as it is. Previously, Pineda averaged 92 mph on his fastball but a sub-2000 spin rate on the pitch. It did have a solid 91% active spin rate which means the ball can keep its life well throughout its flight to home plate. However, a low spin fastball, usually shouldn’t be thrown high in the zone and can be more prone to hard contact. Now, add onto that the Pineda’s velocity has dipped to just under a 91 mph average, then it could be concerning especially because Pineda likes to live in the strike zone. He’s thrown his fastball in the strike zone 67% of the time this year, and something needs to change. The ball is dropping into the zone more too as he’s lost some active spin percentage on the ball as well. But I’ll expand on that later, I want to focus on his arsenal as a whole first. 

Pineda throws his slider about 33% of the time and his plan of attack with the pitch is clear. Keep the ball low in the zone as much as possible. He’s thrown 81 sliders this year and 59 of them have been low and out of the strike zone. Pineda’s slider doesn’t move a lot but it comes with heavy amounts of gyro spin. The ball will drop off suddenly while moving glove side. Here’s a good look at one that he threw to Franchy Cordero


In 2020, Pineda got 43 swings and misses on his slider, which was good for a 25% Swinging Strike rate. It was an effective pitch to get guys to chase and make weak contact. This year, he’s had 15 batted balls against the pitch and 11 of them have been on the ground. As a trade-off, his SwStr% on the pitch has diminished to just 20%. As long as he’s keeping the ball on the ground, he’ll live with fewer swings on the pitch. 

Finally, Pineda offers a changeup that he throws about 12% of the time. In my opinion, this is his best pitch, and he should be throwing it more if his fastball is losing velocity. He offers a spin direction that mirrors his fastball, and the pitch moves a lot. It has the most movement out of any of his pitches. He doesn’t get a lot of swings and misses but that’s because he throws it so low in the zone that it doesn’t appear to be a strike long enough to bait hitters. He’s thrown the pitch almost 30 times this year and it’s only been in the strike zone 9 times. He’s not going to get a lot of swings and misses when he already throws his slider so low in the zone. He’s going to need to change the eye level on the pitch more. Might need to take the Lucas Giolito approach to the changeup, by throwing it up in the strike zone more to help counteract the low changeup. He is getting swings and misses at a much higher rate this year than he did in the previous years.

Pineda uses his slider primarily against righties and his changeup primarily against lefties. That’s the thought process that has dominated baseball since the beginning of time. Start them off with the fastball and get them out with the soft stuff. Pineda abides by that, he throws a first-pitch fastball 67% of the time. When he gets 2 strikes, that rate drops to below 50%. That’s in line with the philosophy of pitching. It’s simple, and it works. 


What’s Gone Right


Pineda has pitched 18 innings this year and given up two earned runs. Both of them, coming on home runs. What’s fueled this great start? Command. Michael Pineda famously doesn’t walk guys. Since his debut, Pineda is 17th in walk rate at 5.4%. This year, Pineda has dialed it up another notch, his 4.5% walk rate is currently the second-lowest of his career. He’s throwing the first pitch for a strike at a 73% clip. He’s getting ahead of hitters and then putting them away. Being ahead in the count is always important but this year it’s become even more prevalent. Hitters are hitting .182 with a .209 wOBA, well below the average figure of the last few seasons. Pineda is getting ahead and staying ahead, which is fueling his great start. 

The other component is that Pineda is getting a lot of contact on the ground. As already mentioned, he’s given up 15 batted balls on his slider and 11 have been on the ground. Overall, he’s got a 46.8% ground ball rate on the year. He’s also got a near 11% pop-up rate. Hitters are struggling to get good swings off of Pineda. A reason for that is Pineda is varying the location of his pitches so well. He’s keeping his off-speed stuff down in the zone or out of it, while his fastball he’s locating in or very close around the zone at all times. Hitters are in between and not sure which pitch they should be going for. It’s working to Pineda’s advantage. 

The peripheral statistics are not as good as his glowing ERA, but all of them are in the mid 3’s. Those are fueled by his stellar command and inconsistent quality of contact from the hitters. A 1.00 ERA is unsustainable, but he ranks 25th among qualified starters in both SIERA and K-BB%. Which is a good sign that a collapse isn’t completely on the horizon but there are still some concerns for Pineda moving forward. 


Cause for Concern


The peripheral statistics are a double-edged sword. It’s good that they are still in the top half of the league, but it’s bad that they are so much higher than Pineda’s ERA. You should never expect a guy to keep a 1 ERA, but as his ERA rises, will it because he’s pitching the same and just getting less lucky, or is it because he’s pitching worse? Pineda has been incredibly lucky so far this year, he’s got a 98% LOB rate and sub .160 BABIP. That will not hold, and 18 innings of sample size are way too small, but Pineda has a career 71% LOB rate and .245 BABIP. Runners are going to get on base, and they are going to score in some way. That should be expected. 

The biggest cause for concern, for me, is the lack of fastball velocity and swinging-strike rate. Pineda’s fastball velocity has dropped by a mile and a half. That’s not good! He’s found early season success despite that but losing that much velocity on his primary pitch is worrisome. The possible redeeming sign is that Pineda’s other offering is maintaining the velocity from previous years. Perhaps, his fastball velocity will come back, and that’s something to keep an eye on moving forward but a 92-mph fastball and a 90-mph fastball can be the difference between a swinging strike and a home run. 

Speaking of swinging strikes, Pineda is getting fewer of them this year. An 11.5 SwStr% is an average rate but it’s his lowest rate since 2015. Pineda’s CSW is an incredible 35.2%, but that’s because hitters just aren’t swinging at his pitches in the zone. His zone swinging rate is 61%, 6% below the average mark. Now, as I said, he’s living on the edges more and throwing pitches low and out of the zone with his off-speed as well so it could have been hard to pick up early in the season, but as time goes on, the hitters will adjust and swing more. This relates to the velocity, because if he has the velocity, then he’s able to get some swings and misses on the fastball and that’ll adjust over time when hitters start to swing more, but if he’s throwing 90-mph fastballs, then he has to live on the edges more. Something has to give here. 

The Twins pitching staff has been inconsistent and will need their big right-hander to continue to throw the ball well if they want to make a deep push into the postseason, something they have not done in a long time. Pineda has pitched well and all of these concerns I have could just be small sample size noise but it’s worth paying attention to as the season progresses. His simplified approach to pitching is leading to success, just have to see if that success is sustainable. 


Photo by Ian D’Andrea (https://www.flickr.com/people/idsportsphoto/) | Adapted by Jacob Roy (@jmrgraphics3 on IG)

Max Greenfield

Former Intern for the Washington Nationals, now a Going Deep Writer analyzing the next possible breakout pitcher.

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