Michael Pineda is an enigma, and unfortunately for the Yankees that's the only consistency he has offered since being traded to New York before the 2014 season. Will Pineda, who becomes a free agent after this season, continue to bewilder the Yankees or reach his upside potential in 2017?
How did Pineda fare in 2016?
Pineda was good enough in 2016 to rack up 207 strikeouts in just 175 2/3 innings (10.6 K/9, which was best among American League starters) and bad enough to register a 4.82 ERA (3.79 FIP) and 1.35 WHIP. Pineda was not nearly as stingy as in recent seasons with his walk rate (2.7 BB/9 as opposed to 0.8 BB/9 in 2014 and 1.2 BB/9 in 2015) and he allowed 27 home runs (1.4 HR/9). The strikeouts marked Pineda's career high, while the ERA, WHIP, walks and home runs were all career-worst measures. Pineda also averaged a career-low 5.5 innings per start and reached the seventh inning in just four starts.
Pineda simply failed to put together an extended streak consisting of positive performance in 2016. Pineda's best stretch came during his six June starts when he put up quality numbers befitting his talent level - 2.75 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 12.3 K/9, 2.0 BB/9 in 36 innings. September (3.21 ERA) was the only month besides June in which Pineda's ERA was below 4.80. Pineda's worst month was May, when he tossed 26 1/3 innings in five starts and registered a 7.52 ERA and 1.71 WHIP.
Beyond Pineda's consistency issues in performance from month to month and game to game, he was wildly inconsistent within the duration of many games in 2016. Pineda especially had trouble getting out of the first inning of ball games unscathed. He was rocked for a 6.19 ERA in the first inning of his 32 starts. He turned in his best effort in the third inning of games, where he registered a 1.12 ERA. In no inning did Pineda pitch better than a 4.55 ERA after his dazzling third innings.
To make matters worse, Pineda was incredibly ineffective with two outs in an inning. He was torched for a .945 OPS in such situations. How does a pitcher with such a remarkable strikeout rate fail in those situations?
Like I said, enigma.
How will Pineda fare in 2017?
Who the heck knows?
Of course that answer doesn't suffice for our purposes here, so I'll do my best to be a bit more analytical.
Pineda, who is just 28 years old, is undeniably talented enough to pitch at an above-average to elite level (see his abbreviated 2014 season and his June 2016 results). Pineda's strikeout rate might regress a bit from last season, however expecting a 9.0 K/9 rate is not out of the question. Pineda's walk rate will have to drop back near his 2014/15 levels in order for him to be fully effective as he has always allowed a fair share of hits. Additionally, Pineda must keep the ball in the park at a better rate this season, something he has shown the capacity to accomplish in the past.
Most importantly, Pineda needs to figure out how to enter the game with his head on straight. His incompetence in the first inning has been an issue his entire career (5.67 ERA across 100 innings of first-inning work), so this will not be an easy fix. I believe Pineda's talent level is not the issue, but rather it is his inability to mentally check into the game when it starts and then batter to batter as the game proceeds. He has to figure out how to get out of his own head in order to reach the levels his arm can take him.
The Yankees will be relying on Pineda to stabilize his production and approach 200 innings in 2017, something he has not done in his MLB career. Without steadying and lengthy performances from Pineda, more pressure will be placed on Masahiro Tanaka and CC Sabathia at the top of the rotation, considering the final two spots will be occupied by inexperienced hurlers.
Pineda has all the talent in the world, but his inability to take full advantage of it has prevented him from reaching his ceiling. If Pineda can somehow figure out how to convert his abilities into results, he can help the Yankees compete in the American League East. Unfortunately, there is nothing in Pineda's recent history which allows us to be confident it can happen.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference