Could Joel Pineiro Have Made Sense for the Mariners?

I had to take a 15 minute break and down a beer after writing that headline. Ugh. Reports came out last night that Joel Pineiro has signed a two-year, $16 million deal with the Angels. I loved Joel Pineiro when he came up with Seattle. Who didn't? He was awesome. Then he had to go and just suck so bad in 2006. I mean, he was downright awful. He was so bad that we had drinking games based on how many swinging strikes he would get in a start and even my tiny girlfriend didn't get drunk. He was so bad that he actually inspired me to delve into pitching statistics on a pitch by pitch basis, to start seriously looking at swinging strike percentage, just to see how bad he was.

I was happy when he was gone ("surely, nobody could ever be that bad again," I saids to myself...) and happy when he was still useless with Boston and later in the National League. Served him right for making me watch him face 652 batters in 2006 and manage to strike out just 67. Then something, maybe Dave Duncan, happened and he had to go be all good last season based on a complete change in his method of attack. Fueled by Joel Pineiro's insane jump to being a ground ball pitcher, I am forced to look back on the last couple years anew and see if I can figure out what he might bring in 2010.

First of all, he wasn't as bad as I remember. Yeah, the strikeouts and walks were awful in 2006, but Pineiro actually generated a swinging strike 6.9% of the time, which is below average, but not as horrendous as my memory wanted to assume. The strikeout rate of 10% was indeed atrocious though, so there is that. His other core numbers were actually better than I recall as well; he was a moderate groundballer even back then and he threw an average amount of strikes. The problems with Pineiro mostly boiled down to an increasing penchant for allowing line drives and some bad luck on hits allowed.

Those traits continued until this past season, when Pineiro decided to stop walking people, not allow home runs and further ramp up the ground balls, even dropping his line drive rate below league average for the first time since he was last good year, in 2004. Those are all good things.

Now the bad things. Pineiro's pitch results didn't change much, he didn't throw more strikes and he actually got, by far, the lowest percentage of swings and misses of his career. The home runs allowed was way too low; just under 4% of all balls in the air left the yard. Even if he kept up the 60% ground ball rate, Pineiro would be due for some home run regression.

What about those ground balls? What caused the change and can it be expected to continue? 2009 Joel Pineiro fell in love with his (possibly) new sinker, throwing it over 70% of the time, a notable rise over prior seasons. If you think of a compass rose with north pointing toward the sky and south toward the ground then 2008 Pineiro's average fastball broke about 5.3 inches and at an angle roughly 20 degrees west of due south. In 2009, it broke an average of 6.7 inches and now moved more in to same-handed hitters, 27 degrees west of due south.

Against right-handed hitters in 2009, Pineiro posted a 5.8 K/BB ratio against a more normal 2.7 ratio to lefty hitters when prior to '09 he had no significant difference in the two rates. I am loathe to grant pitchers the benefit of the doubt when it comes to new pitches - see my upcoming reaction to several Spring Training fluff stories - but when they actually show up in the numbers, like Brandon League's splitter, I am more amiable to giving them credit going forward.

Still, you need to regress the walks upward, the home runs upward, the ground balls downward (since it's hard for anyone to maintain that high of a level) and it seems like you're eating away everything that made Joel Pineiro good in 2009. Moving back into the American League will hurt him even further. The good news, for Joel, is that he has a long way to fall on each of those categories. If he maintains a strong ground ball rate thanks to his sinker, the home runs should rise, but not enough to cripple him. The walks should increase, but again, probably not by enough to make him terrible.

Honestly, my best bet for Pineiro is 2010 would be a low-to-mid-4 FIP/tRA guy, something worth about 2.5 wins. Even though he will only be 31 for the upcoming season, because of his new found success and long track record of sucking in the past, I never would have wanted to grant him more than a two-year deal. Normally that would be a fruitless hope, but this depressed winter actually made that attainable, especially while several decent SP candidates are still out there looking for work. Taking the deal with Anaheim was probably smart for Pineiro as Doug Davis also signed yesterday and suitors for pitchers like Jarrod Washburn are drying up fast.

As far as value goes, this article was mostly written before the signing announcement and carried the angle of what I would have been happy with were the Mariners to pursue Pineiro. My conclusion was that a 2 year, $15 million contract, similar to Jason Marquis' deal, seemed about fair, balancing his upside with his downside and adding a touch of a penalty for sucking so much in 2005 and '06. His durability is better than other reclamation projects (Sheets, Bedard, Wang) and his upside, as we just saw last year, is not that far off from the more health-risky pitchers left on the market. All in all, I am not pleased that the Angels got him on such a reasonable deal. If he maintains his improvement, it will hurt doubly so. If he implodes again, it will be twice as sweet. Either way, with his addition, my projections now have the Angels ahead of us by a solid 1.5-2 wins.

The ball is back in your court, Jack.

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