It's prospect day on Lookout Landing! Celebrate the future! Step on the present! Step on its balls! Humiliate it! Spit in its face! Tie its hands to its feet and throw it out the window! Go to hell, present!
Last night, Michael Pineda went 5.1 innings against Round Rock, striking out seven and walking one while allowing three runs. Though he's nearly reached his innings limit for the year and almost certainly will not be making a September appearance in Seattle, his performance with West Tennessee and Tacoma as a 21 year old - 2.88 ERA, 9.9 K/9 - has been enough to see him rocket up prospect lists and lodge himself firmly in the forefront of Seattle-area brains. He has, in short, become the next big thing.
Because he's gotten so much attention, it follows that a lot of the focus has been on when he'll arrive in the big leagues, and how well he'll be able to do. Are we talking a Felixish, ace-level starter? Maybe a #2? Something a little less than that? Boom or bust? Countless people have talked about Pineda from countless angles in their attempts to project his future career.
In this post, I'll attempt to do the same thing. Pineda's future career, after all, is what we're all looking forward to. But I'm going to try something a little different. Kind of like I did with Nick Hill a few months ago, I'm going to isolate the various components of Pineda's skillset or toolbox or what have you and hit on them individually. Let's see where this leads us.
- Right-handed. Pineda, obviously, can be expected to perform better against right-handed bats than left-handed bats, and will accordingly face some significant percentage of lefties, presumably greater than 50%.
- Low arm slot. Pineda doesn't quite throw sidearm, but he's somewhere between sidearm and three-quarters. The lower angle will likely broaden his platoon split a little, as he should be more successful against righties and less successful against lefties than you'd expect based on his handedness alone. His fastball will show a lot of run in towards righties.
- Tall. Pineda, depending on who you ask, is somewhere around 6'5 or 6'7. Either way, he's an absolute beast of a man who should be able to take advantage of his height by releasing the ball closer to the plate than a more normal-sized pitcher. By releasing the ball closer to the plate, Pineda should have better 'perceived velocity' than actual velocity, and perceived velocity is really all we should care about. In other words, a Pineda fastball should seem faster than an equivalent fastball thrown by a shorter pitcher.
- Excellent fastball. Pineda hovers in the mid-90s and can approach triple digits when he's really amped up. By throwing a fastball that fast from that release point and often staying in the upper half of the zone, this pitch should generate a lot of swinging strikes. And a fastball that can generate a lot of swinging strikes provides a pitcher with a huge boost. It's easy to get swinging strikes with offspeed stuff. If you can miss bats with your fastball, too, you're well on your way to an exceptional strikeout rate. With its inward tail, Pineda's fastball should be murder on righties.
- Developing slider. Thrown from a lower arm angle, Pineda's slider should have less horizontal movement and more vertical movement than a slider thrown more conventionally. This will help reduce its platoon split and make it somewhat effective against lefties. It will still be more difficult for righties, though. This pitch is still developing, but it's probably Pineda's best secondary weapon, and he's pretty good about throwing it for strikes.
- Developing changeup. Pineda's change is behind his slider, but it'll rather obviously be a big key to his performance against lefties down the road. Again, thrown from that arm slot, his change should have a lot of run in to righties and away from lefties, making it a solid swing-and-miss or weak contact pitch to lefties when it's kept around the outer part of the zone. Pineda's change doesn't have terrific consistency yet, but he throws hard enough, and he gets enough movement, that he doesn't need this pitch to develop as far as a pitcher with lesser stuff.
- Developing cutter. This one's from Churchill, as I hadn't heard about it before. Pineda, like so many other arms in the minors and Majors, is now trying to pick up a cutter, and though his still has a little ways to go, I get excited every time I hear about a Mariner trying this pitch. A cutter would give Pineda a second fastball he could use to mix things up against lefties and work inside. Because he comes from lower than Mariano Rivera and John Danks, we shouldn't expect Pineda's cutter to bite in the opposite direction of his fastball, but we can expect it to tail less, which can be just as effective given that pitching is all about keeping the hitter off balance.
- Excellent command. It's rare that you find a guy as young as Pineda, with his stuff, capable of throwing 66% strikes in AAA. Baseball America says that he has the best control in the system, and his tiny walk rates, combined with his superb strikeout rates, paint the picture of a guy who can put the ball where he wants to. If the three most important things a pitcher can do are miss bats, throw strikes, and keep the ball on the ground, Pineda should be able to accomplish the first two with his fastball alone. Nevermind what he can do with his other pitches. The command will come and go, and Pineda is still prone to his ugly innings, but by and large, he locates very well.
When you add it all up, it's hard not to get excited. But, in the interest of remaining reasonable in the face of all the hype, I think we should play the game where we try to predict why Pineda could fail. And for me - aside from the obvious and ever-present injury risk - I think, if Pineda fails to meet our expectations, a big reason could be struggles against left-handed hitters. His two best weapons against lefties are supposedly behind his two best weapons against righties, and as a low-angle righty, he'll be facing a ton of lefties from the get-go. He'll have to be able to retire them consistently, and while he very clearly has the potential to do so, it's something to watch.
Still, that's just me trying to balance out the hype a little bit. I'd be lying if I said that Pineda doesn't excite me like few Mariner prospects ever have. Even if he isn't ready yet, he should be ready soon, and when he's ready, he should be a treat.