The second piece in my sporadic series looking at the guys who could be a part of the starting rotation in 2005.
Part 1: Bobby Madritsch
Anyway, on to Pineiro...
Having tossed 406 innings of effective baseball at the ages of 23 and 24, Joel Pineiro looked like someone who could anchor the rotation for several years to come. Just 25 at the start of the season, many were expecting a breakthrough performance by the right-hander that would establish him as one of the better young arms in the league.
The plan got derailed quickly. In hindsight, maybe we should've known that things weren't going to go Joel's way when he got drilled in the forearm by a batted ball in March. In his first start of the regular season, Pineiro got obliterated by the Angels, allowing eight runs in four innings of work. He gave up fewer than four runs just once in his first six appearances. In an encouraging three-game stretch that saw Pineiro surrender just five runs in 22 innings, he got stuck with one loss and two no-decisions. Inconsistency was the name of the game; in his final 12 starts, Joel allowed 5+ runs five times and one run another five times.
Then, just as it looked like things could change for the better with Pineiro working on improving his foot mechanics, he hit the DL with a strained flexor bundle in his right arm. It wasn't quite the major tear originally reported by Ken Rosenthal, but it was enough to keep Pineiro on the sidelines for the rest of the year. As a final stain on the season, John Hickey delivered a terrifyingly ambiguous statement concerning Pineiro's health in an August article:
All of this has left us wondering what we can expect from Pineiro going forward. Just how much worse was he last season than in years past?
A statistical comparison:
A simpler way of looking at it is by comparing Pineiro's 2004 season with his combined 2002/2003 campaigns.
-Strikeouts up 10.4%
-Walks down 4.9%
-Home runs up 39.4%
-Hits up 7.9%
-Doubles/Triples up 16.4%
In the worst season of his young career, Pineiro actually improved his command, throwing more strikes while still managing to miss more bats than he had in the past. Giving that this is the key to effective pitching, you begin to wonder why his ERA ballooned up so high.
Then you look at the last three points. Your first reaction, of course, is to think about the defense - Pineiro's BABIP jumped 20 points from where it was in 2002/2003. And surely, that has something to do with the worse performance. But stare long and hard at those 2B/3B and HR rates. An additional piece of information for you to consider as you wonder what happened: Pineiro's 2004 singles rate was right on par with his previous levels.
Batters were striking out more often against Pineiro than they had in the past, but they were hitting the ball harder when they were making contact.
The two conclusions don't seem to agree with each other, do they? Driving a ball requires one to be locked in, focused, and ready to hit the pitch, and looking at the strikeout rate, it doesn't seem like the hitters were any more prepared to drill a pitch than they had been before.
It's somewhat similar to Gil Meche v2.0, in a way - after getting recalled from Tacoma, Meche threw a bunch of strikes, which saw his walk rate decrease but also caused his home run rate to skyrocket. The difference, though, is that Meche's strikeouts went down as he stopped trying to get batters to bite off the plate, while Pineiro's increased. And this is what's so perplexing: if Pineiro was throwing a bunch of pitches over the plate, the home runs would follow by the increased strikeout rate wouldn't. If Pineiro were throwing really sharp pitches, the strike outs would follow but the increased home run rate wouldn't. You can see the disconnect.
Lacking any ideas, along with the motivation to search for them, I'm inclined to believe that Pineiro isn't as good as his strikeouts showed, and he isn't as bad as his home run rate suggests. For example, take Pitcher A, whose "true ability" - that is, the ability he would show over an infinite number of innings - is defined by a 6.0 K/9 and a 1.0 HR/9. Pitcher A's numbers will always hang around the established level of performance, but as your sample of innings gets smaller, the standard error gets larger. Over 400 innings, you might expect his strikeout rate to fall somewhere between 5.8 - 6.2; over 200 innings you might expect it to fall somewhere between 5.5 - 6.5; over 100 innings, you might expect it somewhere between 5 - 7.
Right now, it's my belief that this is what happened with Pineiro. He wasn't having any problems with velocity or throwing mechanics, so the difference between the 2003 and 2004 Joels is purely statistical. With this in mind, the 140.2 innings that Pineiro threw last season may not have been enough for him to reach his "true ability level" - that is, he overachieved on strikeouts and underachieved with home runs.
So what does this mean for 2005? Assuming that everything is structurally okay, I expect Pineiro's strikeouts to come down a little bit, along with his home runs. The hits will decrease as well, thanks to a better team defense that won't allow Joel to have another .295 BABIP (the team average was .286 last season).
It's important to point out that Pineiro never really was a terrific pitcher, even in 2002/2003; he benefited a considerable amount from playing in front of a historically awesome defense, and he took advantage of the home park more than most any other pitcher on the staff (2.99 career ERA at home, 4.42 on the road). He wasn't bad, of course, but people proclaiming him as the next great young AL ace were getting ahead of themselves.
Joel Pineiro has the stuff to be a good pitcher, one of the better #2's in baseball, but he has yet to use his repertoire to its full capability. In the past, he'd been able to rely on a strong defense and a favorable environment to make his numbers look good, but a critical component of that success was missing in 2004, and he struggled as a result. Given that he'll still start half his games in Safeco, I expect Pineiro to improve in 2005, as his home runs should come down and the defense behind him will undoubtedly perform better than they did a year ago. It won't be as good as it was in the Cameron days, though, and I'm looking for Pineiro to finish the year around 4.10. There's breakout potential here, but I think Joel is too comfortable in his pitching environment to make the necessary adjustments that would improve his game.
On a different note, I'll be out of town for the weekend, so Trent's in charge if anything important happens. If you need something to read, see what Jim Street has to say about King Felix.