There's a lot going on with the Seattle Mariners in camp right now, but I don't think there's any question that the biggest story is Michael Pineda, and whether he ought to break with the team. And because Pineda's the major story, naturally, there's been a lot of discussion regarding the quality of his offspeed pitches. Those are pitches he's going to need in order to be able to succeed in the bigs, and some of them looked sharp on TV the other day, while others did not. What does that mean? What's Pineda's outlook, and how soon will those pitches improve?
It's with those questions in mind that I thought I'd take this opportunity to talk a little bit about the development of an offspeed pitch. A greater understanding of the process, I think, can help us better evaluate where a pitcher stands, and how we should expect him to come along.
The first thing to understand is that getting movement on the ball is by far the easiest part of learning a pitch. Movement is as simple as arm action and grip. You can pick up the right movement in a hurry. Go out to the field and tell Felix how to throw a splitter and, within a few short minutes, he'll throw some sharp-breaking splitters. A better arm will get better movement than a worse arm, but getting movement in general is not a challenge.
What's challenging is the rest. Once you have the movement that you want on a pitch, you need to get that movement consistently. You don't want to get that nice sharp break once or twice per five attempts. You want to get it five times per five attempts, so that the ball doesn't just spin out of your hand by mistake. This requires consistent arm action and a consistent grip, to the point where your fingers are in the same place and always applying the same pressure. A little change in finger pressure can have a huge effect on movement, and while some pitchers are aware of this and take advantage of it, that's for experts. When you're developing a slider or changeup, you want to be able to throw the same slider or changeup every time.
And once you're able to get consistent movement, then you're left trying for consistent location. As you can imagine, this is the biggest hurdle. You don't always have to be able to hit the target on the nose, but a good offspeed pitch is an offspeed pitch you can move around the zone. Being able to spot an inside slider or a down-away changeup requires the right delivery and absolute confidence in your pitch as you throw it. If you have a slider that breaks sharply, that's encouraging, but if you can't locate it, it isn't a good slider. It's just a slider with potential. A good offspeed pitch is an offspeed pitch the pitcher can trust and control.
So, where's Pineda right now? Pineda has a lot of confidence in his slider. He can't spot it perfectly every time, but he's getting there, and the movement's good enough that he can survive the occasional mistake. His changeup, meanwhile, is lagging behind. We know his changeup is good when it works. It isn't to the point, though, where it moves the same way every time, and Pineda can't spot it as well as he can his other two pitches. So, right now, it isn't a good pitch. It could be, but it isn't yet.
The answer? Repetition. Unsurprisingly, the only way to improve your offspeed pitches is to keep throwing your offspeed pitches until it's all committed to muscle memory. There's an argument to be made that Pineda could throw his offspeed pitches more often in Tacoma than in Seattle, since he can afford to make more mistakes in AAA in the name of development. But we'd be talking about a difference of a few pitches per game, which I don't find too terribly convincing, given how much work gets done between starts. And in Seattle, he'd have a Major League coaching staff armed with Major League equipment and Major League feedback. So service time reasons aside, I'm not sure Pineda would stand to gain much from returning to the PCL. He could conceivably get his reps with the M's.
Michael Pineda, right now, is a good pitcher who's a work in progress. Everyone is aware of his strengths, and everyone is aware of his weaknesses. There's no question that he has it in him to hone his repertoire and blossom into the ace we all want him to be. There's just no telling how long it might take him to get there, if he's able to get there. He won't get there overnight. It's going to take a lot of practice. But every pitch is a stepping stone along an indeterminate path.