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Who is Michael Pineda?

He has been a pitcher of two BABIPs, on whom DRA and RA9 can never agree.

New York Yankees v Minnesota Twins Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Michael Pineda has been one of the most fascinating pitchers of the DRA era, which began about two years ago. In his three-and-a-half seasons of play, his RA9 and DRA have never been close:

Pineda RA9 vs. DRA

Year RA9 DRA RA9-DRA RA9-DRA %ile
Year RA9 DRA RA9-DRA RA9-DRA %ile
2011 4.00 3.01 0.99 92nd
2014 2.12 2.94 -0.82 9th
2015 4.65 3.36 1.29 97th
2016 5.02 3.49 1.53 99th
Percentiles among pitchers with 70+ innings in each year. Data via Baseball Prospectus

Also strange is how much Pineda’s BABIP has fluctuated. It was .250 during his first two seasons in the majors, and .335 over his last two seasons. It’s so difficult to assess who Pineda really is as a pitcher.

Let’s get something out of the way right off the bat: Single-season BABIPs are a very small sample size for pitchers. Approximately 2,000 balls in play are required for a pitcher’s true-talent BABIP to emerge. That is over four full seasons of play. Pineda has only 1,606 BIP for his career. Still, that doesn’t mean that we can’t try to find some signal in the noise.

In his first and only season in Seattle, Pineda was a very different pitcher than he is now. He relied heavily on his four-seamer, throwing it over 60 percent of the time, per Brooks Baseball. He was a fly ball pitcher, which is effective in the pitcher’s haven of Safeco Field. Allowing a lot of fly balls can limit hits on balls in play, which might have contributed to Pineda’s .258 BABIP that year.

He did a good job striking hitters out, too, as he fanned them at about a 25 percent clip. He was still homer-prone, though, which led to a mediocre 4.00 RA9. While his DRA was almost a run lower, I have chalked that up to his poor command. Putting lifeless fastballs down the middle is not bad luck; it’s poor skill.

Speaking of which, that four-seamer Pineda relied on was a problem. Throwing at 95 mph is not very effective when the pitch lacks life and you can’t command it. The Yankees acquiring him was odd, because putting a pitcher like him in Yankee Stadium seemed awfully risky.

The Yankees appeared to realize the risks of playing that iteration of Pineda in Yankee Stadium, so they had him scrap his four-seam fastball in favor of a cutter. His first year in the Bronx, he threw the cutter over half the time, and even though it was 2 mph slower than his four-seamer, the extra movement initially made all the difference in the world.

Pineda pitched just half a season in 2014, and though his results were great, it was mostly a mirage. He had a 2.12 RA9 and a minuscule 2.4 percent walk rate, but his strikeout rate was mediocre, he had a .233 BABIP, and he had a 5.4 percent HR/FB in Yankees Stadium of all places. This all factored in to his DRA being 2.94. Basically he got really lucky that year.

The new cutter helped a lot. Compare the slugging percentage against it to that of his four-seamer in 2011.

Four-seamer on the left, cutter on the right.
Images via Brooks Baseball

Overall, Pineda allowed a .400 SLG on four-seamers in 2011 versus a .299 SLG on cutters in 2014. The ISO on his cutters was nearly half that of his four-seamers. Unfortunately, like with his run average, his success with his cutter was also a small sample size anomaly.

In almost a full season in 2015, Pineda’s RA9 shot up to 4.65, though his strikeout rate improved and his walk rate was still excellent. He was homer-prone again, thanks to a 14.7 HR/FB ratio, and he had a .332 BABIP. Again, though, his 3.36 DRA liked him a lot more than his run average. He faced strong competition in a very hitter-friendly park.

The cutter that seemed to be Pineda’s savior in 2014 was anything but in 2015.

Brooks Baseball

The zone profiles of his cutter in 2014 versus 2015 offer some explanation.

Pineda’s cutter zone profile in 2014 vs. 2015.
Images via Brooks Baseball

Pineda kept the pitch down more in 2015 and got annihilated for it. This is a good example of control versus command. He did a great job of not giving hitters free passes, but he did a poor job of working the pitch in the strike zone. A zone profile like this will inevitably lead to a lot of home runs in Yankee Stadium, and bad luck has little to do with it. This is how a pitcher can allow hitters to have a .525 SLG against his cutter.

One good thing about keeping the ball down is that it turned Pineda from a fly ball pitcher to a ground ball pitcher. He had a 48 percent grounder rate in 2015. Ground balls end up as hits more often than fly balls, so that combined with the Yankees’ poor defense that year helps to explain the high BABIP. It is still certainly some fault of Pineda for not locating his cutter better.

In his most recent season, Pineda was more confusing than ever. He had a 5.02 RA9 and his walk rate more than doubled, though it was still better than average. His home run rate got even worse, ranking 13th-highest among qualified starters. Once again, he had a high BABIP of .339 and a 17 percent HR/FB. Strangely enough, though, he posted the best strikeout rate of his career at 27 percent. That put him in the top ten among qualified starters.

In the analytics community, Pineda was a frequent topic of discussion because his 2.95 DRA was over two runs better than his run average. In some recent changes made by Jonathan Judge, Pineda’s 2016 DRA rose to 3.49, but that’s still roughly 1.5 runs better than his run average. Let’s see how much luck was to blame and how much Pineda was to blame.

We now know that the cutter was a problem in 2015, and it got worse in 2016. Opposing batters had a .347 AVG against it with a whopping .619 SLG.

Again, that combined with the .381 BABIP allowed on his cutters appeared to be more of a command problem than anything else.

Pineda cutter zone profile 2016

Yet again, that is not bad luck, that is bad pitching. What is bad luck, as mentioned before, is the stadium he played in. Furthermore, he faced some pretty strong competition in the division — the Red Sox had the best offense in baseball by wOBA, and the Blue Jays and Orioles were in the top ten — although he’d dealt with some difficult opponents in the past.

Pineda was also terribly unlucky with two outs. Opposing batters hit .325/.383/.598 with a .406 BABIP in that situation. That is 72 percent worse than the major league average with two outs. With two outs and RISP, it was even worse than that. He gave up a line of .305/.387/.683, which was 99 percent worse than the major league average in that situation. That is all insanely unlucky. Pineda should enjoy some strongly positive regression toward the mean in 2017.

Pineda’s slider is still and always has been an excellent pitch, and he got more whiffs on it than ever in 2016. He had some trouble with his changeup last year, something that our own Stacey Gotsulias discussed for BP Bronx. The problems stemmed from his cutter, which will need to be the key to his turnaround.

The 2017 season should be more informative than ever on Michael Pineda’s true talent. His lack of command is absolutely on him, and is something on which DRA might be overrating him. He still has great stuff, though, and with better luck in two-out situations, he might be able to put up something close to a 4.00 RA9. He really needs it all to come together now, because he will be a free agent after the season.

. . .

Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.