Main character? Pineda writing riveting script
Early results of comeback tale could signify big season ahead for Yanks' acquisition
Now that he's about to take the mound for his next start, let's stop discussing the "pine" in Pineda and talk about Michael Pineda himself.
Because if his early-April performance is any indication, he just might be -- all pine-tar drama aside -- one of the best stories in baseball this season.
And, frankly, the Yankees might need him to be.
Two starts into the season, Pineda -- who gets the ball in the nightcap of tonight's doubleheader with the Cubs -- has made the two years he lost to labrum surgery seem oddly inconsequential. Certainly, he's lost a touch of his velocity since his 2011 All-Star season, and, yes, the threat of another shoulder issue is and will remain palpable. But Pineda's wipeout slider causes so much whiplash that he could be properly positioned to become the front-line starter in the Yankees rotation.
That would be quite a comeback campaign, to say the least.
While CC Sabathia tries to figure out how to do more with less and Masahiro Tanaka continues what has been a relatively seamless transition to American soil and Hiroki Kuroda provides his usual mid-rotation consistency, Pineda gives the Yanks arguably their greatest avenue of upside.
This is no small point for a club with a persistent and palpable "World Series or bust" mindset. This club is going to reach a point in the September stretch run and, possibly, the October stage when it needs a stopper, a fixer, a shutdown arm.
Sabathia was that guy once, but the loss of filthiness has forced a need for craftiness, and CC, with a 6.63 ERA through three starts, has demonstrated the lack of wiggle room with which he now works. Because of the injury threats in their lineup, the key to the Yankees' season is going to be the ability of the rotation, at large, to take the pressure off CC's wide shoulders.
Tanaka is a huge help on that front, of course, and his secondary stuff seems to answer some of the doubts about whether the lack of zip on his fastball limits his ceiling. Aside from some shaky first-inning moments, he was solid in his first two starts, and he'll get the nod in the first game of Wednesday's twin bill.
Pineda, though, was this club's biggest wild card going into the year, because it was hard to know how his past medical maladies would impact his velocity and command when it counted. Yet now that we've seen how well that slider -- with its late, downward action away from right-handers and in on lefties -- has held up in the time lost, it doesn't seem totally outlandish to expect that this two-start sample (two earned runs on nine hits with 12 strikeouts in 12 innings) could be a glimpse into what's ahead.
Pineda is generating swings and misses on 22 percent of the sliders he throws, per FanGraphs.com, and that's made the pitch one of the most effective in the Majors thus far this season. It has made the two-miles-per-hour dip in fastball velocity (from 94 to 92) less troublesome, and it's also paired well with an improving changeup.
As a flyball pitcher reliant on strikeouts and pinpoint location, Pineda will need to sustain the slider and continue to learn to trust the change, especially now that he's not able to hit the mid-90s on the radar gun as effortlessly as he once did.
What we've seen early on, though, are indications that Pineda is, by and large, the same guy he was in the first half of 2011, the same guy the Yankees targeted in trade talks.
You'll remember that Pineda's 2011 season descended swiftly after the All-Star break. He got knocked around in his first two starts after the intermission, and he never again pitched on regular rest. His velocity dipped, and there were whispers that something must be physically wrong with the burgeoning ace. Those whispers were confirmed the following spring, when Pineda complained of weakness in his shoulder and eventually underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum.
Before all of that, Pineda posted a 2.58 ERA and .564 opponents' OPS in his first 17 big league starts. Because of his polished command, he piled up strikeouts, limited walks and induced weak popups. And he did all of that, essentially, with just two pitches.
It remains true that Pineda will need to continue to develop the change as an effective third option, especially if he's going to avoid trouble with lefties. But what's encouraging to the Yanks in the early going is how much the slider has sustained, and there is the possibility that he'll see a slight tick upward on the radar gun as he further gets his legs under him.
It's too early in the season to know if Pineda can sustain his two-start sample, and, for all we know, it might still be too early to evaluate that trade with the Mariners. The M's looked to have gotten the better end of the barter when Pineda went under the knife, but now Jesus Montero essentially ate himself off the Major League roster and is batting just a bit above .200 at Triple-A, while Pineda is dealing.
In the end, what matters most to the Yanks is not "winning" that particular swap, but winning games. On that front, Pineda has improved his organizational standing from noticeably absent to instantly impactful here in 2014. The only knock against him so far is that he's not particularly good at hiding pine tar. Other than that, it's been quite a comeback in the early going.