BROCK AND SALK

Michael Pineda: Already an ace?

May 12, 2011, 9:27 AM | Updated: 11:18 am

Pineda-5
Michael Pineda’s strikeout rate of 25 percent ranks second among American League starters. (AP)

By Jeff Sullivan

It was just a few days ago that Brendan Ryan and the miracle Mariners walked off over the White Sox, and we couldn’t help but entertain the notion that this team might actually remain a factor in the race deep into the season. With talented pitching and an opportunistic lineup, who was to say the Mariners couldn’t be this year’s surprise contender?

Now, less than a week later, we’ve come to realize that “opportunistic” is another word for “bad”, and the Mariners have lost four in a row. They haven’t fallen out of the race completely, and they’re still only 4.5 games back of the first-place Angels, but the sudden skid has helped lend some perspective. This little losing streak is a reminder that, while the M’s would love to win in 2011, the real focus is on developing for 2012 and beyond.

As such, the most important things for us to see as fans right now are the development of Justin Smoak into a middle-of-the-order hitter, and the development of Michael Pineda into a front-of-the-rotation starter. There are some others of a certain consequence, but those are the two biggies.

So what have we seen to date? As far as the first one’s concerned, there have been a lot more positives than negatives. And as far as the second one’s concerned, holy crap.

A lot of people coming into the year had a sneaking suspicion that Michael Pineda might arrive fairly quickly. A beast of a man who releases his high-90s fastball nine inches from the plate, Pineda’s also the rare young starter capable of throwing consistent strikes. This unusual blend of power and control made him a solid bet to have an easy transition to the bigs.

But there are easy transitions to the bigs, and there are performances like Pineda’s, as the phenom has exceeded all realistic expectations. The surface numbers tell the story just fine, as he’s averaged better than six innings a start with a 2.84 ERA. But dig a little deeper. You know where Michael Pineda ranks in the American League among starters in strikeout rate? Second. Among American League starting pitchers, Michael Pineda’s strikeout rate currently ranks second overall, at 25 percent.

It’s just about impossible for a pitcher to be anything less than extraordinarily successful when he’s posting the second-highest strikeout rate in the league, and when you throw in the fact that Pineda often goes long stretches between walks, it isn’t enough to wonder whether he’s an ace in the making; you’d be justified in wondering whether he’s already an ace right now. His numbers are right there with Jon Lester and Justin Verlander. It’s still early, and the league hasn’t had time to adjust to him, but then, Pineda also hasn’t had time to adjust to the league, either. Is it so crazy a notion? Hasty, sure. But crazy? I don’t think so.

The obvious key to Pineda’s success is his big, oft-unhittable fastball. That’s a pitch that catches even the most untrained of eyes. But the less obvious key to Pineda’s success is his ability to get ahead. Below, I’m going to show you some American League pitching splits, and then one of Pineda’s pitching splits so far this season:

AL, overall: .712 OPS
AL, after 0-1 count: .595 OPS
AL, after 0-1 count: 48 percent of all plate appearances

Pineda, after 0-1 count: 63 percent of all plate appearances

On average, AL pitchers get ahead of hitters 0-1 in the count in just under half of all plate appearances. After they do so, hitters become far less effective. Through seven starts, meanwhile, Pineda has gotten ahead of hitters 0-1 in the count in nearly two-thirds of all plate appearances. He’s gotten ahead of hitters way more often than usual, and, in turn, has fallen behind hitters way less often than usual, with the result being that, in any given at bat, Pineda has usually been in control.

Getting ahead is a big and underrated part of pitching. It isn’t just about the quality of a pitcher’s stuff. It’s about his ability to use it and make sure it’s always the hitter who’s uncomfortable. Thanks to his ability to pound the zone, Michael Pineda has kept hitters uncomfortable, and he’s flourished. And what’s more is, there’s no reason to believe this is suddenly going to stop. Pineda’s always thrown a lot of strikes. He’s always been able to get ahead. Now he’s just doing it against Major League hitters. He may not always be able to do it this often, but it’ll always be one of his strengths.

There are a lot of individual criticisms you can make about Pineda’s skillset right now. He allows a ton of fly balls. His slider command isn’t great. His changeup command is even worse, and he hardly ever throws it. That’s a pitch we all want to see him improve. But then, we just watched Felix Hernandez allow five runs in five innings to the Orioles. If Pineda made all the improvements we want him to make, he’d be perfect. He doesn’t have to be perfect to be amazing, as we’ve seen through his first seven turns.

Pineda is an efficient, hard-to-hit strike-thrower who’s taken the league by absolute storm as a surprise rookie out of camp. It’s fun to think about the pitcher he may one day blossom into down the road. But it’s also worth taking a step back to get a full view of what he already is. Michael Pineda is 22 years old, and he has the second-best strikeout rate in the American League. Michael Pineda is 22 years old, and he may already be an ace.

Editor’s note: Jeff Sullivan of Lookout Landing will be writing a column every other week during the baseball season for the Brock & Salk blog on 710Sports.com.

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