When the Yankees used
Jesus Montero, a player whom general manager Brian Cashman said might be the
best he’d ever traded, to pry Michael Pineda from the Mariners, they thought
they were getting a pitcher with elite potential in return. One who, in 2011,
mixed a hard-biting slider and a developing change-up with a fastball that
averaged 94.7 miles per hour, the fourth best the majors last year behind Alexi
Ogando, Justin Verlander and David Price.
It was the rarest of all deals, a
prospect-for-prospect swap that had equal potential to leave both teams feeling
exceptionally happy with their return.
When Pineda showed up this
spring, however, things weren’t pretty.
For one, he was overweight by 10
to 20 pounds. And when he got to the mound, the upper-echelon fastball was
gone, instead replaced by one that registered in the high 80s and low 90s. By
the end of spring, the heater had improved some, popping 92s and 93s with the
occasional 94, but the 97s and 98s that Seattle fans saw last year seemed to be
a thing of the past.
He admitted to shoulder pain
after his final start of the spring, which, depending on when it developed,
could have been behind the drop in velocity. Therein lay the big question: What
kind of pitcher can Pineda be if, after his shoulder has recovered, the
plus-plus fastball never returns and he instead works around that 92 to 94 mile
per hour range?
The answer, according to two
scouts, a catcher, and a pitcher I spoke with last week, is: A pretty darn good
one, if he learns to make the proper adjustments to the way he pitches.
“Just on the pure velocity, it’s
tougher for a hitter to make an adjustment on a faster velocity,” said the
first scout, from the American League. “The major league hitters can do that,
though, that’s why they get there. There’s other things that factor in with the
velocity – there’s deception, location, and movement. … All those factors have
to factor in.”
He used the example of former
Mets great Sid Fernandez, who utilized different angles with his arm and his
body to induce a lot of late swings and bad contact from the hitters. He might
not have won any speed pitch contests, but Baseball Reference counts him among
the 250 best pitchers in major league history.
Want a more recent example than
El Sid? Take the three aces at the top of the Phillies’ rotation – Roy
Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. Neither posted an average fastball
velocity of higher than 92 miles per hour, but each was among the NL’s top 10
in strikeouts and its top five in WHIP.
Thunder catcher Gustavo Molina, who
has caught countless pitchers, including Pineda this spring, over his 871
professional games, can recall one pitcher who came up with a blazing fastball
and, as the heater gradually cooled, learned to reinvent himself and be
successful without top-shelf velocity.
“A perfect example is Freddy
(Garcia),” he said. “He started as a power pitcher, 90-plus fastball, and now
he depends on his breaking ball and fastball location. You’ve got to handle
that (loss of velocity). Not many pitchers can do that – be a power pitcher and
(later) be a location pitcher, because when you’ve got a fastball plus, like
95, 97, you’ve can’t miss the spot or they’ll hit it out.”
Obviously, the last thing to
which Molina alluded – location – is the key. A pitcher with cheese like
Verlander or Price or Ogando won’t always pay for mistakes he makes in the
zone. Someone whose heater comes in a few ticks lower will have to be more
careful to avoid the middle of the plate.
“You can work at 88-90 if you’ve
got proper life,” said the second scout, this one from the National League. “If
you don’t have plus movement or plus life, you’re going to need to be around
Pineda walked 2.89 hitters per
nine innings, a mark that -- even though it ranked better than Jon Lester,
Brandon Morrow, Ricky Romero, C.J. Wilson and Jeremy Hellickson, just to name a
few – could stand a little improvement. He’s just 23 years old, though, and has
plenty of time – four of the Thunder’s five starters are older than him – to
mature as a pitcher.
The lone man in Trenton’s
rotation younger who can call Pineda his elder, Brett Marshall, who once
boasted to Yankees officials that he’d one day throw 100 miles per hour, says
he’s realized over his time in the system that higher radar readings aren’t
necessarily the key to success.
“After coming off Tommy
John (surgery), that's one thing we worked on, just throwing strikes,” he
said. “Don't worry about how hard you're
throwing, just get out there and hit the catcher's mitt and you'll be
fine. That was the biggest thing I
learned, that it doesn't matter how fast you throw.
You put good movement on
the ball, and it's going to be tough to hit.
Greg Maddux threw the ball 85 and look at him. You've got guys who throw 99 who can do the
same thing. So it doesn't matter. It's all about hitting your spots, throwing
strikes, keeping the ball down, all the good stuff."
There’s a good chance
that Pineda regains his high-octane heat once he’s healthy and ready to go. If
he doesn’t, though, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the Yankees will
plenty happy with the pitcher he becomes.