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Run by The Trentonian's Nick Peruffo, this blog will provide daily multimedia coverage of the Trenton Thunder.

Monday, April 9, 2012

A column about Michael Pineda and fastball velocity


TRENTON – 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 the mid-90s.”

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. 

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