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The Yankees acquired Michael Pineda because they saw him as an answer to their longtime quest for a front of the rotation starter to pair with CC Sabathia. They saw the imposing 6’7″ 22-yr old dominate American League hitters in the first half of 2011 with a Fastball that averaged 95 MPH and a nasty Slider that could be classified as diabolical. All of the numbers were there…..3.03 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 9.0 K/9, 2.9 BB/9, .198 BAA, .584 OPS against.
They saw this performance from a 22-yr old kid in his first 113 MLB Innings and were able to overlook the velocity drop and 5.12 ERA in the 2nd half. Cashman and his advisors reasoned that his 2nd half swoon was the result of fatigue and he’d be back firing in 2012. They felt they could get him to throw his change-up more and to rely less on the violent Slider he threw 31.5% of the time. Whether that was sound thinking on Cashman’s part is a question that has already been debated quite a bit. We all know the heavy price the Yanks paid for Pineda and the pitcher’s current status on the DL right now. The question is what do the Yanks need to do now to make the best of this and to reap the biggest benefit going forward?
For that answer, the Yankees need to learn from their experiences with their last 2 young pitchers that were thought to be their next ace starters……Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes. Both of these guys had similar expectations & stuff at the age of 21-23 and also endured some of the same struggles Pineda has recently. Namely poor conditioning, poor mechanics, arm injuries and problems dealing with the enormous pressure that is put on a young man who is proclaimed as the next Ace of a team expected to contend for a championship every single year in the biggest media market in the world.
Without rehashing all of the sordid details, Joba was the one guy who the Yankees could have handled much better. As nasty as Pineda was last year, Joba was nastier when he came up. He dominated with a true high 90′s FB and wicked slider/curve combo that helped him post a 2.17 ERA, 11.0 K/9 & 3.3 BB/9 over his first 2 seasons and 124 MLB Innings. However, he also suffered a shoulder injury at the end of that 1st full season and came into camp for his 2nd full year at the age of 23 with similar issues as Pineda. His velocity was way down and his mechanics were a mess. But rather than try to fix his mechanics and rest/rehab his arm, he was allowed to pitch the entire season under the ridiculous Joba rules. The result was a 4.75 ERA, a K rate that shrunk to 7.6 and velocity that withered to an average of 92.5 MPH. After that sub-par season, Yankee brass decided that Joba’s career as a starter was basically over and the most promising arm to come through the Yankee organization in decades was tossed into middle relief at the age of 24.
The Hughes story is still unfolding to this day and there may be light at the end of the tunnel. After his impressive 2009 season in the pen where he struck out 10.0 per 9 with a 2.9 bb/9 and 3.03 ERA, they wisely put him back into the rotation where he had an All-Star 1st half in 2010, but struggled in the 2nd half to finish at 18-8 4.19. But he came into ST in 2011 out of shape, with poor mechanics and a marked decrease in velocity. Rather than send him to Extended Spring Training to begin the season, they kept him in the rotation to start the season and after 3 horrific starts, pulled the plug and sent him for an MRI on his ailing shoulder. While it seems Hughes is back on track now, one has to wonder if they had acknowledged the problem sooner if the results would have been better.
So back to Pineda. In order to get the most of Pineda, they need to be patient and make sure he is fully prepared before throwing him on the mound in the Bronx. There are 4 main areas Pineda needs to work on:
- Get him in shape! Whether they want to call it 10, 20, 30 pounds, whatever, he’s out of shape. I don’t care at all what a pitcher weighs as long as he has enough conditioning to maintain perfect mechanics over 1110-120 pitches. David Wells had a huge Beer-belly but he also had perfect mechanics that he maintained throughout the game and his conditioning was never an issue. Pineda was clearly not in playing shape and did little, if anything to prepare over the Winter. Being out of shape, leads to short-cuts or bad mechanics. Bad mechanics lead to poor results and injuries. He was over-compensating and labored through most of his outings this ST sweating more than Patrick Ewing.
- Assign him to work with Andy Pettitte for the next month. This injury could be a blessing in disguise. Rather than send him to the wolves in the Bronx, he gets at least another month in extended ST where Andy Pettitte will be working out. There is no better role model for a young pitcher than Pettitte. Not only will he show him the proper work ethic required to get the most of his abilities, Pineda can learn a lot about pitching and how to focus when on the mound. He can teach him how to handle the media and to deal with the expectations of NY.
- Get his mechanics right. Now is the time to undo the bad habits. Pineda has the much talked about inverted W and was throwing with too much arm. He opens up on the front side which causes him to fall off the mound wildly towards first base rather than following through with all his energy towards home plate. He was also getting around the ball instead of getting on top and driving down. Quite simply he needs to stay closed and throw downhill with follow through. I think much of these bad habits were caused by his poor conditioning and fatigue. Either way, now is the time to get it worked out. If it takes 2 months worth of minor-lg starts after his arm is ready, so be it.
- Get his arm 100% healthy. This is blatantly obvious and goes without saying but there must be no question that his arm is 100% before sending him back to the Majors. The team has the depth to cover Pineda right now. Even if he misses the entire season that is OK if it means he comes back at full strength next yr. He has to be totally honest with his doctors and the team to avoid coming back too soon. This trade was meant for Pineda to DEVELOP into a #1/2 type starter. He’s under team control for 5 years so use that time to ensure you get the high-end starter you traded for. I’ll take 3 yrs as a legit #2 starter over 5 yrs as a #4 starter.
So whether you were a fan of this trade or not, as a Yankee fan you have to want the best for Pineda. There have been many pitchers that have come up with nasty stuff their first year but never make the adjustments needed to develop into a consistent winner over an entire career. The Yanks have had 2 phenoms that were actually even more highly regarded than Pineda. Hughes was Baseball America’s #4 prospect in all of baseball in 2007 and Joba was rated #3 by BA in 2008. So just having the stuff and pedigree isn’t enough. A pitcher needs to have the work-ethic, the mechanics, proper mind-set and drive to get the most of his potential and it’s up to his team to make sure they give him the tools to succeed and bring out the best in him. Hopefully, the Yankees organization can learn from some of their experiences with Joba & Hughes and develop Pineda into that #2 they crave.