By Jason Keidel
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When the Yankees traded for Michael Pineda a few years ago, he was a 22-year-old All-Star with a stratospheric ceiling. It looked like they had locked down an ace or at least front-end starter for the next decade.
Then the big right-hander didn’t pitch in 2012 or 2013. When he was finally healthy the year after he went just 5-5, but his sparkling 1.89 ERA appeared to tell a different story. In 13 starts, Pineda surrendered just 56 hits in 76 1-3 innings. Maybe it wasn’t complete, but it was a glimpse, a portal or peek into what many thought was to be a blinding future in the Bronx.
Fast forward to this week, or the last week. In two starts, Pineda has tossed 9 2-3 innings, allowed 15 baserunners and eight earned runs, for a swollen 7.45 ERA. For the month of June, Pineda has had five starts, going 1-2 while allowing 45 baserunners in 27 1-3 innings, for a 5.85 ERA. Even more gruesome, opposing hitters have hit .316 against him.
Pineda is no longer a young, budding superstar. He’s now 28, and hasn’t pitched a full season to an ERA under 4.00 since his rookie year. At some point you are, to paraphrase Bill Parcells, what your record says you are. In four seasons with the Yankees, Pineda is 30-31.
Is that worth the $7.4 million he makes? In the saturated world of modern baseball, mediocrity is rewarded. But with Yankees ace Masahiro Tanaka having lost his moxie, mojo, and ability to get hitters out with any regularity — and the club mired in a 3-10 stretch — they need Pineda more than ever. And, as Joel Sherman recently and astutely noted, needing Pineda to pitch past the back of his baseball card is a perilous place to find yourself.
Sherman dug into Pineda’s “June swoon” and identified some troubling numbers from his last start, a pitching atrocity against the Rangers on Sunday. Entering the game, Pineda held hitters to a .136 batting average and .332 OPS when he darted out to an 0-2 count, and a .123 BA and .299 OPS when the count is 1-2.
Yet the Rangers routinely pounded Pineda in prime pitcher’s counts. Delino DeShields started 0-2 and then doubled on a 2-2 pitch. Jonathan Lucroy singled on an 0-2 count. Again, DeShields walked after a 1-2 count. Then the next batter, Shin-Soo Choo, belted a homer on an 0-2 slider. In Pineda’s fourth and final inning, Drew Robinson whacked a homer, the first hit of his career.
Pineda is what he is — all potential and upside and theory. Rarely does it translate on the mound. Is he the beast who hurled seven shutout innings, fanning eight, against the Red Sox on June 8? Or the guy who just gave up three bombs and couldn’t pitch past the fourth inning against the Rangers? Sadly, you don’t know, though it’s likely the latter.
Lord knows he’s intimidating enough in person. Surely at some point batters trembled when they gazed out at a 6-foot-7, 260-pound power forward who fired fastballs in the upper 90s. But he’s a bit like Vernon Gholston with the Jets, who was built like Apollo but played like Apollonia. Pineda doesn’t scare anyone but his manager, and any reporters who have their articles halfway written, before the right-hander implodes.
With the summer grind already taxing the Yankees, the injury bug swirling around Matt Holliday, Starlin Castro, and Aaron Hicks, pitching is now at its highest premium. And while there are still a few Bronx Bombers — like Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez — living up to their handles, the success of any baseball club will eventually pivot on the guys on the mound.
Which means, at some point, the Yankees will need Pineda to pitch like the guy they projected four years ago. Unfortunately, it looks like they will instead get the guy they’ve had the last four years.
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