What a difference four miles per hour can make. Actually, three. If Michael Pineda’s fastball down in Tampa was slamming into catcher Russell Martin’s mitt at just 95 mph — and I say “just” because it was known last year to hit 96 and sometimes 97 — Pineda would not be on the verge of pushing Mark Sanchez and Jeremy Lin off the list of “Things New York Sports Fans Need To Worry About.”
But after three starts, Pineda is averaging about 90 mph and topped out at 92 yesterday against the Nationals. Prepare to lower the flags to half mast at Yankee Stadium. The rumors even suggest that Pineda, like Phil Hughes, who, like Michael, showed up a few pounds overweight, might start the season in the minor leagues.
Yeah, and I might start the season in the Yankees rotation. C’mon, folks. Let’s get serious. Spring training is where you go to get in shape and shed 10 pounds, or at least it is when you report at 270 and pitched last year at around 260. Three starts don’t mean anything, and even if they did, everyone acknowledges that Pineda’s other two great pitches — that devastating change and awe-inspiring down-breaking slider — seem to be working at near-Opening Day effectiveness. (Watch all three pitches at their best in this video compiled last season with Pineda in a Seattle uniform)
To understand why everyone is so afraid for PIneda and why the Yankees expect so much — well, let’s be honest, why we all expect so much — you have to go beyond his 9-10 record last year, which was his first major league season, and his 3.74 ERA., which looks merely respectable on paper. With Yankee hitters in front of him and the Yankee bullpen in back of him, Pineda could blossom into superstardom. In 171 innings last year, he averaged slightly better than a strikeout per inning and he struck out around 3.2 strikeouts per walk.
In other words, if he gets a little better with the Yankees, then he’s going to be a lot better. According to the projections established years ago by Bill James, at age 22 he is similar to Josh Beckett and Roy Halliday. BTW, the same projection compares him at the same age the same pitcher as Mule Watson, Silvio Martinez, and Dave Freisleben. Who? Exactly. That’s how quick you can lose it as a big league pitcher.
But Pineda’s “only” throwing at 90-92 mph right now isn’t an indication that he’s lost anything, anything at all. Let’s all relax and get ready to watch the pinstripe debut of the guy who could become the most overpowering pitcher in Yankees history.