Michael Pineda: A Historic AL Rookie of the Year?

June 6 3:20pm

By Antonio D’Arcangelis

The pitcher-friendly confines of Safeco Field is a perfect setting for Michael Pineda, and it might just help the fireballing righty take home AL Rookie of the Year honors by the time the season is up.

Without a doubt, the 6-foot-7, 260-pound Pineda is a fly ball pitcher (0.70 GB/FB rate) who relies on strikeouts and location to deal effectively, a recipe that’s been quite successful in 2011 (6-2, 2.30 ERA, 73 K, 20 BB). On the Bill James-Rob Neyer MLB Cy Young Predictor, Pineda ranks fourth in Cy Young Points (62.8) in the AL behind Angels starter Jered Weaver (74.1), veteran lefty C.C. Sabathia (71.3) and Rangers upstart Alexi Ogando (69.1). It’s not a SABR-related algorithm, but a method, based on past balloting results, to predict Cy Young balloting. It takes into account the Win-based fascination of the writers, disregarding the proven metrics we now examine to predict future performance.

But even Pineda’s metrics are quite impressive. He’s got a 1.00 WHIP, he’s whiffing 3.65 batters for every free pass he issues, and he’s holding hitters to a .194 AVG despite a BABIP that’s not that ridiculous (.250). His current FIP (2.68) and xFIP (3.18) are slightly higher than his ERA, and sure, the BABIP will likely trend upward in the coming months, but there’s a good chance that Piñeda is exactly what he appears to be – an imposing, dominant fly-ball pitcher whose fastball-slider combo is just too much for most opposing hitters to overcome. Both the heater (8.6) and the breaking ball (8.3) have registered excellent pitch values, and his rarely thrown changeup (5.7%) is about league-average, a suitable-if-not-standout third pitch for a 22-year-old.

There are three main factors in gauging Pineda’s chances to win AL ROY – and none have to do with him. First, we have luck. It’s entirely possible that Piñeda’s rest-of-season performance will be marred by bad mojo – which could put him on a more level playing field with Tampa Bay Rays rookie Jeremy Hellickson (7-3, 2.64 ERA) – who’s been noticeably luckier (.229 BABIP, 4.33 xFIP) than Pineda this season.

Second, there’s the prospect of a possible innings limit by the Mariners. ESPN analyst Buster Olney and NBC Hardball Talk’s Craig Calcaterra recently raised the question of just how far the Mariners will go with Pineda (70.1 innings so far) this season before he’s shut down.

Olney pointed out that the kid has never thrown as many as 140 innings in any pro season to date, while Calcaterra examines the Mariners brass. If what they did with Felix Hernandez is any indication, he’ll probably approach 200 innings, rather than the 170-175 limit many have guessed will be imposed. In all likelihood, this will have more to do with the Mariners’ place in the standings than anything else. Pineda has a sturdy frame in the Sabathia mold, so it’s conceivable he won’t be handled with kid gloves. The M’s could skip his start a couple times in the next couple months, but there’s really no use fretting about a work stoppage at this point – it’s just way too early.

Third, there is the balloting itself. As we detailed before, baseball writers love wins, and there’s a chance that Hellickson finishes the season with a few more wins than Pineda. I sincerely doubt that Hellickson’s xFIP or strikeout rate will eclipse the Seattle hurler’s, but it’s never easy to predict writer stupidity.

So far this season, Pineda’s 1.9 WAR that he’s racked up in a little over two months is superior to Hellickson’s 1.1 WAR. As FanGraphs’ David Golebiewski points out, since 1980, only 15 starting pitchers have posted at least 4 WAR during their rookie season. That list includes a bunch of NL guys like Fernando Valenzuela (5.1 in 1981) Dwight Gooden (8.6 in 1984), Hideo Nomo, (4.9 in 1995), Kerry Wood (4.4 in 1998), and Brandon Webb, the most recent to accomplish the feat (4.8 in 2003), but it’s especially remarkable for an AL starter.

What’s most remarkable about Pineda is his consistency; the youngster has yet to surrender more than four earned runs in any single outing (a May 4 game against Texas saw him give up two homers, but strike out nine and walk none). He’s recorded nine strikeouts in three separate outings this season, with a total of four walks in those games. Of the 1077 pitches he’s thrown this season, 744 have been strikes – an excellent ratio for any pitcher.

Pineda isn’t a lock for AL Rookie of the Year – yet – but he’s definitely the favorite. And if there’s anybody in your fantasy league looking to sell high on the Dominican sensation, it might be worth making a deal. Seattle’s home park (fewer doubles and triples than just about any park in baseball) is perfect for the guy, and he’s got good enough control to limit really bad stretches. Pineda appears to be the real deal.

Antonio D’Arcangelis is a fantasy baseball and football writer from Upstate New York. He’s written for Fanhouse.com and Rotoexperts.com, among several other sites, with columns syndicated on SI.com and Yahoo.com. Antonio has 10 years experience as a fantasy writer and currently provides content for DraftBuddy.comFFToday.com and FanDuel.com.

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