The Blue Jays have identified the need to add starting pitching during the current off-season. There are many top-tier free agents available but there are also some solid candidates to consider.
Michael Pineda had a good 2019 season going until it was halted by a performance-enhancing drug (“PED”) suspension. The penalty, which was originally 80 games, was reduced to 60. He will remain suspended for the first 39 games of the 2020 season, which translates into approximately 8 to 10 starts. For the moment, let’s put the PED issue aside and focus on Pineda, the pitcher.
Why consider Pineda?
According to FanGraphs, the top-five, free-agent starting pitchers are as follows: Gerrit Cole; Stephen Strasburg; Madison Bumgarner; Zack Wheeler; and Dallas Keuchel. Certainly, Cole and Strasburg are the top-two starters of this group and each will likely receive contracts at or around the $30 million Average Annual Value (“AAV”) mark. The other three pitchers will probably garner AAVs in the $15 million dollar range. All estimates per FanGraphs.
Obviously, it is not a certainty that a club will sign every free agent whom they seriously chase; the player may sign elsewhere for a whole host of reasons (AAV, term, contending team, personal issues, etc.). Therefore, it makes sense for the Jays to have as many irons (contract discussions) in the fire (free agent pool) as possible. Accordingly, the Jays should engage in discussions with Cole et al but also talk to additional quality starters (Pineda, Kyle Gibson, Jake Odorizzi, and others). This tactic would reduce the risk of missing out on all of the attractive 2020 free-agent starters.
Pineda should definitely be on the Jays radar. Let’s examine why.
The on-field Pineda
Pineda was signed by the Seattle Mariners as an amateur free agent in 2005. He was traded to the New York Yankees prior to the 2013 season and put up a cumulative fWAR of 8.9 for the Yanks in the 2014-2016 seasons. Pineda suffered an elbow injury during the 2017 campaign and underwent Tommy John surgery in July of that season. He signed a $10 million, two-year contract with the Minnesota Twins in December 2017. Following the conclusion of the 2019 post-season, the Twins declined to make a Qualifying Offer to Pineda thereby making him a free agent without draft-pick compensation.
Pitch and batted ball profile
Brooks Baseball describes the 2019 Pineda as follows:
His fourseam fastball has some natural sinking action, has essentially average velo, results in somewhat more flyballs compared to other pitchers’ fourseamers and has slightly less natural movement than typical. His slider has primarily 12-6 movement. His change is much firmer than usual, results in somewhat more flyballs compared to other pitchers’ changeups and has slight armside fade.
Prior to 2019, Pineda’s most recent full season was 2016; I will use 2016 for comparison purposes. According to FanGraphs, Pineda’s average fastball velocity in 2019 was 92.8 mph, almost 2 mph slower than it was in 2016. Table 1 supports Brooks Baseball’s assessment that Pineda is a fly ball pitcher; his FB% is 30.4%, which is higher than the 2019 MLB average of 22.0% and higher than his 2016 mark of 24.1%. His Barrel% is one-percentage-point higher than the 2019 MLB average of 6.3%.
Other metrics of note
Table 2 illustrates some statistics of note from the 2019 and 2016 seasons. The highlights are as follows:
- Pineda is no longer the strikeout pitcher that he was in 2016;
- His K% ranked in the 92 percentile in 2016 (the higher the rank the better) but was 64th in 2019;
- His BB% in 2019 (4.7%) was lower than it was in 2016 (7.0%);
- Pineda’s 2019 K%-BB% was 77th percentile, which is very good but not elite like it was in 2016 (94th percentile); and
- There is a notable decline in Pineda’s SIERA ranking from the 95th percentile in 2016 to 67th in 2019.
His 2019 2.7 fWAR was 74th percentile among starting pitchers with a minimum of 40 innings pitched (183 starters). In terms of Expected Weighted On-Base Average, of the pitchers with a minimum of 350 plate appearances against (154 pitchers), Pineda ranked 61st. His 2016 ranking was 73rd (162 pitchers).
Given Pineda’s near-median HR/9 figure, not to mention a fly ball pitcher, it is worth examining the potential impact of pitching in the Rogers Centre. Well, it turns out the change in home venue should not be an issue. According to FanGraphs 2018 park factors for home runs (2019 data is not available yet), the park factor for the Twins and Blue Jays is the same (102).
Not surprisingly, there is a difference pitching to American League Central teams compared to American League East teams. In 2019, AL West teams (ex-Minnesota), hit 716 home runs; AL East teams (ex-Toronto) hit 981 home runs (37% more). In terms of wRC+, these AL West teams produced an 87 mark; the AL East teams noted generated a 103 wRC+. Pineda’s metrics will likely be negatively affected by the move into the AL East.
The off-field Pineda
The PED suspension is an issue to consider. Pineda tested positive for Hydrochlorothiazide, which has been used by athletes as a masking agent to hide PEDs. Pineda’s camp successfully argued that he used Hydrochlorothiazide to manage his weight; he is listed at 6’7” and 280 pounds. Ultimately, Pineda was suspended because he is responsible for what he ingests. However, the fact that the suspension was reduced is consistent with the view that Pineda did take the banned drug for weight loss and not as a masking agent. If the arbitrator is willing to accept Pineda’s explanation, I am willing to do so as well.
In 2012, Pineda was charged with DUI. He pleaded no contest and was placed on probation. Pineda has not been charged with any criminal offences subsequent to 2012.
The 30-year old Pineda is no longer an elite starter but he is better than the median pitcher. I view him as a Number 3 starter. Both Depth Charts and Steamer, after taking into account the 39 games to be missed in 2020 due to the suspension, project a 2.3 fWAR for Pineda in 2020.
In terms of compensation, FanGraphs has suggested a one-year, $16 million contract. Crowdsource provided a two-year, $22 million contract estimate. I discussed Pineda with Jim Scott and we thought a one-year $12 million contract with two club options would be reasonable: $15 million for 2021 and $18 million for 2022. The options are not linked: exercising the $15 million option does not commit the Jays for the 2022 season. Also, if the $15 million option is not exercised, the option for the 2022 season is voided.
The contract would benefit the Jays because, if Pineda excels in 2020, the Jays can benefit in 2021 and possibly 2022. He does not walk to greener (real) fields after 2020 unless the Jays want him to. If he does not meet expectations, then the Pineda experiment would have lasted just one year in a season that the Jays were not expected to make the playoffs. From Pineda’s perspective, he gets a chance to redeem himself (PED suspension) and can earn a fair market contract if he performs as projected.
The last word
Pineda was once an elite starting pitcher but he no longer is. However, his metrics and age indicate that he can be an effective, above-median starter. Pursuing him is an attractive option not only because he is a good pitcher, but it also reduces the risk of not bolstering the starting rotation because other free agent targets sign elsewhere. Pineda is not the star of the free-agent class but a player well-worth pursuing.