Today, right-handed starter Joel Pineiro, who this spring had been pitching in Philadelphia Phillies camp on a minor league contract, was released. He would have made $1.5 million on their major league roster or $100,000 in the minors with the ability to opt out of his deal and become a free agent on June 1st. To save themselves from paying a hundred grand to a guy who would likely lose a rotation battle and have to toil in the minors for two months, the Phillies cut ties with Pineiro and thus gave him an opportunity to find a job elsewhere before the season.
The number of candidates for the Detroit Tigers’ fifth starter battle is whittling down, and while Andy Oliver and Drew Smyly have impressed, weeks remain and both could realistically fall out of contention. Should such a scenario play out, veterans on minor league deals, as Pineiro was, who find themselves on the outside looking in in competition for major league jobs, will become options to fill the Tigers’ rotation void. (Aaron Cook, Kevin Millwood, Zach Duke, and Jeff Francis are among those who may hit the open market soon.)
If it comes to it (for the record, I don’t believe it will), is Pineiro a fit for Detroit?
The 12-year veteran found himself possessor of a career 4.55 ERA and a 1.377 WHIP, pedestrian at best, after 1,200+ innings of his career through 2008, his age 29 season.
During his tenure of over two years with the St. Louis Cardinals, Dave Duncan, then the Cardinals’ pitching coach, did much to assist the resurrection of Pineiro’s career. Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci wrote of Duncan in October: “He has taught the sinker the way Einstein did relativity or Newton gravity; to him it is a basic, immutable element of life.” Predictably, under Duncan’s watch, a sinker found its way into Pineiro’s repertoire and a philosophy of pitching to contact instead of trying to overpower hitters—a page out of the Minnesota Twins handbook—was pounded into his head.
For a while, Pineiro, armed with a fresh and live offering, looked a different pitcher. In 2009, his ground ball rate rocketed to 60.5% from 48.5% the previous year, his walk rate ticked down to 1.14/9 from nearly double that the year before, he cut his home run rate from 1.33/9 to 0.46/9, and his FIP finished at 3.27. In 2010, then with the Los Angeles Angels on a two-year deal, it was more of the same, albeit to a lesser extent.
It wouldn’t last. Last season, Pineiro was not just back to his pre-’09 ways, but he was so with relatively fewer strikeouts—not good considering his strikeout totals even previous to Dave Duncan hovered around the same range as did Rick Porcello’s. At one point in 2011, Pineiro’s struggles reached the point where Angels manager Mike Scioscia deemed it necessary to relegate Pineiro to the bullpen. He eventually returned to the rotation, but his ending 5.13 ERA in 145.2 innings fully eliminated hope for Pineiro to re-up with Los Angeles.
To decide whether Pineiro is the pitcher he was in ’09 or the one he was in ’11 (or the rest of his career, for that matter), we need to diagnose the problems he experienced in the latter year. After carefully poring over his Pitch F/X data from BrooksBaseball.net, I can see a slight dip in velocity and an increased inability to throw pitches in the strike zone from ’09 to ’11. He threw 60% sinkers in both years; the only semi-significant difference in his pitch selection in ’11 was his choice to throw 5% four-seam fastballs and 18% cutters, as opposed to 11% and 12% respectively in ‘09. Across the board (five different pitches), his horizontal release point changed, but the singular real shift in horizontal movement was more cut on his cutter, presumably not a bad thing.
The biggest negative disparity, besides lack of control, was probably not any fault of his own; when his sinker was in the zone he lost a chunk of his essential ground ball rate in favor of more fly balls. My conclusion: he came back to the junior circuit a different pitcher than he had been in his extended stay with the Seattle Mariners. The hitters, now unfamiliar with him, took time to adjust, as reflected by his ’10 FIP (and matching ERA) of 3.84. They finally figured him out in summer of ’11, and his ERA of 5.13 (4.43 FIP) showed that.
While Pineiro isn’t a horrendous pitcher as his astronomical ’11 ERA suggests, ideally for him, another National League team would pick him up to compete for a job. As a right-hander with no obvious prospects to improve vastly from his recent performance, I don’t see him as a fit for the Tigers in the American League.