Ask Alex: Can Michael Pineda keep his ERA under 4.00 in the AL East?

Alex Remington
Big League Stew

We all have questions about the 2012 season and Alex Remington luckily has some answers. The Stew's resident stats guru will address some of the big ones as the year progresses.

The Situation: The New York Yankees entered the offseason with a lot of question marks in their rotation following ace C.C. Sabathia. But in one of the biggest blockbusters of the offseason, they turned the question mark into an exclamation point, swapping their top prospect, Jesus Montero, for the Mariners' top rookie pitcher, 23-year-old Michael Pineda.

A 6-foot-7 behemoth with a 98-mile MPH fastball and killer slider, Pineda was near the top of the league ERA leaderboards  in 2011 until flagging in the second half of the season. The Yankees clearly want him at the top of their rotation for years, but pitching in Yankee Stadium and the hyperpowered AL East will clearly be a different proposition than roomy Safeco Field and the AL West.

The Question: Can Michael Pineda keep his ERA under 4.00 in the AL East?

The Analysis: There are a few areas of concern for Pineda. First of all, while he has a fine fastball and slider, his changeup is pretty bad. Second, he's leaving pitcher-friendly Safeco for Yankee Stadium, one of the most homer-happy parks in the majors. Third, he's entering the AL East, the toughest division in baseball. Even though Pineda won't have to face the Yankees, the Yanks play a third of their games against the Rays, Red Sox, and Blue Jays, three of the best teams in the league.

On the basis of ERA, it looked like a tale of two seasons for Michael Pineda, who had a 2.33 ERA through his first 12 starts but a 4.90 ERA through his final 16, and he finished with a 3.74 ERA. The Mariners took care to limit his innings at the end of the season, allowing him to make just seven starts in August and September. At first blush it might seem likely that his struggles were simply a matter of normal fatigue for a young pitcher: Pineda threw 171 innings last year after never having thrown more than 139 1/3 in the minors. Moreover, his home ERA was 2.92 and his road ERA was 4.40, supporting the thesis that he'll struggle away from Seattle.

But Dave Cameron of Fangraphs doesn't buy either of those cautions. Basically, he believes that both differences, the home/away split and the first half/second half split, are explainable by luck. Cameron writes that Pineda's struggles on the road were largely attributable to a flukily low strand rate, which measures the number of men on base that a pitcher is able to strand. The league average is around 72 percent; Pineda stranded just 64 percent of runners on the road last year, which is likely to improve.

On the other hand, his first half success was supported by a healthy bit of luck on his Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) and home run per fly ball rate (HR/FB).

As Cameron writes:

The spike in runs allowed was basically due to a regression in his BABIP and HR/FB rates from the first half of the season... Pineda's first half BABIP was .247, and his HR/FB rate was 7.1%. Those numbers aren't really sustainable for anyone.

So when you put it all together, his luck may have more or less canceled out: he had poor luck away and good luck in the first half, and normal luck at home and in the second half. On the basis of those splits — which are a small sample size anyway, and so you can't put too much stock in them — it's hard to say that he's due for a major improvement or a major regression.

The most remarkable thing about Pineda's season was his terrific control. Suffice to say that six-and-a-half foot 22-year-olds with blazing fastballs don't often know where the ball is going. Last year, Pineda became just one of 23 starters in baseball history, and one of just five active starters, to pitch a full season with a strikeout-to-walk ratio above 3.0 before his 23rd birthday. The other four are Pineda's former teammate, Felix Hernandez, along with Mat Latos, Brett Anderson, and Madison Bumgarner. (The previous seven indicate additional injury caution: Mark Prior, Ismael Valdez, Pedro Martinez, Ramon Martinez, Dwight Gooden, and Brett Saberhagen.)

The Forecast for 2012: All of that is to say that Pineda is a fine young pitcher and the Yankees aren't likely to regret getting him. Of course, while Pineda is likely to have a good career for a long time, that doesn't mean that he won't have a bump in the road. Anderson, Latos, and Hernandez all experienced slight downturns after the seasons that put them on that list, and the injury histories of Latos and Anderson, as well as the above seven recently retired pitchers who excelled at a young age, may make the Yankees leery to compare.

But the most important factor for this analysis may just be the change of divisions. C.C. Sabathia made 13 of his 33 starts against the Red Sox, Rays, and Blue Jays in 2011, and Pineda is likely to make a third of his starts against those teams too. Even if his luck normalizes, it's easy to imagine that would cause his ERA to jump a quarter of a run or more, which would push it above the 4.00 threshold. Of course, with the Yankee offense, that's hardly a tragedy. I'm predicting 15 wins, with an ERA between 4.00 and 4.25.

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Other Ask Alex questions for 2012
Can Adam Dunn return to 30 home run territory?
Can Jason Heyward return to his rookie form?
Can Matt Kemp go 50/50?

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