Joel Pineiro’s scorched-earth policy

By now you’ve heard about Joel Pineiro’s gem he hurled against the New York Mets on Tuesday night at Citi Field in Queens. In his second complete game shutout of the season, (his first coming on May 19 against the Cubs) Pineiro threw just 100 pitches in tossing a ground ball tour-de-force.

Pineiro didn’t set any records, although it was the second most GB outs recorded by a starter since Brandon Webb had 23 in 2003 in a game against the Detroit Tigers. That was against a Tigers team that would hit .240/.300/.375, finishing last in the AL in all categories en route to 119 losses.

The Mets, on the other hand, (despite the injuries to Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado) have a decent offense. As a team they’re hitting .280 with a .357 OBP, both marks tops in the NL. They’re scoring 4.7 runs per game, which is second in the league. Their power is down—they’re slugging just .398 since the beginning of June—but with a .277 team average and .342 OBP during that time, they’re still creating opportunities. They’re just having difficulty cashing those opportunities in for runs. (Like I have to point this out to Mets fans.)

So while the Mets of 2009 clearly swing the bats better than the Tigers of 2003, that doesn’t mean they’re not prone to the occasional clunker at the plate. However, it would be wrong to pin the blame on the outcome of this particular game entirely on their lumber. Pinero located his pitches amazingly well and gave his opposition nothing to hit all evening. It was a perfect storm of a pitcher developing and executing an outstanding game plan, combined with some over-anxious bats. The result wasn’t a perfect game… but it was close.

Let’s look at the game as it developed.

Innings 1-3

Pineiro started strong, facing six Mets and getting six ground ball outs in the first two innings. Then, a monsoon interrupted play for about an hour with the Cardinals hitting in the top of the third. Pineiro had thrown only 22 pitches to that point, so it would seem there was never any doubt that Tony LaRussa would bring him back to the mound once the game resumed.

Pineiro isn’t a hard thrower by any stretch of the imagination. As David Golebiewski pointed out at FanGraphs, he’s sacrificed speed for a more pronounced break on his sinking fastball. This year he’s throwing his fastball at an average speed of 88.5 mph, down from the 90.8 mph he threw back in 2007. Not only does he gain movement via his reduction in velocity, it makes him a great candidate to sit out a long rain delay (or inning) and pick up right where he left off.

(His pitch speed graph from his start is courtesy BrooksBaseball.net. The red line at his 23rd pitch of the evening represents his return to the mound after the rain delay.)

The fact that the Mets came up swinging in the bottom of the third certainly helped. Pineiro, despite giving up a single to Luis Castillo (the hardest-hit ground ball to this point), needed only eight pitches to complete the inning.

Below is a graphical representation of where Cardinals fielders picked up the batted ball in each of the first three innings. The most difficult play was the grounder David Murphy hit to shortstop Brendan Ryan, who had to charge the ball hit slightly to his right and make a strong throw to retire the Mets first baseman. The ground ball to center in the third inning was the Castillo five-hopper back up the middle. The ground ball off the mound was the Livan Hernandez sacrifice bunt to push Castillo to second following his single.

Through three innings, Pineiro faced 10 hitters and all 10 put the ball on the ground.

Innings 4-6

In the bottom of the fourth, Pineiro induced only two ground balls because he recorded the second out of the inning when David Wright swung and missed an 0-2 change-up that fell out of the strike zone. It was one of only two times all evening a Mets batter swung and missed a Pineiro pitch. Read that again. Of the 100 pitches Pineiro threw in this game, only twice did the Mets completely miss when swinging the bat. Broken down even further, Pineiro threw 62 strikes. Of those, 24 were called strikes by home plate umpire Jerry Meals, 36 were offered at and either fouled off or put into play and then there were those two that were completely missed.

In the fifth inning, the first Mets hitter got the ball in the air. Omir Santos hit a breaking ball that hung in the zone (one of the rare hangers Pineiro threw all night) and lofted a harmless fly to center. The location was key for Pineiro all evening. That’s obvious, but consider that no pitcher is perfect in that he can spot his pitches in the exact location he would like every time the ball leaves his hand. So even on a night when the sinking action on his fastball is working marvelously, there will still be opportunities for the hitters to pounce on a mistake.

Except Pineiro didn’t make a mistake all evening. The pitches he threw outside the strike zone were away from left-handed hitters and down to right-handed hitters, and they were far enough out of the zone that there was no way a hitter could make solid contact. He didn’t leave any pitches in the hitter’s wheelhouse. The chart at left (again, courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net) plots all 100 of Pineiro’s pitches. It illustrates how well he was locating all evening. The pitches he left out of the strike zone (whether on purpose or not) were in such that if the Mets hitters were swinging (and they were swinging) there was no way they were going to make solid contact. Pineiro was pitching on his terms all night long.

Pineiro faltered a bit in the sixth, walking Castillo on six pitches to lead off the inning. Not only was it Pineiro’s first walk of the night, it was the first time he went to a three-ball count. When Mets manager Jerry Manuel decided to hit-and-run with his pitcher at the plate, Hernandez swung and missed (there’s the only other miss) on a pitch down in the zone and Castillo was thrown out by Yadier Molina. The fly out behind second base was on another pitch that was low, but Alex Cora dropped the bat head and managed a feeble pop.

Through six innings, Pineiro had faced 19 hitters, thrown 61 pitches and retired 14 on ground balls.

Innings 7-9

One pitch that got away from Pineiro was an 86 mph fastball that drilled Wright in the shoulder with one out in the seventh. Then he threw two almost identical fastballs to Fernando Tatis to get a double play and got out of the inning by throwing only eight pitches. That was tied for his second most effective inning of the night behind the seven-pitch effort in the fourth.

The hardest-hit ball of the evening for the Mets came in the ninth inning with one out when pinch-hitter Jeremy Reed lined a change-up into center field. He advanced to second on a weak Cora ground out and was stranded when Murphy ended the game with… another ground out.

When a pitcher is inducing a high rate of ground balls, it’s obviously imperative that he have a stout defense backing him up on the infield. The Cardinals’ team UZR is just 1.1, which makes their team defense decidedly average. On the infield, the great Albert Pujols is masterful with the glove at first. Up the middle Skip Schumaker is probably a little below average at second but Ryan covers more than his share of ground at short. Then you have Khalil Green, a decidedly average shortstop who was making only the fifth start of his major league career at third. The defense might have been a factor if any Met had been able to square up and drive the ball. Instead, almost all the ground outs were four-hoppers, hit within one or two steps of where the fielders were positioned, that could only be considered routine.

Before this yea,r if you had 10 guesses as to who would throw 20 or more ground ball outs in a game, there’s no way you would have chosen Pineiro. In fact, he’s always been more of a flyball pitcher, although barely. While he’s never trended more to the groundball side, his career 0.89 GB/FB ratio reveals a fairly even split. His 0.99 GB/FB ratio from 2007 was the closest he’s ever come to the groundball side in his nine previous seasons. This year however, that’s all changed. After Tuesday’s gem, his ratio currently stands at 1.59. And his 2.3 ground out to fly out ratio is likewise the highest of his career. Here’s how Pineiro has evolved over the last three seasons:

   Year      SO%       BB%       XBH%     GB/FB     AO/FO   Contact %
   2007      14.3      6.2       10.7      0.99      1.32       84
   2008      12.6      5.4       11.5      0.92      1.69       84
   2009      10.7      3.2       8.3       1.59      2.31       87

  Career     14.7       7        8.6       0.89      1.27       83

It would seem he’s mastered the art of the sinking fastball and is allowing hitters to make contact, put the ball on the ground and basically get themselves out. He’s striking out hitters at a career low rate, yet his walk rate is at a career low as well. However his 3.33 K/BB ratio is the best of his career. His infield defense isn’t spectacular, but it’s not going to cost him many runs either. He’s kept hitters off balance all season, allowing just two home runs in 92 innings on the way to a 3.83 xFIP, which ranks him 11th among NL starters.

It’s taken Pineiro 10 years, but it looks like he’s discovered a formula for success. Defying the cliche, I guess you can teach an old pitcher new tricks.

Pineiro’s June 23 start by the numbers

29 Batters faced
22 Ground balls
3 Fly balls
1 Line drive
1 Strikeout
1 Walk
1 HBP
2 Swinging strikes
2 Singles
3 3-ball counts
4 The number of pitches thrown to Fernando Tatis in three plate appearances.

83 Game Score

References & Resources
Baseball Reference and Brooks Baseball provided the bulk of info for this article. Plus, I discovered while researching this piece that these two dynamos have combined forces—if you click on the pitch count on a pitcher’s Game Log at BR, it will take you to the corresponding page at Brooks Baseball with the PITCHf/x info in all its glory. A tip of the cap also goes to MLB.tv with its DVR capabilities on archived games.

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Comments

  1. OsandRoyals said...

    Very nice article indeed. I hadn’t noticed that Pineiro had only swings and misses.  That’s incredible. It brings to mind questions about evaluating pitch to contact pitchers especially prospects.
    On a sidenote, the Strikezone plot for me appears to be blank.

  2. Craig Brown said...

    Thanks, Dave. I did see where you touched on Pineiro’s ground ball transformation in the Batted Ball Report.  There’s always a ton of great info in those.

    As far as the charts, I plotted them myself, using the Citi field diagram from MLB.com and following the “style” of their hit charts.  For locations, I just used MLB.tv and froze the action right when the fielder picked up the ball and made the corresponding plot. I figured the dots would be somewhat difficult to see (I hoped it wouldn’t be too bad) so that’s why I broke them down by individual inning, so there wouldn’t be more than four points per chart.  I have them slightly larger than they were presented here, so I can shoot them your way if you’d like a closer look.

  3. Dave Studeman said...

    Hey Craig, this is a great article.  I’ve been talking about Pineiro’s newfound groundball tendencies in the weekly Batted Ball Report, too.

    What’s the source of your diamond charts?  It’s kind of hard to see the red dots.

  4. Craig Brown said...

    OsandRoyals- I haven’t had an issue with the strikezone plot.  Maybe try a different browser and/or refresh the page.  Or if you click the link near the top of the article for BrooksBaseball.net, it will take you directly to Pineiro’s game and you’ll see all the chart provided.

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