Joel Pineiro’s deal with Dave Duncan

With my beloved Cardinals being swept out of the playoffs, and this image forever burned into my mind, I can now take step back to think about the full body of work that made up the year. Most projections systems pegged them for just 80-85 wins, and to miss out on the playoffs by 10 games to the Cubs. Instead, the opposite happened as the Cubs were mediocre and the Cardinals won over 90 games and captured the division by a comfortable margin.

The popular reasons for the Cardinals success this year include Chris Carpenters’ amazing comeback season, Ryan Franklin‘s successful, albeit heavily luck aided, transition into the closer role, the various midseason trades, and of course, El Hombre; however, Joel Pineiro may have had the biggest impact, at least relative to preseason expectations. Consider that Pineiro had a 4.71 FIP last year, and even the most optimistic projections pegged him for a 4.60 FIP going into this season. The fact that he ended the year with an FIP about a run and a half lower, in 214 innings to boot, is really quite amazing.

Even more interesting is the way he has been able to have such success. His Three True Outcome stats, K%, BB% and HR%, are eerily reminiscent of Christy Mathewson, as over 76% of batters faced have put the ball in play. Dave Duncan, the Cardinals’ famed pitching coach, has always preached to a anti-Three True Outcomes approach, and it looks like Pineiro’s been taking his advice. Today, I wanted to take a look at some Pitch f/x data to see how he’s been doing it, and whether or not it’s sustainable going forward.

First let’s take a look at his stuff, using vertical and horizontal movement on his pitches this year compared to last:

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Each of the dots shown are being compared to a pitch without spin (0,0 on the chart), with the units in inches. This is depicted from the catchers point of view, and it jibes with our expectations of how each pitch typically moves. Fastballs and changeups from a righty will break towards the third base side, while curveballs and sliders will break the other way.

The velocity on his pitches remains similar year to year, with his fastball topping out at 91-92, his slider and changeup sitting in the mid 80′s and his curveball in the high 70′s; however, the movement has changed rather drastically on some of his pitches. His fastball in particular has a lot more sinking movement than it did last year, and his slider appears to be much more defined (meaning it aggregates itself in more compact cluster). With the caveat that it’s hard to really tell how good someones stuff is from looking at a chart, I would say that his stuff has been a lot better this year with the addition of the heavy sinker.

The next steps in evaluating a pitcher is determining how well he commands his stuff. Here are some descriptive pitch statistics on Pineiro in 08 and 09. Also shown is the league average numbers this year.

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The headers are pretty self explanatory. In addition to percentage of each pitch thrown, you can see the percentage of pitches thrown in the lower, middle and upper half of the strike zone, the amount of swings strikes (whiffs) per swing, the ground ball percentage on balls put in play, the percentage of pitches insides of the strike zone called balls and the percentage of pitches outside the strike zone called strikes… in that order.

As you can see, Pineiro has made drastic changes in his approach this year. He’s upped his fastball usage by over 17%, while cutting the slider and changeup usage in half. He’s been throwing more pitches in the strike zone, especially the bottom third. Those two changes have manifested themselves in a huge increase in ground balls and a decrease in whiffs. He’s also been getting a little luckier with umpires, as a little over 1% more of his pitches outside of the strike zone have been called for strikes than in 08.

Now, let’s break it down by the count before each pitch. For this I just took the change, or delta, or each stat between 2008 and 2009:

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Some things really stand out by looking at this data. His fastball percentage has consistently increased among throughout all counts, except 0-2. Ditto with his ability to hit the bottom of the strike zone. His increase in ground ball percentage also remains remarkably consistent in hitters and pitchers counts, as does the decrease in whiffs. He’s also been getting a lot of ground balls early in the count, which has to be a big factor in his minuscule walk rate this year (1.14 batters per 9).

The reasons for his success this year appear simple. He’s almost completely changed his approach; going from a guy who throws a lot of offspeed junk and hit the strike zone less than the average major leaguer, to a guy who pounds the lower third of the zone with his sinker and pitches to contact. His walk rate and GB% both rank #1 in the majors among qualifies starters, as does his percentage of balls put in play.

Really, he represents a success story for the Dave Duncan theory of pitching. The big question, given that he will be a free agent after the season ends, is whether or not this level of success is sustainable. RJ Anderson at FanGraphs already did a little bit of research, and found pitchers who increased there GB rate drastically one year generally sustained that pace the next year. If Pineiro is able to continue to get ground balls at a high rate next year, and allow batters to put to the ball in play as much as they have this year, thus keeping his walk rate low; he looks like a good bet to continue to pitch very well. If not, and he loses his favorite new toy and/or ability to pitch down in the zone; he may be the next Kyle Lohse.

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