It's a great story based on a great pitch. Michael Pineda, the Yankees' 25-year-old right-hander, was an All-Star for the Mariners as a rookie in 2011 but after being traded to New York the following offseason, tore the labrum in his pitching shoulder and missed all of the 2012 and 2013 seasons.
No one knew what to expect from him as recently as last month, but now he's not only back in a major league rotation, it's like the last two years never happened. Thursday night, in his Yankee Stadium debut, a 4-1 New York win over Boston, Pineda held the defending world champion Boston Red Sox hitless for four innings and scoreless for six frames thanks in large part to a mid-80s slider that is as nasty as any pitch in baseball.
Pineda's slider breaks in two directions. It has a sharp, late, downward break, and it has significant glove-side run. As a result, Pineda can throw it in the strike zone and let it dive down and way from right-handers and throw it outside to lefties and watch as it dives just as it breaks back over the plate. The pitch can make any hitter look foolish, and that was a common occurrence Thursday night. Mixing that pitch with a low-90s cutter that runs in the other direction and a four-seam fastball that sits around 93-94 mph, Pineda allowed just two hits and two walks through his first six innings of work, striking out seven, before Daniel Nava led off the seventh with a home run and a subsequent Xander Bogaerts single (his second of the game off Pineda) ended Pineda's night.
Pineda has appeared to be throwing free and easy since the start of spring training, and while he was animated on the mound on Thursday night (and a bit too obvious with the pine tar in the early innings), he never appeared to be laboring despite running his pitch count up to 94, 11 pitches more than he threw in his season debut in Toronto. He has now allowed one run in six innings in both of his starts on the young season, giving him a sparkling 1.50 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, and 13 strikeouts in 12 innings against just Thursday night's two walks. He has also given the Yankees something to dream on, particularly with his starts coming immediately after those of another 25-year-old with a near-unhittable out-pitch.
Masahiro Tanaka's splitter bears great resemblance to Pineda's slider. It comes in around the same speed and has a similarly dramatic late break. Pineda's slider has more lateral run. Tanaka's splitter his more drop. Both are filthy, swing-and-miss offerings. Tanaka struck out ten Orioles in seven strong innings Wednesday night, his only mistake resulting in a three-run home run by Orioles rookie Jonathan Schoop in the top of the second. In his first two major league starts, Tanaka has struck out 18 men against one walk in 14 innings while posting a 1.00 WHIP and 3.21 ERA.
Raise your hand if, back in December, you though the Yankees would have two front-of-the-rotation-quality 25-year-olds in their rotation come April. If your hand is up, you're either stretching or lying, but here we are. The Yankees missed the playoffs for the first time in four years last year, their farm system is weak, and their major league roster is burdened by age and bad contracts, but it's hard not to be optimistic about a team that has both the Yankees' spending power with a talented young rotation duo like Tanaka and Pineda. There's no guarantee that Pineda's shoulder will hold up, but the Yankees have him under team control for the next four seasons, during which they could extend him if he proves durable. They own Tanaka for the next seven. In the short term, the encouraging early results from Pineda and Tanaka and the reliable excellence of Saturday's starter Hiroki Kuroda (2.92 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 9.00 K/BB after two starts), greatly reduces the pressure on CC Sabathia, who will start against Jon Lester on Friday night. If the other three continue to pitch well, Sabatha could settle in as a league-average innings eater and the team's fourth-best starter and the Yankee rotation would still be among the better quintets in the game.