Is Michael Pineda ready to emerge as the Yankees' next ace? His 16-strikeout game against the Orioles suggest his time has come.
On Mother's Day, Yankees starter Michael Pineda made the Orioles say "uncle." The big righthander was close to untouchable on Sunday, setting a career and league season high with 16 strikeouts as part of a 6–2 win over Baltimore. It's the latest sign that Pineda is ready to emerge as the ace of a New York rotation that desperately needs one in the wake of Masahiro Tanaka's injury.
Working primarily with his slider, Pineda sliced and diced his way through an overmatched O's lineup. He struck out five of the first eight batters he faced, whiffing the side in the second, and at one point retired six straight hitters by way of the K from the fourth through the sixth. Though he wasn't perfect, allowing a solo homer to J.J. Hardy in the second, he was able to pitch his way out of trouble thanks to his overpowering stuff. A two-out first inning double by Adam Jones came to nothing after Pineda got Delmon Young to swing through a 94-mile-per-hour four-seam fastball. In the third, Manny Machado and Jimmy Paredes reached on back-to-back singles with one out, but Pineda induced a popup from Jones and another swinging strikeout from Young. The Orioles' rightfielder finally got to Pineda in the sixth, lacing a double to centerfield with two outs, but the righthander finished the frame by getting Chris Davis to ground out to shortstop.
All told, of Pineda's 16 strikeouts, 11 were swinging, and he recorded an absurd 21 swings-and-misses on his 111 pitches, including 12 on his slider. Pineda picked up a strikeout of every batter but Hardy, getting Ryan Flaherty and Caleb Joseph three times each while also striking out Young, Davis, Manny Machado and Alejandro De Aza twice each. The bottom third of the Orioles' lineup—De Aza, Joseph and Flaherty—went a combined 0 for 8 against Pineda with seven strikeouts, six swinging. Baltimore's torture didn't end with Pineda's departure after seven, either. Though the Orioles managed to pick up another run against Esmil Rogers in the eighth, manager Joe Girardi relieved him with Dellin Betances (strikeout-per-nine ratio this year: 10.8), who whiffed a pair in 1 2/3 innings to finish the game.
Pineda's 16-strikeout game is the first in the majors since Anibal Sanchez struck out 17 in eight innings on April 26, 2013. It's the fourth game of 16 or more strikeouts in the last five years, joining Sanchez, Cliff Lee (16 on May 6, 2011) and Brandon Morrow (17 on Aug. 8, 2010), and the sixth time since 2001 a pitcher has whiffed 16 batters in seven or fewer innings. Pineda is just the 22nd pitcher since 1914 to strike out 16 or more and not walk a hitter—Johan Santana was the last to pull off that feat, on Aug. 19, 2007, when he struck out 17 without issuing a free pass in eight innings.
Pineda became just the fourth Yankees pitcher in franchise history to record 16 or more strikeouts in one game: David Wells and David Cone each struck out 16 in a game during the 1997 season, while Ron Guidry holds the team record with 18 on June 17, 1978. The 26-year-old Pineda is also the youngest pitcher to strike out 16 or more since Kerry Wood's 20-K game on May 6, 1998 at the tender age of 20.
For Pineda, Sunday's game shatters his career high in strikeouts (10, recorded on Sept. 28, 2014 against the Red Sox and July 30, 2011 against the Rays). His Game Score of 83, meanwhile, ties his bes outing, when he surrendered just one hit and one walk and struck out eight in 7 1/3 scoreless innings against the Orioles (coincidentally enough) on Sept. 22, 2014. Baltimore must be sick and tired of seeing Pineda by now. In six career starts against the O's, the righty has struck out 50 batters in 38 2/3 innings, allowing just 10 earned runs in the process.
The start continues what's been a banner year for Pineda, who boasts a sterling 2.72 ERA and 10.49 K/9 and has allowed only three walks in 46 1/3 innings. All that adds up to a league-best 1.94 FIP, three points ahead of Max Scherzer, and his walks-per-nine rate of 0.58 is second only to Bartolo Colon, who has walked just one batter in 46 1/3 innings so far. Pineda has picked up five wins in his first seven starts, four of which have been quality, and he's surrendered just three homers on the year. After his Sunday start, Pineda now leads all major league pitchers in Wins Above Replacement.
There's no questioning that Pineda has become the Yankees' new No. 1 with Tanaka sidelined. New addition Nathan Eovaldi has been up and down in his first season in the Bronx—his 3.97 ERA masks a low strikeout rate (6.6/9) and a bad home-run rate (1.3/9). CC Sabathia, meanwhile, looks as if the wave of injuries over the last few years have robbed him of his effectiveness, as he carries a bloated 5.45 ERA through 38 innings. At the back of the rotation, Adam Warren has struggled to give the team length, failing to get out of the sixth inning in any of his six starts to date. Chase Whitley has made a strong impression in three starts as fill-in for Tanaka, striking out 16 in 17 2/3 frames, but he's coming off a 5.23 ERA in 2014.
The uneven output of the rest of the Yankees' rotation combined with the uncertainty surrounding Tanaka's bout of tendinitis in his wrist makes it imperative that Pineda not only continue his strong start, but also avoid the injury issues that have plagued him throughout his short career. Multiple shoulder problems wiped out Pineda's 2012 and '13 seasons and limited him to just 76 1/3 innings last year. He was logged an excellent 204 ERA+ during that span, but hasn't shown an ability to sustain that kind of production since his rookie season in '11. With New York's starting depth as thin as it is, the team can't afford to have Pineda go down for an extended stretch again.
On Sunday, though, Pineda showed just how important he is to the Yankees' hopes. At 20–12, New York is tied for the best record in the American League and a three-game lead in the division over the second-place Rays. That's thanks in large part to a stronger-than-expected offense, but Pineda has been a crucial part of that strong early start.