You may not have noticed, but Cardinals starting pitcher Joel Pineiro is having himself one heck of a year: 12 wins already, outstanding 1.12 WHIP, sparkling 3.22 ERA, and even more sparkling 2.94 FIP.
But if you dig beneath the surface a bit, you’ll find one of the strangest seasons by a starting pitcher ever. Basically all of Pineiro’s peripheral stats are on the extreme margins, in different directions.
First of all, Pineiro is one of the worst pitchers in baseball at striking people out this season: his 4.07 K/9 is the third worst in the entire major leagues, among qualified starters, behind only Nick Blackburn and John Lannan. In fact, he has racked up a mere 67 strikeouts in almost 150 innings of work.
But at the same time, Pineiro is leading all major league starting pitchers in fewest walks allowed, with an insanely low 0.94 BB/9. Yes, it’s true, Joel Pineiro has somehow only walked 15 batters all season. In 148.1 innings. Only 15.
Add the lack of strikeouts and the lack of walks together, and you actually get a pitcher with an incredible K/BB ratio of 4.17 (anything over 4 is amazing). This puts Pineiro right up there with flame-throwing strikeout gods like Tim Lincecum, Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke, and Jon Lester.
But perhaps the most amazing stat of all is Pineiro’s HR/9, which is a positively microscopic 0.24, which is easily the best in baseball, and it’s not even close. How is such a tiny number even possible???
Well, the obvious answer would be that Pineiro doesn’t allow many flyballs, and this is absolutely true. In fact, Pineiro leads all starting pitchers with the fewest flyballs allowed, at 23.2 percent, and also leads all starters in most groundballs allowed, at a whopping 60.9 percent. This is even better than Derek Lowe. In fact, far better. Lowe is second place, but more than five percentage points back, at “only” 55.6 percent.
As for line drives, basically nobody ever hits line drives off of Joel Pineiro. He’s fourth best in baseball at limiting line drives.
But even Pineiro’s incredible ability to get ground balls and avoid flyballs is not enough explain his microscopic home runs allowed numbers. Because on top of leading the majors by far in home runs allowed, Pineiro also leads the majors in fewest home runs per flyball, at an insanely tiny 3.5 percent. Once again, Lowe is second, but he yields homers at almost twice the rate of Pineiro, at a full 6 percent HR/FB. So basically, even when a hitter manages to hit it in the air against Pineiro, the ball doesn’t go anywhere.
Now just to throw one more extreme number into the mix, Joel Pineiro has also been incredibly unlucky this year with his strand rate. Pineiro is fourth worst in all of baseball this year with a 65.3 LOB%, so basically the few runners that do manage to make it to first base of Pineiro are highly likely to score. This rate of 65.3% is far off of Pineiro’s career rate coming into the season of 71%
So what exactly is going on here? Are all of these extreme outlier numbers just random flukes?
Well, to some extent, certainly, but maybe not entirely.
Looking at Pineiro’s pitch breakdown, we notice something very odd. Suddenly this year, in contrast to the rest of his career, he has started throwing an incredibly high number of fastballs. So something has definitely changed about Pineiro’s approach.
In fact, Pineiro’s fastball percentage of 71 percent is way, way above his previously long established career norm of a much more normal 59 percent, and is in fact is ninth-most in baseball among starting pitchers. But what makes this even weirder is that out of the top 15 guys on the list of highest fastball percentage, Pineiro’s fastball is by far the slowest. The rest of the top 15 pretty much all sling it up there in the mid-90s, so they can afford to get by with a lot of heaters, but Pineiro basically tops out at 88 or 89.
Most of the other pitchers in the top 15 are also basically two-pitch pitchers, which both explains their high percentage of fastballs and also means they set up the fastball with a strong secondary pitch.
But what is odd about Pineiro is that he no longer even has a secondary pitch. When he started out in the majors, Pineiro used to be a four-pitch pitcher, mixing in a slider, curveball, and change. This season, he still throws all three of those pitches once in a blue moon, but all three have become mere “show-me” pitches; Pineiro throws all three of them only about 10 percent of the time or less, and all three are at or approaching career lows, percentage-wise.
Basically, it seems like Pineiro has discovered some sort of magical, all-powerful 88-mph sinking fastball that can get just about anyone out, and he therefore throws it pretty much all the time. We are talking near-Mariano-Rivera-type single-pitch effectiveness here.
While the pitch doesn’t really fool anyone in that it is quite easy to make contact with, Pineiro can fearlessly pound the strike zone with it, because the pitch is immune to home runs or even line drives. The result is a pitcher who walks nobody, strikes nobody out, but also doesn’t give up any home runs. Batters get lots of singles against Pineiro, because just about every pitch is in play, but that’s about it.