Pitchers coming off Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery usually are handled very carefully in their first season back on the mound. The Twins, however, are not taking that approach with righthander Michael Pineda.
The plan is to let Pineda’s pitching, not his workload, determine how long he remains in games. That’s a good development for a team building momentum toward its first AL Central title since 2010.
Along with lefthander Martin Perez, Pineda has helped stabilize the back end of the Twins’ starting rotation. Kyle Gibson, Jake Odorizzi and Jose Berrios just drew the starts for a key series in Cleveland, and now it’s Pineda’s turn as the Twins open a nine-game home-stand Tuesday with the first of two games against the Mets.
At the moment, Pineda might be the Twins’ most effective starter, with a 2.83 ERA over his past five starts. He is 6-4 with a 4.56 ERA for the season.
“We feel pretty good about the way I have been throwing the ball,” he said. “I’m coming from Tommy John, but I feel good for the opportunity the Twins have given to me. So I try to be ready every five days and throw everything on the mound.”
Pineda has walked just five batters while striking out 31 over his past five starts. He has walked only 16 batters in 92⅔ innings for the season. In fact, his 1.55 walks per nine innings are the seventh-lowest in Major League Baseball and second-lowest in the AL, as well his lowest rate since 2015 when he was with the Yankees.
Do those numbers reflect someone coming back from elbow surgery? Lacking command and a feel for pitches are hurdles pitchers deal with as they work back from such a procedure. The only problem for Pineda has been getting his nasty slider back. He occasionally will throw one the way he wants to, but he can’t do it consistently yet.
“You’ll see guys struggle with command, but they may still have their stuff,” Twins pitching coach Wes Johnson said. “Mike is kind of that outlier where he has been able to get his fastball command really good and his slider is just not there yet.”
Fortunately for Pineda, his work to establish a changeup has paid off. Before he suffered a torn ulnar collateral ligament in 2017, he was trying to develop a quality changeup as a third pitch.
“The last two to three years of my career I tried to focus on my changeup,” he said, “because they knew I had a good slider.”
Then came surgery, performed by Cincinnati Reds team physician — and top elbow surgeon — Dr. Timothy Kremchek on July 18, 2017. The Twins signed Pineda to a creative contract the following offseason. They paid him $2 million in 2018 to complete his rehabilitation and pitch in a few games late in the season, then bumped his salary to $8 million this season. Pineda was on track to pitch for the Twins last September before a sore right knee forced him off the mound.
The Twins spent the offseason stating that Pineda would start the season in the rotation, and that’s what happened. While his slider comes and goes, his changeup has been solid. Opponents are batting .204 off the pitch, as opposed to .296 off his slider. In 2017, the year he broke down, opponents batted .196 off his slider and .292 off his changeup.
So Pineda adapted. He threw his slider 37.6% of the time in 2017. This year, it’s down to 29.2%. His changeup usage has increased from 13.6% to 15.5%, and his fastball usage has jumped from 48.8% to 55.2%.
“Mike’s changeup has allowed him to do some different things with his fastball in the strike zone,” Johnson said.
While Pineda fell short of his goal of pitching in the majors by the end of last season, he spent the offseason on a normal throwing program. He reported to spring training not having pitched in a major league game in 18 months. Plus, he’s 30, not some young pitcher who doesn’t have a foundation of major league experience.
“I’m a man,” Pineda said.
So the Twins have not placed any innings restrictions on Pineda and don’t plan to. He’s made 17 starts and averaged about 5 ⅓ innings per outing. He’s scheduled to make 14 more starts before season’s end, so he’s on pace to throw 165 innings. The Twins are fine with that.
“Mike’s an outlier in many cases,” Johnson said. “That’s why we feel comfortable letting him go.”
The Twins will monitor Pineda, however, for any signs that a breakdown is approaching. His form will be put to the test in the coming weeks; he’s in line to face the Athletics, Braves and Indians — teams all in the playoff picture.
“Big Mike wants to pitch like all of our guys want to pitch, and he wants to be out there,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “Those are challenging discussions and situations because we’re playing well, he’s pitching well, everyone is doing their job, he wants to do his job. But it’s something we will not ignore going forward.”