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Brushing Up On Joel Pineiro

The ol' glue-his-mouth-closed-when-he's-not-looking trick, eh?  Gets 'em every time.
The ol' glue-his-mouth-closed-when-he's-not-looking trick, eh? Gets 'em every time.

Pineiro is an interesting case study. What we know about sinkerballers suggests that they should have serious platoon split issues. For the right-handed sinkerballer, RHB should get torn up, lefties should kill them. Pineiro is an exception. He's actually pitched somewhat better against lefties his entire career, with better K and BB rates while maintaining his ability to get grounders. And it's not because he stops throwing his sinker to lefties. He throws the same number of sinkers to righties as to lefties. He's a real weirdo and it's tough to get a handle on what makes him tick.

So what exactly is he doing? For one, throwing a ton of fastballs. Prior to spending a year STL with Dave Duncan, he was throwing some 55-60% fastballs. In 2009, he ratcheted that up to a full 70% and he's been right around there so far since.

I say "fastball" rather than "sinker" because pitch f/x says he's got a four-seamer and a two-seamer. Watching him pitch however, I couldn't pick one from the other. But going back through the archives, it would seem that there's some point in picking between the two. For one, Pineiro spent a year with Dave Duncan in St. Louis and then, as mentioned, in '09 his fastball usage shot up, as did his GB%. And see this sketchy but presumably accurate message board cut-and-paste of an STL Post-Dispatch article that I can't find anywhere else from March, 2009:

Pineiro got 11 groundballs (nine for outs) from the Rays, and a handful of the base hits he allowed were on the ground. Two of the four-seam fastballs he threw were tattooed for doubles. That reinforced the concept that Duncan has tried to stress to Pineiro this spring. He has a sinker. Use it.

"That’s been the goal of the spring. Trust it. Throw it," Pineiro said. "That’s the thing I’ve been trying to do the (past few starts). This year it’s throw it, throw it, throw it."

When Pineiro came to the Cardinals late in the 2007 season, he had both a two-seam fastball and a four-seam fastball. He would use his changeup as a pitch to coax a groundball, preferring to stay about from a sinker he didn’t trust. Say he’d get into a bind or behind in the count — well that was what the four-seam fastball was for. He knew he could count on it.

That’s where he wants the sinker to be when the Cardinals leave Jupiter. On Thursday, Pineiro fell behind in the counts and was able to trust in the sinker — like Chris Carpenter did the day before — to get him out of the jam.

"Big change for me this year," Pineiro said. "Throw it and trust it."

So I'll cede the point to the pitch f/x algorithm: he has a four-seamer, but it's since taken the backseat, as his sinker has proven to be a truly plus pitch. The annoying thing is I couldn't pick up the four-seamer while watching him. So I can't confirm for myself what exactly he was trying to get out of throwing it, if he even was. According to pf/x, he throws them to the same spots, so I would guess he's trying to get them to play off each other rather than use them in different roles. The idea being to keep hitters from adjusting to the vertical movement of the sinker and make sure they keep pounding it into the dirt.

Rounding out his arsenal he's got a slider, curve and a change, of which none get a great deal of use. Even when he got to 0-2 last season against righties, an obvious slider/curve count, he still threw 60% fastballs. A typical sinker/slider guy will pound the zone away with the sinker early in the count, trying to get an easy ground ball out, while setting up the slider for a later-in-the-count punch out. That's not Pineiro. While he does have tremendous fastball command to his glove side against RHB, he still likes to move in and out and doesn't mind getting to 2 or even 3 ball counts, confident he can throw the sinker in the spot that will induce a ground out.

And it makes sense, since his slider just isn't that great. As little as he throws it (which means batters should be taken off-guard), he still gets very few swing-and-misses. It's not even an average pitch, really, though he gets enough out of it to keep it useful. The same can be said for the curve, though I only saw very few curves to RHB. He's pretty much totally a fastball/slider guy who is very confident that he can get righties to put the ball on the ground somewhere. The stats back him up and there really isn't much reason for him to give in.

Against lefties, it's more of the same. His command to his throwing side isn't as good, but he compensates by moving the ball around more and using his change and curve. Again, neither are plus and might not even be average, but he's a confident pitcher who has an idea of what he's doing up there. The result is that both the change and curve get better results than you might expect just watching him warm up. Outside of the fact that he throws an overwhelming number of fastballs, he kind of reminded me of Buehrle. He doesn't like to let batters see the same pitch with the same location twice in a row and he'll avoid doing so in the at bat unless he thinks he's attacking a weakness.

The end product is a guy who will always be tough on righties, but needs good command to really be an above average starter. Prior to Dave Duncan's tutelage, he was just another guy, but he seems to really have figured out how to pitch thanks to the NL's version of Don Cooper. If his command is good, he's a tough guy to approach because he won't let you sit on both a pitch and a location. You might get the sinker, but you won't get it in your spot. He'll run it in off the plate for a broken bat or keep it just off the black for a rollover, just enough rope to hang yourself. If he were less effective, you'd call him a nibbler. But when he's on, "wily" is the preferred nomenclature.

Which means he's not afraid of walking guys because he thinks he can always get a grounder to end the inning. That's perhaps his biggest weakness and while the Sox do have some smart hitters, they've also got more than their share of guys who love to swing away. Besides it's not like he actually walks that many batters. He's just willing to go deep into counts and trust his sinker. So it's really going to be a test of the Sox hitters tonight. If Pineiro's command isn't there, will they have the wherewithal to avoid unnecessary outs? If it is, will they have the patience to go deep into the count with him, spoil his best strikes and go oppo when the chance arises?

Baseball being what it is, one game doesn't ever say much of anything. But getting on a guy like this would be good for the spirit. Crafty right-handers have been tough on the Sox ever since Kenny decided he wanted a righty-heavy lineup and it's been frustrating enough without this bad start. But now they're behind the 8-ball and their old nemesis The Sinker/Slider Guy has the mound tonight. It'd be worth at least a sliver of hope to knock Pineiro around.