The Mets are looking for pitching again this year, and as usual the collection of free agent pitchers includes a lot of players coming off career years and looking for a payday. Randy Wolf, Joel Piniero and Jason Marquis are exhibit A, B and C in this discussion. We’ll look into the others later, but now it’s time to discuss Piniero and the Mets.
Piniero had a season that either screams fluke or is a great example of a changed approach, depending which statistics you want to weigh most. Any time an older pitcher (31 years old) succeeds as much as Pineiro did in 2009 (3.49 ERA /1.14 WHIP, 15-12), especially when his career stats are so mediocre (4.39 ERA, 1.34 WHIP), the urge is to call it a career year and move along. Certainly, Piniero’s poor strikeout rate (4.42 K/9, league average is 6.99) makes it easy to cry foul. Also, his walk rate, though miniscule (1.14 BB/9, 3.46 league average) is also way below his career rate (2.56) and should rise some next year.
If the walks are going come back, and the strikeouts weren’t ever there, why would he be a good free agent acquisition this offseason? It’s all about the groundballs. Piniero led all qualified starters with a 60.5% groundball percentage (Derek Lowe was second with 56.3%). Keeping the ball on the ground keeps home runs down and in general suppresses the slugging percentage of your opponents. Not walking anyone and keeping the ball on the ground is a recipe for success no matter what ballpark you call home.
But is the spike in groundball percentage sustainable? After all, Piniero’s lifetime groundball rate is only 48.6%. If he goes back to that merely above-average level, Piniero will quickly become an average pitcher. It’s tough to see because of pitch-classification issues with the Pitch f/x descriptions, but Piniero actually changed his pitching approach radically last year. He threw roughly half of his fastballs as two-seamers in 2008, and then last year threw about 80% of his fastballs as two-seamers. So now he’s throwing a new pitch more often and his groundball rate is spiking. It sounds to me like his groundball rate is sustainable. Maybe not at 60%, but it looks like his pitch can keep up with Lowe’s similar ground-ball inducing fastball in the mid-to-high 50% level.
If we look at Derek Lowe as a comp, we’ll see that Piniero still doesn’t strike out as many (Lowe had a career low with 5.13 last year) and so his basement has to be considered lower than Lowe’s. Considering Lowe may have just had a season that defined his basement (4.67 ERA, 1.52 ERA), we have to consider his recent performance as a descriptor of Piniero’s downside. On the other hand, Lowe is five years older than Piniero, so that downside has to be softened a little.
Bill James has Piniero going for a 4.17 ERA, with a 1.35 WHIP, which seems to actually be a reasonable description of his downside. We have to remember, before we get too pessimistic about him, that none of his ‘luck’ stats were really off last year (he had a .293 BABIP and a 66.9% strand rate, league averages are .303 and 71.9%). It seems that Piniero is a good bet for a high 3′s, low 4′s ERA, a decent WHIP, and some steadiness at the back of a rotation. That has value, especially with the Mets’ back end looking so risky (Oliver Perez, Jonathon Niese, Nelson Figueroa). I’d rather give the money to Piniero than to Jason Marquis, who we will discuss this week.
One remaining question is if a ground-ball-inducing starter is really the best use of the Mets’ resources. With their park, they could find a pitcher that gives up fly balls and get someone who could put up Piniero’s surface numbers with very different peripheral numbers – and of course, for much less money. We’ll try to identify a couple of those over the offseason.