When asked to name the most pleasant Cardinal surprises this season, Joel Pineiro’s 2009 campaign would certainly rank near the top. He pitched a career high 214 innings, posting a 15-12 record with a 3.49 era with an even more impressive 3.27 FIP, which normalizes defense to show just how good a pitcher’s era should be with the controllable skills (strikeouts, walks, etc) he possesses. It was truly a dream season for Pineiro, but now he is a free agent and the Cardinals apparently only have one spot in their rotation to fill via free agency. Should Pineiro be that guy? Let’s take a look and find out.
For as good as Joel Pineiro was in 2009, he was as equally bad in 2008. In 08’ Pineiro went 7-7 with a 5.15 era and a 4.71 FIP, so although Pineiro was a little unlucky to have an era that far above his FIP, he still wasn’t a good pitcher. Pineiro’s peripherals were not very good either, as he sported a strikeout to walk ratio of 2.12, a 1.63 ground ball to fly ball ratio, and almost 22% of the batted balls that Pineiro gave up were line drives. For his efforts, Pineiro managed to produce 0.9 Wins Above Replacement (WAR), which amounted to 3.9 million dollars in value while his actual salary was 5.5 million. Simply put, Pineiro couldn’t strike anyone out, did not get enough ground balls, and gave up more than his fair share of line drives, so it was pretty safe to say that he wasn’t fooling many hitters. This poor season had fans simply celebrating the fact that the Cardinals only had Pineiro on the payroll for 2009 as he was going into the final year of a 2 year 13 million dollar deal.
It was no shocker to fans that for the World Baseball Classic, team Puerto Rico manager and St. Louis third base coach Jose Oquendo decided to leave Pineiro out of the rotation for the WBC, which apparently angered Joel so much that he decided to stay in spring training with the Cardinals. During his time in spring training, Pineiro bought into a suggestion from pitching coach Dave Duncan that he should abandon his approach that he had been using since he broke in with the Mariners in 2000 and switch to throwing a sinker more. With this sinker, Joel could pound the strike zone while hitters hit ground ball after ground ball early in counts to help Pineiro get quick outs and minimize damage with runners on base by being able to induce more double plays. It sounded like a good philosophy, so Pineiro bought into it, and the results were staggering. As I mentioned earlier, Pineiro won 15 games with a sub 3.50 era with an FIP below 3.30. The sinker was credited as the reason for Pineiro’s improvement, and the statistics back it up. Pineiro went from throwing all types of fastballs 58% of the time in 2008 to throwing 71% sinkers in 2009. Pineiro’s strike out to walk ratio climbed to 3.89, a huge improvement from the 2.31 mark he posted the year before. Pineiro’s batted ball data also changed dramatically, as his ground ball to fly ball ratio went from 1.63 to 2.54 and his line drive percentage plummeted down 6% to 15.7%. It all added up to a 4.8 WAR season which produced 21.5 million dollars in value to the Cardinals while his actual salary was only 7.5 million. To summarize, Pineiro pounded the strike zone with his sinker which allowed him to get quicker outs, which resulted in a career high in innings pitched. By throwing the sinker a large % of the time, Pineiro also showed better control because he didn’t get into deep counts and his era and FIP went down because a lot of the fly balls and line drives the year before were now turning into ground balls, which was a really good thing with Brendan Ryan playing shortstop. So what does it all mean?
It’s very apparent that Pineiro made a fundamental shift in the way he goes about getting outs last season, but should the Cardinals trust this new and improved version of Joel Pineiro enough to give him a contract? Pineiro is a type B free agent, so the Cardinals should/will offer him arbitration. It’s also very unlikely that Pineiro accepts the arbitration offer because Pineiro is a durable starter in a free agent market that is not a very impressive group as a whole. There is a good chance at age 31 that Pineiro gets a 2-4 year deal worth at least 8 million a year depending on how the market shapes up. Predicting free agent contracts is a worthless exercise, so I am just focusing on the decision to give Pineiro a multi-year deal at a fair price for both sides. Is it a good idea? Given the Cardinals currently have 3/5 members of their rotation locked in on long term deals, it is probably best that the Cardinals stay away from signing another pitcher to multiple years for the rotation. The Cardinals obviously aren’t the Yankees, so with a limited number of resources it makes more sense to fill the final two spots in the rotation with someone like rookie lefthander Jaime Garcia and a guy like John Smoltz on a one year deal, a theory that Mozeliak appears to share. As good as Pineiro was in 2009, there is some regression that will likely come, as Pineiro’s home run rate, batting average against (BAA), and batting average of balls in play (BAPIP) were all awfully low even for someone who relies on the sinker like Pineiro. It’s highly likely that St. Louis benefited from a career season from Joel, and while Cardinals fans should appreciate what he accomplished this year in St. Louis, that doesn’t mean that they should bring Pineiro back for future seasons.