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Michael Pineda exemplifies AL East pitching struggles

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Michael Pineda gave up seven runs to the Boston Red Sox, which means the Blue Jays are now just one win away from winning the AL East. Pineda's disappointing ERA in 2015 is just one of the many disappointments among AL East pitching. While the Blue Jays have lived up to the expectation of having one of the most dangerous hitting lineups in the league, their AL East opponents have not closed the gap with better pitching.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

If you read the predictions and projections for the 2015 season, you'll probably read about the big question marks surrounding the Blue Jays rotation, and maybe their bullpen, too. And with a team ERA of 4.78 in April, matched by an FIP that was also 4.78, Toronto Blue Jays' pitching did little to dispel the doubts about the quality of the staff. The New York Yankees, meanwhile, pitched great in the opening month of the season, with a 3.23 ERA and an even better FIP. With the Yankees' offense hitting almost exactly the same as the Blue Jays' in April, the beginning of the season did not seem to hold the promise of a great ending. Luckily, the rest of the season would play out very differently from how it started.

Here's an overview of team pitching as things stand currently, using ERA- to correct for home parks:

Name Rotation Bullpen Team ERA- Team FIP-
Blue Jays 97 81 92 98
Yankees 103 87 97 94
Orioles 111 76 99 99
Red Sox 103 102 103 105
Rays 95 100 97 99

(stats from Fangraphs.com)

With the exception of the Rays, unsurprisingly, and the Blue Jays, curiously, the AL East teams' rotations have failed to put together an above average rotation. Despite solid K and BB numbers, in terms of hits and/or home runs given up all of CC Sabathia, Nathan Eovaldi and especially Michael Pineda have disappointed. On the Orioles Miguel Gonzalez and Chris Tillmann have failed to replicate their previous ability to generate weak contact. The Red Sox contribute Joe Kelly and Rick Porcello to the underachievers. The Blue Jays have Drew Hutchison filling that role, while the Rays have a catcher with an OBP of .215 and a first baseman slugging .358, but no pitchers struggling with contact management.

Now the most common response to a pitcher giving up hard contact is probably to think that the pitcher in question is leaving pitches in the middle of the strikezone and getting crushed. Luckily, we have actual data on the percentage of pitches through the heart of the plate, thanks to Bill Petti's Edge% statistic.

Name Heart% Horiz Edge% Vertical Edge% Edge/Heart ratio
Pineda 24,5 17,3 9,9 1,11
Sabathia 18,5 17,6 9,1 1,44
Eovaldi 23,2 16,3 10,0 1,13
Tillmann 23,8 17,0 10,3 1,15
Gonzalez 21,3 16,0 9,1 1,18
Kelly 21,5 17,0 9,9 1,25
Porcello 21,2 18,0 9,4 1,30
Hutchison 21,4 15,9 10,5 1,23
Estrada 24,9 13,3 11,0 0,98
Chen 23,1 20,8 10,0 1,33
Odorizzi 23,8 13,1 10,6 1,00

I included three AL East pitchers - Wei-Yin Chen, Jake Odorizzi and our very own Marco Estrada - who have outperformed, rather than underperformed, their (x)FIP, to serve as a comparison for the underperformers mentioned earlier. The results might be accurately described as "surprising". Rather than pitch less through the heart of the plate, they pitch there more! Surely this is the baseball gods tricking us, trying to make us fall for small sample sizes, right? But wait, there's more to discover: the overperformers seem to have a knack for the vertical edges of the strike zone, more than the underperformers. Specifically, as it turns out, the top edge.

Here's how these players rank in "top edge%" among pitchers with at least 1200 pitches this year (to eliminate relievers):

Marco Estrada - 8th
Drew Hutchison - 10th
Jake Odorizzi - 11th
Chris Tillman - 16th
Wei-Yin Chen - 22nd
Rick Porcello - 24th
Miguel Gonzalez - 42nd
Joe Kelly - 86th
Michael Pineda - 101st
Nathan Eovaldi - 103rd
CC Sabathia - 122nd

Out of 167 pitchers with at least 1200 pitches, none of these pitchers were near the bottom of the list. Several were near the top, but why do Estrada, Odorizzi and Chen find success pitching to the top edge of the zone, while Hutchison, Tillman, Porcello and Gonzalez get hurt doing the same thing? Is predictability the key?

Name # of pitches FB% FB type FB predictability
Pineda 2 53,6 93 mph, ct 25
Sabathia 4 58,6 91 mph, 2s/4s 13,5
Eovaldi 3 47,7 98 mph, 4s 15,5
Tillman 3 65,0 93 mph, 4s(2s) 8
Gonzalez 5 58,6 92 mph, 4s(2s) 4,5
Kelly 3 65,6 96 mph, 2s(4s) 15,5
Porcello 3 66,3 92 mph, 2s(4s) 16,5
Hutchison 2 65,3 93 mph, 4s 22,5
Estrada 2 52,8 90 mph, 4s 8
Chen 4 64,2 93 mph, 4s(2s) 4,5
Odorizzi 2 50,3 92 mph, 4s 6,5

All these stats are derived from the database at Brooks Baseball. Number of pitches is my stat for how many pitches a pitcher throws at least 10% of the time, and at least 60% for strikes. Arbitrary cutoffs, but from my experience these are pretty lenient cutoff numbers. Even so, Wei-Yin Chen's 9,97% splitters thrown have been counted as one of his four pitches. The predictability stat is simple as well: it simply counts the difference in % of fastballs thrown when behind in the count versus ahead in the count. In my personal pitcher database, unpredictable pitchers include notable overperformers like Johnny Cueto (4,5) and Jered Weaver (3), as well as Jacob deGrom (2,5), Chris Archer (-3) and John Lackey (1). This database I speak of is far from complete, but had it included Mark Buehrle, he would also be one of the very unpredictable pitchers in it. Note that 20 is a very common predictability score, so both Hutchison and Pineda look a bit more predictable in this particular group of pitchers than they would otherwise.

The Verdict

This year has been a disappointing one for many AL East pitchers, perhaps none more so than Michael Pineda and Drew Hutchison, who have not contributed as much to their team as they would have hoped. Both are somewhat predictable in that they'll throw only two pitches for strikes most of the time, in both cases a fastball and a slider, and that the fastball is much more likely to come out when the pitcher falls behind. Rick Porcello throws up in the zone a lot, apparently, but unlike fellow hurlers Estrada, Odorizzi and Tillman, he throws a lot of sinking two-seamers rather than just rising four-seamers. Might not be the best idea there, Rick. I think Eovaldi, Tillman and Gonzalez have a good chance to be better next season, but I'm not so sure about Porcello, Kelly and Sabathia.

I realize I have ignored a lot of important aspects of pitching (like raw stuff), but this article's already long as it is. I hope you found it informative, even though it doesn't say anything definitive about why these pitchers have struggled. Until next time, may your favorite pitcher have the guts to throw a high fastball on a 0-2 count.