Commentary

Joel Pineiro = unheralded ace

Why the veteran pitcher's signing will make Angels fans forget about John Lackey

Updated: February 26, 2010, 5:22 PM ET
By AJ Mass | ESPN.com

Let's be blunt: The name "Joel Pineiro" isn't sexy in fantasy. We're talking about a 10-year veteran with an 87-79 career record and 4.39 ERA in 285 games with the Seattle Mariners, Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals. Even last season, when he went 15-12, he struck out only 4.4 batters per nine innings, ranking him a lowly 118th among 123 major starters with 100-plus innings pitched.

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With offseason moves that involved the likes of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Ben Sheets and Javier Vazquez, it might seem on the surface that the Los Angeles Angels may have been "settling" by signing Pineiro to a two-year deal reportedly worth $16 million … but this is not the same Joel Pineiro of seasons past. Allow me to show you why:

• First let's look at how Pineiro's repertoire has changed in recent years, and the result it has had on his ground-ball rate.

As you can see, in 2009, Pineiro's ground-ball rate increased by 12 percent over any previous season, and a close examination of his pitch selection clearly shows the reason this huge increase is more than just a fluke. Under the tutelage of renowned Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan, Pineiro's whole approach to pitching changed. He learned how to throw an effective sinking fastball, and he stuck with it, throwing his other three (less-effective) pitches less than 30 percent of the time. In sticking with the fastball, Pineiro improved his control. In fact, he led the majors with just 1.14 walks per nine innings. In turn, the low walk rate helped improve his WHIP, which fell to 1.14, good enough for 10th place among all qualifying major league starters.

Perhaps you're concerned Pineiro may revert to his former self once Duncan is removed from the equation? But this is a fundamental difference, and it's not like the right-hander will suddenly "unlearn" his new, successful approach. After he signed with the Angels, Pineiro told reporters, "The biggest change [in 2009] was that I started to throw my sinker a lot, but I haven't changed my mechanics or anything. It was just throwing my sinker 95 percent of the time trying to get early outs."

Of course, hitters will also know that sinker is coming, and they will make a ton of contact against Pineiro. That's why having a solid defense behind him will be essential to his success, and the Angels won't disappoint in that respect. They're solid defensively, and no team in the major leagues turned more double plays than they did in 2009, with 174 on the season. With all those ground balls sure to find their way to Howie Kendrick and Erick Aybar, Pineiro should help the Angels repeat as leaders in that category.

• Now it's time to compare Pineiro to the man he replaces, John Lackey, who has gone off to Boston. They're not even close, right? That's utter nonsense. Let's look at the stats, and we'll even throw Angels ace Jered Weaver into the mix, too.

Even taking into account the difference in the two leagues -- American League DHs are much better hitters than National League pitchers -- Pineiro's AL-adjusted statistics aren't that far off from what Lackey gave the Angels in 2009. And if you're playing in a league that doesn't count strikeouts, Pineiro is clearly more than adequate in terms of replacing Lackey … and he's not that far off from Weaver's output either. You can see for yourself in the chart above.

• Let's talk more about the opponents. One argument that some might raise against Pineiro is that he faced a bevy of weak offenses in the NL Central as compared to the far more potent lineups he's going to be squaring off against in the AL West. Um, yeah, that does not bear fruit. Yes, on average, Texas, Oakland and Seattle (taken as a group) were more impressive than the NL Central quintet (sans St. Louis), as you can see in the chart below.

However, when you compare these divisional groups to their respective league counterparts, you'll see that the AL West trio is actually far weaker than the rest of the American League than the NL Central in comparison to the rest of the National League. So whereas the move to the American League might raise his numbers slightly, the difference won't be as great as you might think.

• Hmm, perhaps you're concerned that Pineiro still lost 12 games in 2009? After all, I'm billing the guy as an ace, not someone who had barely better than a .500 record last season. Well, Pineiro was 4-0 last April. But in May and June, he went 2-9 despite lowering his ERA from 3.76 to 3.44. In fact, it could be argued that unearned runs, combined with a lack of run support, cost Pineiro four victories over these two months.

Throw in a 1-0 loss to the Atlanta Braves in September and you're looking at a 20-game winner instead of a so-so 15-12 record. Certainly the extra run support should be there in Los Angeles, even after adjusting for the extra bat in the lineup. The Angels finished second in the majors in runs scored in 2009 and should be solid again in 2010.

The chart below shows how solid the Angels were, even compared with their AL counterparts. Meanwhile, the Cardinals ranked 18th in the majors in runs scored, and were right about the NL league average:

• One last argument against Pineiro to put to rest, and it's that of, well, rest. It is true that in 2009 Pineiro ran up a total of 214 innings pitched, which was not only a career high, but also the first time he topped 200 innings since 2003. Some people see that kind of increased workload and worry about whether the extra wear and tear might have lingering effects on Pineiro's arm for the 2010 season.

It's true that Pineiro is working longer into games, but that doesn't mean his arm is suddenly being taxed to the breaking point. But consider this: Pineiro tied with Edwin Jackson with the 18th-most innings pitched in baseball last season. Well, Jackson ended up throwing 3,466 pitches, the ninth highest total in the majors. In fact, last season there were 54 pitchers who threw more than 3,000 pitches. Pineiro was not one of them; he needed only 2,977 pitches to get through his season. That's an average of just 13.8 pitches per inning, well below the league average of 16.5, and tops in the sport in 2009. Thus the high innings total shouldn't be a concern, because they didn't come with a high pitch count.

I can't state it any differently: Joel Pineiro is going to make Angels fans forget about John Lackey. And while Pineiro will give the team a much different look on the hill than Weaver, he should win just as many, if not more, games for the Halos in 2010. (And if you're talkin' major league value, he will earn every penny of that $16 million contract.)

As for where Pineiro stacks up in terms of fantasy value for 2010, he's Ubaldo Jimenez or Wandy Rodriguez without the strikeouts, but with a better WHIP and more victories to his name. In a 4x4 league, we're talking a top-25 starter without a doubt, and even in a league where K's do count, I'd still expect him to finish among the top-40 starters. And since few people dare to believe, you shouldn't have to spend top-40 money or draft positioning to get him.

Joel Pineiro isn't a sexy name, but when it comes to the middle or late rounds, he should be looking pretty attractive to you.

AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can follow AJ on Twitter or e-mail him here.

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