Commentary

Michael Pineda simply being himself

At just 22 years old, Mariners rookie flamethrower is taking charge on the mound

Updated: April 29, 2011, 4:00 PM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

The title of King has already been designated to Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez, so Seattle fans will have to come up with another nickname for the most exciting young pitcher in the American League.

Prince Michael Pineda might possibly work, and the Mariners rookie says he doesn't have a problem with it. But he doesn't sound too enthused, either. "A lot of people say, 'Use Prince,''' he said. "I don't know.'' This is understandable. Prince may be serviceable but is too derivative and suggests a junior standing. "I don't think the 'Prince' thing will stick,'' said Dave Cameron, co-founder of USSMariner.com, where he coined the King Felix nickname. "It's too contrived and would seem kind of weird once he's older.''

Neither Cameron nor Mariners broadcaster Dave Sims say they've heard good nicknames for Pineda yet. Which just means it's time for people to get creative like yesteryear's fedora-wearing, typewriter-tapping, flask-sipping, nickname-spouting knights of the keyboard would have.

The Marquis de Smoke. The Emperor of Earned Run Average. The High Lord of High Cheese. The Sultan of WHIP. The Secretary of WAR. The Prime Minister of Shattered Bats. The Ambassador to the Court of Scoreless Frames. A Royal Knight of the Stirrup Sock. The Wonderful Wizard of 0's.

[+] EnlargeMichael Pineda
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesMichael Pineda overpowered the Tigers on Thursday, striking out nine in six innings.

Then again, one month of starts, no matter how impressive, isn't sufficient to warrant fretting over frivolous nicknames and lofty, honorary titles that haven't even begun to be earned. Especially when opposing batters are still learning the proper etiquette for appearing before His Most Unhittable Highness. Step into the box but don't dig in. Take your best hack. Tip your cap, curtsy and slump back to the dugout.

Throwing a high 90s fastball -- which he isn't at all afraid to throw in tight -- Pineda just finished his first month in the majors with a 4-1 record, a 2.01 ERA (fourth in the league) and 30 strikeouts in 31 1/3 innings. Opponents are batting .198. He struck out the first four batters in Thursday's 7-2 victory over Detroit, including Miguel Cabrera on an 84 mph slider that followed several fastballs touching 97 and 98. "He's not afraid to throw the ball," catcher Miguel Olivo told reporters. "No matter who's hitting, he just goes and gets him.''

And in perhaps his most personally rewarding feat of April, the 22-year-old from the Dominican Republic aced his American driving test on the first attempt last week. Now all he needs is a car. Or maybe not. Pineda rides to work with Mariners bullpen coach Jaime Navarro, with whom he shares an apartment in a southeast Seattle suburb.

Navarro says Pineda approached him about living arrangements in Seattle after making the team at the end of spring training. "He said, 'I don't have a place yet but would you mind if I live with you until I find a place? I'll live with you and relax and be myself. I trust you more than anybody else and I have someone I can count on.'''

"That's my daddy in America,'' Pineda said of Navarro. "I had him my first year in America. On the field, outside the field, he helps me all the time. … Jaime says, 'If you want to go out, go shopping, the car is here. Go ahead.' Thank you, thank you. He's a pretty good guy.''

It isn't every landlord who provides transportation, cable and advice on how to grip a slider.

Navarro was the pitching coach for the Class A Wisconsin Timber Rattlers when Pineda arrived there in 2008, several inches shorter than his current 6-foot-7 and unable to speak English. "You talk about hard for him? It was hard,'' Navarro said. "The only thing he could say was hello and yes or no.''

As Navarro worked with Pineda on his English -- he even took him to a Barnes and Noble to buy a Spanish-English dictionary -- the two rose through the minors together. Navarro was the pitching coach at Class A High Desert when Pineda was promoted there in 2009, the pitching coach at Triple-A Tacoma when promoted there last summer and now is the bullpen coach in Seattle (Carl Willis is the pitching coach) with a locker just a few steps away from the rookie.

"I know him like the back of my palm,'' Navarro said.

Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said the Mariners debated whether to call up Pineda near the end of last season to get his feet wet before deciding to shut him down to save wear and tear on the arm.

"All of us thought he was on target and that if he showed up to spring training prepared to pitch in the majors we would not deny him that,'' Zduriencik said. "How do you look a guy in the eye and say you're not ready when he is?''

While it's still very early, Pineda has shown he was ready with a quality start each time he's pitched. He's also impressed the team with the way he's been willing to throw in and keep batters off the plate. A 6-7, 260-pound pitcher who throws nearly 100 miles an hour and isn't shy about brushing back a batter can be rather intimidating.

"His consistency is a lot better than last year,'' Navarro said. "He's a lot more aggressive early in the game.''

"This year I'm focused on working on my changeup and this year my slider is pretty good. And my fastball is pretty good,'' Pineda said. "But I'm working to throw strikes and control the running game. It's working. It's the first month and it's a long season and I'm working hard to be stronger for the season.''

The Mariners were fiercely protective of Felix Hernandez -- who, despite his King nickname is known as Fee-Fee in the clubhouse -- when he first came up, all but sealing him in carbonite after games to protect his arm. That approach paid off and Zduriencik said they will carefully monitor Pineda as well. Seattle knows it has a pitcher who could be special and make a name for himself that rings louder than any manufactured moniker.

"He always says, 'I want to be best,''' Navarro said. "He looks up to Felix, but if you ask him who do you want to be, he'll say, 'I want to be Michael. I don't want to be Fee-Fee. Fee-Fee is special and he does his thing, but I want to be myself.' That's a good thing. When a kid has that attitude, and that type of emotion and knows what he wants to do and says I want to be a good pitcher but I want to be myself -- that's a very good thing.''

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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Senior Writer, ESPN.com