LAKELAND, Fla. — When pitchers and catchers reported to spring training last month, CC Sabathia made a rather bold comment about Michael Pineda.
“I always come into spring training saying this is the year he’s going to win the Cy Young,” said Sabathia, a Cy Young Award winner himself with Cleveland in 2007. “He’s just got so much talent.”
On the surface, it sounded odd, given Pineda’s 32-37 career record and 3.99 ERA in exactly 100 starts.
But as one opposing team talent evaluator said Saturday morning, “his stuff’s always been way, way above average and, for me, the slider can be as good as anyone’s.”
It certainly was Saturday afternoon in the Yankees’ 11-1 victory over the Tigers at Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium.
Pineda dominated during two scoreless innings in his first exhibition start, striking out the last five hitters he faced, four of them on sliders.
“I don’t think you can get much better than what he did today,” Joe Girardi said. “Everything looked sharp.”
Pineda allowed a leadoff single to Ian Kinsler but nothing else. “For the first outing, he was better than better,” catcher Gary Sanchez said through his translator. “All the pitches were great, the slider was amazing. Fastball command was good, the changeup was good as well. I think the slider is better now than last year.”
Pineda, of course, has teased and tantalized the Yankees before, most recently in 2016. A brilliant two-inning outing in March doesn’t necessarily portend anything for the regular season.
Pineda pitched well enough in spring training last year — he struck out 15 and walked one — then had a wildly inconsistent year. He logged a career-best 175 2⁄3 innings and made a career-high 32 starts but went 6-12 with a 4.82 ERA. He recorded a career-best 207 strikeouts but allowed a career-worst 27 home runs.
Nine of those home runs came after he was ahead 0-and-1 in the count and, digging deeper into the overall strange season, 13 of those homers came with two outs, when opponents had a .325/.383/.598 slash line against him.
It is the reason Pineda, a free agent after this season, said on report day that his emphasis in spring training and the regular season would be “finishing,” both at-bats and innings.
“I have better focus,” Pineda said after his outing. He said his concentration Saturday was getting his pitches, especially with two strikes, down in the strike zone.
Pineda did not work against a “B” Tigers lineup, either. His strikeout run started with Miguel Cabrera and continued with J.D. Martinez, Justin Upton, Alex Avila and Omar Infante. Upton went down swinging at a 95-mph fastball.
“When I go to the mound, I don’t care who the hitters are, I want to throw my best pitches and I want to get outs. That’s my goal,” Pineda said. “I know those guys, those are great hitters. But for me, I’m not thinking too much about them. I want to think about me. What do I have to do? What do I have to do to get them out quick? That’s my focus.”
Pineda is not competing for a rotation spot; he’s locked in along with Masahiro Tanaka and Sabathia. Uncertainty surrounds each of them and will surround whoever emerges from the five-man battle for the two remaining spots.
A Pineda who reaches the potential the Yankees saw in him — meaning top-of-the-rotation performance — when they acquired him from the Mariners before the 2012 season would be beyond huge for their chances of contending for a playoff spot.
“It changes a lot if Michael pitches well and pitches deeper into games,” Girardi said. “For our rotation, it would be a big lift.”