Rookie phenom Michael Pineda is Mariners' blue-collar prodigy
Signed just before he turned 17, Mariners rookie pitcher Michael Pineda has grown into his prodigious talent because of an amazing work ethic.
Seattle Times staff columnist
10th in the AL
1.72: Trevor Cahill (A's)
4th in the AL
6: Jered Weaver (Angels), Max Scherzer (Tigers) and Cahill
9.135 Ks/9 IP
2nd in the AL
9.142: Ricky Romero (Blue Jays)
8th in the AL
56: Dan Haren (Angels)
Michael Pineda file
Full name: Michael Francisco Pineda
Age: 22. Throws: Right
Height: 6 feet 7. Weight: 260 pounds.
Born: Jan. 18, 1989 in Yaguate, Dominican Republic
Signed: At age 16 in 2005 for about $35,000.
2011: Rookie is 4-2, 2.84 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, with 45 strikeouts and 13 walks in 44.1 innings. Earned AL Rookie of the Month in April (4-1, 2.01) and became the first Mariner to win four games in April since Freddy Garcia in 1999. Fifth rookie since 1900 to win four consecutive starts in one season before end of April.
2010: 11-4 at Class AAA Tacoma and AA West Tenn, with 3.36 ERA, with 158 strikeouts and 34 walks in 139.1 innings. Was 8-1 and 2.22 in AA.
Misc.: Entered 2011 as the No. 13 prospect in baseball by MLB.com, and No. 16 by Baseball America. Mariners Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2010.
It feels dishonest to label Michael Pineda a phenom.
For certain, that's the easiest way to describe him. He's a 22-year-old pitching hulk, standing 6 feet 7 and 260 pounds, throwing 100 mph frequently and displaying unfair athleticism for a big man. But Pineda wasn't born with a silver glove in his hand.
Phenom ignores the self-made charm of his story. Physically, Pineda was a late bloomer — heck, he's still blooming — and because he wasn't always a man child, he developed an underdog's scrappiness and affinity for hard work before his prodigious talent fully surfaced.
What you see now is, frankly, the scariest young 'un in baseball. For those Pineda can't overpower, he is willing to outwork them. Just a rookie, Pineda prepares like a veteran.
The big guy is also the little guy. The phenom is also the overachiever. He's a special combination of diligence and magnificence.
In his first seven big-league starts, Pineda is 4-2 with a 2.84 earned-run average and 45 strikeouts and only 13 walks in 44-1/3 innings. He has pitched at least six innings in every appearance. He has allowed more than three runs just once (Texas scored four on him in seven innings last week), and opponents are batting .221 against him.
Pineda has easily been the Mariners' most consistent starter, even though he's working with only two polished pitches. Pineda's fastball and slider are that good. His progression is stunning.
A little more than five years ago, the Mariners scouted a skinny kid from the Dominican Republic who knew how to throw strikes. Pineda wasn't a breathtaking talent then, just a good one. Scout Patrick Guerrero, who's assigned to the Dominican, remembers projecting Pineda as a pitcher who eventually would throw in the low 90s with good control. Pineda was 6-3 and 180 pounds at the time.
Neither Guerrero nor fellow scout Franklin Taveras projected Pineda would grow four inches, gain 80 pounds and become a dominant power pitcher. They signed him for about $35,000 on Dec. 12, 2005, a month shy of Pineda's 17th birthday. It was an average bonus for that year. Pineda was just a guy who might become something.
"It's unbelievable, the development that he has had," Guerrero says. "He was a dream come true, but really, we didn't even dream that big. He's a different man than when we signed him."
Pineda laughs when recalling how his professional baseball career began. He says he had only started pitching that year. He took up baseball at age 12, but he was a shortstop or third baseman during his first four years. He really didn't know what he was doing when the Mariners signed him. And he was disappointed he couldn't convince a team to offer him more money.
"I didn't sign for a big contract, but Patrick said, 'Hey, it's OK. You're working hard. You have a chance to be a pitcher in Major League Baseball,' " said Pineda, who will earn more than $400,000 this season. "That made me feel better. I didn't throw too hard when I signed. Now, I'm a big guy and I throw hard. And I'm working hard all the time."
Any interview with Pineda includes the phrase "I'm working hard" at least a half-dozen times. His English is limited, so he keeps it simple. He's committed to learning the language better, and he insists on doing interviews in English instead of using a translator and speaking in Spanish. It's admirable, and it provides a glimpse of Pineda's desire to be great at everything he does.
But it's fitting that "I'm working hard" is the phrase Pineda utters the most. That's what he is about. He follows a strict training routine between starts. He's usually one of the first players to arrive at the ballpark, and he starts his day by meeting with Mariners bullpen coach Jaime Navarro, who had been Pineda's pitching coach throughout his time in the minors. Navarro says Pineda is one of the most disciplined pitchers he has seen.
"Honestly, in my whole career as a player and a coach, you don't have that many who are like Michael in terms of work ethic," Navarro says. "He knows how good he is and how far he can go in this game. But the best thing about him is the approach he has. He knows how to handle things, whether it's success or when the pressure comes and things aren't going his way. He's a good, good listener. He has his mind set on the belief that, if he's going to reach his potential, he has to work harder, harder, harder."
Beneath Pineda's competitiveness and drive, he's a nice, quiet kid who laughs often, especially at himself. He's a sponge around reigning Cy Young Award winner Felix Hernandez, retaining every bit of knowledge the Mariners ace offers.
"He's the same guy that way," Guerrero says. "He hasn't changed at all. He's a straightforward kid. He talks more now. When we first got him, he didn't say much. He's always been a very serious guy, but he has some fun, too. But, wow, he doesn't like to get beat. He doesn't like to lose."
After losing to Texas last week, Pineda sounded almost distraught. He couldn't believe he allowed two homers to the Rangers. He didn't make any excuses and vowed to continue working to get better. You would've thought he had been rocked, but allowing four runs in seven innings isn't a bad start.
That's Pineda. His standard is high. He believed he could be great back when the Mariners were trying to figure out what they had. Seldom does a phenom have this much underdog in him.
As good as Pineda has been so far, he knows that hitters will become more comfortable with him. His fastball is explosive, and his slider is nasty, but his changeup can become a more effective weapon. He can get better at keeping the ball down in the strike zone. To stay ahead, he needs to evolve as hitters' understanding of him grows. He intends to do just that.
"I'm working hard all the time," Pineda says. "It's my routine that matters most."
Is it possible to be a self-made phenom? If so, Pineda owns that title.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer
About Jerry Brewer
Jerry Brewer offers a unique perspective on the world of sports.
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