VIERA, Fla. -- Michael Pineda was asked about the velocity of his fastball after Thursday's start against the Nationals, and he shrugged. "I don't know," he said after allowing two runs on four hits with a walk and four strikeouts in 3 2/3 innings. "I'm not focused on my fastball, I'm focused on my game." But when they asked about the changeup, Pineda's eyes grew wide, and so did his smile.
"Oh, awesome," he said. "My changeup today, it's great." The changeup, you see, is Pineda's spring project -- the pitch that, if mastered, could make him one of the game's elite arms, because it would give him a legit third weapon to offset his blazing fastball and wipeout slider. If, however, the fastball is not blazing, the changeup loses a lot of its luster. And so, too, frankly, does Pineda, because the Yankees didn't trade one of the game's more prominent power-hitting prospects in Jesus Montero for a right-handed guy sitting at 91 mph. Right now, Pineda's fastball just isn't there. Nobody is claiming it's gone for good, and, for that matter, nobody is saying for certain that it won't reveal itself by the time the Yanks break camp. But three starts into his Grapefruit League season, with his pitch count up to 60 at Space Coast Stadium on Thursday and the real evaluations under way, Pineda's fastball isn't quite right. And on some level, this has to be a concern for the Yanks. Not that they're articulating as much just yet. "I haven't had a full Spring Training with this kid," manager Joe Girardi said. "He might come out of his fourth start throwing 94, 95. You've got to let him develop his arm strength. I don't think it's fair not to. He's thrown nine innings. To me, nine innings is too soon to tell." Fair enough. But Pineda's velocity last year at this time was up to speed (pun intended), and he went on to an impressive first half of his rookie year with the Mariners. There were, however, reports that his velocity dipped near season's end, which is why the gun readings are being so closely monitored here in the exhibition season.
As was the case in his second outing, Pineda sat around 90 or 91 mph Thursday, according to a National League scout. That's a tick or two above Pineda's first start with the Yanks on March 5, but a far cry from the 94.2 he averaged, according to FanGraphs.com data, in 2011. Pineda's average velocity last year ranked fifth in the game, following only Alexi Ogando (95.0), Justin Verlander (95.0), Edwin Jackson (94.7) and David Price (94.7), and just ahead of new teammate CC Sabathia (93.9). Pure velocity alone does not a premier pitcher make, which is why Pineda's slider and changeup are so vital. But again, without the "V-lo," as scouts like to call it, the changeup is compromised. "The changeup, the way it is now, is going to be very, very good," said Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild, "if the power is there." Right now, though, the power is not there. And it's becoming a growing spring storyline in Yankees camp, to the point where speculation about Pineda possibly needing to begin the season in the Minors (unfounded or not) has already sprouted. The questions, the chatter, the tweets ... they're all going to keep coming until Pineda finds his fastball. He's in the worst possible media market to be going through something like this. Just ask Phil Hughes, whose velocity vanished in 2011, raising many eyebrows and giving him many sleepless nights. "It's going to be talked about a lot," Girardi allowed. "With what we went through with Hughesy, I think everybody's going to be talking about velocity more than in the past." Back when he was a much more anonymous Mariners prospect, Pineda could find his fastball form with far less scrutiny. Pineda's current velocity averages are actually consistent with his norm from early in his Minor League career, when he was a lanky beanpole, not a full-bodied fireballer. As his frame filled out and he made the rise from Double-A to Triple-A, his velocity increased into the mid-90s during the 2010 season, and he maintained excellent sink on and good command of the pitch. While the sink and command alone can help make Pineda an effective Major Leaguer, it's the velocity that gives him the potential to be truly great, especially if he can master that distinct separation of speeds. "His focus," catcher Russell Martin said, "is really on solidifying that third pitch in his repertoire. It makes your other pitches that much better. [With a good changeup] you don't have to be as perfect with your fastball, and it gives you a lot more room for error." The Yanks don't have a tremendous amount of room for error with Pineda, considering what they gave up and what he means to their rotation outlook for 2012. Sabathia and a patchwork cast combined to give the Yanks one of the American League's more resolute rotations in 2011, but the club was not content to go into another season with so many question marks in the spots following their ace lefty. In an ideal world, Pineda and free-agent signee Hiroki Kuroda are supposed to help answer those questions. There was much celebrating in Yankees Nation on the day they were acquired, and it was Pineda, in particular, who served to satisfy the senses. A Sabathia-Pineda pairing at the top of the rotation would be a dynamic one-two power punch coming at the opposition from each side. But expectations for Pineda -- even with full fastball "V-lo" -- must be tempered, given that he's just 23 and still getting a feel for his stuff and his craft. "I tell these guys, 'Don't believe what you read,'" Girardi said. "'Just go out and do your business. You've got to go out and perform.' That's the bottom line. My expectations are simple: Be the best you can be. Whatever that is, that's what it is." Right now, Pineda's best is a 91 mph fastball average, with a slider that's consistently and persistently nasty, and a changeup that is improving. He was extremely pleased with the progress of the changeup, which he threw around 10-12 times against the Nats. "Last year, I didn't throw a lot of changeups," Pineda said. "This year, I'm focused on my changeup." But Pineda can't control what others focus on. And there's no question that each time he takes the mound from here on in camp, the focus will be on the fastball.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.