Pineda earns stripes in All-Star rookie campaign
Mariners' big 22-year-old hurler thrives while learning ropes
SEATTLE -- Until he was named to the American League All-Star team on Sunday, Michael Pineda's favorite moment this season was a pretty simple one.
There have been plenty of highlights for the towering 6-foot-7, 260-pound Dominican native. Rookie of the Month in the American League in April. A two-hit, nine-strikeout performance over seven shutout innings against the Padres. Holding the Phillies hitless for 5 2/3 innings en route to a 4-2 win. Facing his favorite childhood team, the New York Yankees.
But the one moment that most stood out for the 22-year-old, who grew up amid sugar cane fields in Yaguate in the Dominican Republic?
But getting named to the All-Star team in his first season in the Majors?
"Oh, wow," Pineda said last week, eyes widening a few days before the selections were announced. "I don't know. I might just die. Maybe Pineda dies. I don't know ..."
The likeable Pineda is learning both English and the Major Leagues this season, crash courses in both under way on a daily basis since he forced his way into the Mariners' rotation with a strong Spring Training.
With a fastball consistently in the mid-90s and a developing slider and changeup to play off that heat, Pineda clearly has the tools to be a top-end starter. He also has surprising command -- just 36 walks to go with 113 strikeouts in 113 innings -- for such a long-limbed youngster who originally signed with the Mariners as a slender third-base prospect at 16.
His father, Francisco Pineda, is a welder in Yaguate who played third base as a youngster. Michael believed he would follow the same path, but admits now that, like his dad, he was pretty slow for a third baseman.
Once the Mariners talked him into pitching, he grabbed hold and discovered a niche that fits. Built more like an NFL tight end than a big league pitcher, he brings considerable presence to his craft.
Asked this spring what the view looked like with Pineda looming on the mound, then-Mariners teammate Josh Wilson noted wryly, "Well, you can't see much behind him."
Pineda played a little basketball as a kid, but never touched a football and was quickly talked into making baseball his primary pursuit.
"There's not a lot of Dominican guys in the NBA," he noted.
His rookie season has been a remarkably smooth road, considering he'd made just 12 starts at Triple-A last year after a mid-June promotion and threw just 47 innings in 2009 due to a strained elbow.
He's gone six innings or more in 15 of his 18 starts, has never lasted less than five frames, and has 13 quality starts while ranking among the AL leaders with opponents hitting just .198 against him.
He leads all AL rookies in wins, innings, strikeouts and opponent's average. Mariners pitching coach Carl Willis credits consistency and command with being his greatest attributes. Well, that and a fastball that tops out in the 98-mph range -- when needed, of course.
"You just never know what you're going to get when it's anybody's first time, regardless of age," Willis said. "But he set the tone early in the season being very aggressive with strike one. I thought that was huge.
"And as the season has progressed, we've seen that he's gotten less caught up in who he's facing as opposed to who he is and what he does. You go back to Spring Training and he had a game against the Brewers' Prince Fielder and he had two walks that day, he threw eight straight balls to Fielder and didn't walk anybody else. I don't know if he had a three-ball count on anybody else. But he knew Fielder and what he can do.
"I think now he's gotten more comfortable and acclimated with being in the big leagues and, 'Hey, I'm going to do what I do regardless of who the hitter is. I've got the report and know how I want to attack you.'"
He's attacking with an increasing arsenal as well, no longer just a hard-throwing kid who overpowers batters.
"He's a large human being who throws very hard," said teammate Brendan Ryan, the Mariners' starting shortstop. "And when he finds his slider -- sometimes it takes a couple innings -- but when he finds his slider, it's almost 'good night.' His stuff is so good. For a 22-year-old, he's pretty special."
"We knew about the fastball and ability he had with that," said Willis. "But he'd really worked hard the second half of last season to improve his slider. He's done much more with the secondary stuff than I anticipated this early."
Yet just underneath the physical prowess and calm demeanor, there remains a young man going through all this for the first time. He got his first U.S. driver's license in late April, but still bums rides to the park many days with Mariners bullpen coach Jaime Navarro, the man who coached him in Class A ball at both Wisconsin and High Desert and again last year in Tacoma as the two rose through the Mariners ranks nearly simultaneously.
The presence of Navarro and welcoming friendship of veteran ace Felix Hernandez have smoothed Pineda's transition.
How much has Navarro meant to him?
"A lot," Pineda said, eyes widening again. "He's not like a big brother. He's like my big father. He has helped me all the time. I love him like my father, you know? Felix is like the big brother."
Navarro doesn't have to drive his young roommate to the park all the time anymore, however. On May 27, when Pineda faced the Yankees for the first time, a couple things happened. For one, Pineda looked shaky for the first time as he fought back nerves while pitching against the team he grew up idolizing on TV.
But that wasn't his only memorable moment.
"That was a big day for me. A great day," he said. "I not only realized my goal of pitching against the Yankees, but I bought my first car. That was a big day, you know?"
So now the youngster owns a shiny new GMC Denali as well as an overpowering fastball and nasty slider. Not to mention a resume that reads "American League All-Star" across the top.
Not bad for 22. Not bad at all.