CLEARWATER, Fla. -- It seems absurd to place so much importance on a single Spring Training pitch, but there was good reason for the Yankees to applaud when Shane Victorino waved at a second-inning offering in the dirt on Monday.
That deceptive changeup came out of Michael Pineda's hand, and the pitch is what the Yankees believe will be a deciding factor if the 23-year-old enjoys immediate success in the Bronx or prompts second-guessing about January's blockbuster trade with the Mariners.
"Not everybody can have a feel for that pitch, and he seemed to have a decent feel for it," catcher Russell Martin said during the Yankees' 9-3 Grapefruit League loss to the Phillies. "It doesn't look that difficult for him. I don't see why it couldn't be a good pitch for him."
Pineda's two-inning, scoreless debut in a Yankees uniform was largely a success, as the hurler showed off his improving changeup and also the tantalizing slider that pushed the Yankees to deal top catching prospect Jesus Montero to Seattle.
"I'm very excited today, because today is my first time pitching for the team," Pineda said. "So I'm very good."
About the only item that created a blip of concern from Pineda's 30 pitches (19 strikes) was the fastball velocity, recorded in the high 80's and low 90's. The Yankees believe that Pineda's arm needs a few more spring starts to build to the mid-90's level.
"It's not what it's going to be later in spring," pitching coach Larry Rothschild said. "It was a little bit below, which you expect. Guys that are power pitchers usually take a little bit longer."
Surrounded by about a dozen reporters at his locker in the visiting clubhouse at Bright House Field, Pineda seemed to marvel in wonder at the attention his start received, saying that he hadn't seen so many microphones and notepads since last July's All-Star Game.
"Someone told me in the season, it's a lot of media [in New York]," Pineda said.
Pineda also threw another changeup to record an out, getting Domonic Brown to line out softly to end the second inning, but that one wasn't quite as perfect. It had some "side action," Martin said, which Rothschild said stems from an inconsistent release point.
"I don't think he's doing that on purpose," Rothschild said. "It's not two different pitches. He does that on his fastball a little bit too, so it's not all that unusual. We want to maintain solid arm slot."
While Pineda's bread and butter will probably always be his fastball and slider -- he buzzed a fastball past Jim Thome, owner of 604 big league homers, for another strikeout -- the Yankees have been clear that they see developing the changeup as vital.
As general manager Brian Cashman said, "I don't think there's a number one or two starter in the big leagues right now with only two pitches. I just don't think you can pitch like that for an extended period of time."
Rothschild started working with Pineda on his changeup grip before pitchers and catchers reported to camp, settling on a modified version of a circle-change that Pineda now tucks deeper into his palm than he did with Seattle, spreading his fingers more. The Yankees have found Pineda receptive to the changes.
"You like that attitude," manager Joe Girardi said. "You want a guy who's willing to work at something and get better, as opposed to just saying, 'What I've got is good enough.' You can always improve as a player; that's the attitude that you want."
Martin said that in their pre-game meeting, Pineda told him that he wanted to work on the changeup. As such, Martin called the two innings against Philadelphia as though it was a regular season situation. It is crucial Pineda keeps his fastball down to help its effectiveness, but so far, the No. 3 pitch is inspiring confidence.
"I think he'll be fearless with it," Rothschild said. "I think he will use it provided he's comfortable with it and it's an effective pitch for him. That's the key to the whole thing."