Four years ago, having earned one million dollars in his baseball career, Marco Pineda walked away from the game. If he made good investments and budgeted his money wisely, he likely could have stayed retired for the rest of his life. And, for two years at least, he did.
Baseball moved on without him. In his two years in the TNBL, Pineda put up a total of zero WAR, making him just another guy. At 35 years of age, Pineda's career seemed like it was over, whether he wanted it to be or not. Sure, he could have signed a minor league deal with a team, but minor leaguers in the TNBL don't even get paid. He'd have been better off working in fast food, or just staying retired.
On December 14th, 2032, more than two years since he threw his last pitch, Marco Pineda received a call from his agent. The Los Angeles Earthquakes of the TNBL wanted him to play for them, and they were willing to give him a one year, $1.2 million deal. Why anyone would want a seemingly washed-up, below average reliever, let alone pay him over a million dollars, nobody can really say. Pineda himself doesn't even fully understand it, saying simply, "it was a surprise for sure."
In the 2033 season – his first in over two years – Marco Pineda surpassed everyone's expectations, putting up 0.6 WAR in 46 innings of relief. He cut his walk rate in half from his previous season (in 2030) and lowered his HR rate by a third as well. Pineda was, by any measurement, a good relief pitcher, and provided the Earthquakes enough surplus value to make his $1.2 million contract seem surprisingly low.
This all seems like a story that has been told before – a flame shining a bit brighter just before being snuffed out from its brief existence. But Marco Pineda isn't done shining. In fact, he's shining brighter than almost anyone else. After the Earthquakes moved him into the starting rotation this preseason, Marco Pineda has responded with perhaps the most amazing season of all time. Pineda currently sits at 1.8 WAR, good for 20th in the league among all pitchers, and is on pace for 4.7 WAR this year. Before the season started, if someone told general managers around the league that Marco Pineda would be a legitimate ace halfway through the season, they wouldn't have even laughed. First, they would've looked up who the hell Marco Pineda was. Then they would've laughed.
So, how exactly is Pineda doing it? A flyball pitcher by trade, Pineda lets opposing batters put the ball in the air, hoping it'll land in an outfielder's glove and not the outfield grass, or worse, the stands. Flyball pitchers typically allow more home runs than the average pitcher, sacrificing more long balls for a lower batting average against. But Pineda isn't allowing home runs. His HR/9 is 0.2, lowest among pitchers with 80 or more innings. Expand that to pitchers with 70 or more innings, and only Corey Cooper matches up with Pineda's low rate. With a fastball sitting in the low-to-mid 90's with little movement, pitching up in the zone – especially in this home run-inflated era – should be spelling disaster for Pineda. And yet he's thriving. So seriously – how is Marco Pineda suddenly one of the best pitchers in the game?
Pineda either doesn't know or doesn't want to tell. "I've just been doing what I've always done, throwing up in the zone and trusting the guys behind me to make a play," he said after his start against Atlanta on June 11, a 6.2 inning, one run performance that earned him his 6th win of the season and lowered his ERA on the season to 3.08. When asked if he thought he could keep up his performance for the rest of the season, he just smiled and said, "I certainly hope so." At this point, there seems to be no major reason to lose hope. Pineda's strikeout and walk rates aren't exactly elite, but his 3.44 FIP and .279 BABIP suggest that he's not just getting lucky (although his xFIP, which attempts to normalize home run rates against the league average HR/FB rate, is a less-than-stellar 5.09.) Exactly how he is performing so well is this season's greatest mystery, but one thing is for certain – Marco Pineda is pitching like someone else entirely.