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Michael Pineda: Emerging Fantasy Ace

Ray profiles Yankees starter Michael Pineda, and wonders if he has entered into the fantasy ace conversation in 2015.

Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into the 2015 season, Yankees starter Michael Pineda was probably best known for being traded from Seattle to New York for catching prospect Jesus Montero. Well, there was that other thing with the pine tar on his neck as well. Pineda has not made too many starts coming into the 2015 season, as he made just 13 starts since the 2011 season, his rookie season where he started 28 games for the Mariners going 9-10 with a 3.74 ERA, 3.42 FIP while striking out more than a batter per inning.

Prior to his Mother's Day start yesterday, Pineda was showing signs that he has matured as a pitcher, and I wrote about him in a recent Roto Roundup:

Coming into the season, many baseball writers felt that the Yankees would be a last place team in the AL East. I am not sure how they would come to that decision when making predictions, especially with the questions marks in the Red Sox and Blue Jays rotations. The Yankees have their own rotation questions, but thus far this season, their starters have exceeded expectations. One starter who has pitched well, but is meeting my expectations is Michael Pineda. Last night, he shut out a strong Blue Jays lineup, giving up just 5 hits, a walk and struck out 6 in 8 innings of work in the Yankees 6-3 win. The win moved Pineda's record to 4-0 with a 2.97 ERA, 1.04 WHIP and a tremendous 38-3 strikeout to walk rate in 39.1 innings. He has given up two runs or less in four of his six starts this season, is striking out just under nine batters per nine innings, walking less than a batter per nine innings, and inducing ground balls at a 54% clip. If he can stay healthy, he could be the Yankees ace this season.

On Sunday, Pineda was absolutely dominant, giving up just one run on 6 hits, no walks and 16 strikeouts in 7 innings in the Yankees win over the Orioles. You won't see too many 16 strikeout performances all season, and if you had to guess which pitcher would strike out 16 batters in a game this season, names like Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer and Felix Hernandez would come to mind before Pineda. The win moved his record to 5-0 with a 2.72 ERA, 1.93 FIP, 2.18 xFIP, a 1.01 WHIP and a phenomenal 54-3 strikeout to walk rate in his 46.1 innings pitched over 7 starts. He is striking out more than 10 batters per nine innings, has walked just three batters all season, and has induced ground balls at a 53.2% clip thus far in 2015. His strikeout to walk rate this season is Cliff-Lee-like. Actually, it is better than Cliff Lee used to put up.

His performance this season is nothing short of surprising, especially for a pitcher who missed all of the 2012 season, and threw just 40 innings of minor league ball in 2013. He pitched well when healthy last season, winning 5 of his 13 starts with a 1.89 ERA, 2.71 FIP, but struck out under seven batters per nine innings. The jump in strikeout rate is a blessing for those who drafted him late in drafts this season. The jump in strikeout rate can be attributed to his increased use of his change up and fastball, as there is no jump in velocity or increased use of any other pitch besides the change up and fast ball, according to his PitchFx data on FanGraphs.

Pineda currently sits atop the FanGraphs fWAR leader board with a 1.9 fWAR through seven starts thus far. He is definitely not a name I would have expected to be the leader at any point in the season. Among qualified starters, he currently ranks 7th in K/9, second in walks per nine, 20th in ground ball rate, 27th in ERA and first in FIP.

Every year, baseball provides fantasy owners with new ace starting pitchers, and this season, Pineda may be the newest starter to enter the ace conversation. If he can maintain his excellent peripheral statistics, and stay healthy, something he hasn't been able to do since 2011, he could challenge Mariners ace Felix Hernandez for the American League Cy Young award. Yes, it is just seven starts, but Pineda is showing growth across the board, and one has to give credit to the Yankees and pitching coach Larry Rothschild for what he has done with Pineda. He has turned a pitcher coming off a shoulder injury into a near-ace starting pitcher, and that is not an easy task.

For more on Pineda and the Yankees, make sure you check out Pinstripe Alley, SB Nation's Yankees fan site.