Gaining a reliever, losing a change-up

Dunn promoted, McAllister disabled
Quick Hits: Halladay, Steinbrenner, Notre Dame, Francoeur

Stop me when this sounds familiar.

The Yankees move a heralded pitching prospect into the bullpen, and his success is a revelation. Sporting top-flight fastballs and some good breaking pitches, this starter-turned-reliever dominates, and fans wonder why this pitcher should ever be put back into his starting role. He can lock down the 8th inning. Let’s keep him there.

As this pitcher builds appearances, his numbers get better. Through 13 games, he sports a 0.98 ERA and has a 19:5 K:BB ratio through 18.1 innings pitched. The Bridge to Mariano has been built, and it grows stronger every day.

I am, of course, talking about Phil Hughes. He’s become the latest baseball wunderkind out of the bullpen, the next in a long line of good pitchers who — surprise, surprise — can be great relievers. No shocker there. While reading this piece from Marc Carig this morning, though, I realized again the price the Yankees are paying by keeping Hughes in the pen.

In the article, Brian Cashman reiterates the Yanks’ plans going forward to put Hughes back into the starting rotation. At some point in the future, Hughes will be a pinstriped starter. It may be later this year; it may be in 2010 when Andy Pettitte is probably elsewhere. What it won’t feature though is Hughes with a refined change-up, the pitch he really needs to master to become a top Major League starter.

Carig explains more:

When he is again a starter, Hughes will need to keep refining what is still a raw changeup, one he will eventually need to throw well enough to navigate lineups stacked with left-handed hitters. But despite this need, it’s a pitch Hughes has eradicated from his repertoire as a reliever, meaning he is losing valuable time toward its development.

It is an example of long-term sacrifice to fill an immediate need, a trade the Yankees are willing to make to fix a bullpen that had been ailing…But in the meantime, Hughes admits efforts to improve his changeup are “on the back burner.”

“He’s going to find a way to develop that changeup,” said Mark Newman, the Yankees’ vice president of baseball operations. “But I’ll tell you what he’s getting: major-league game experience in tough situations, under duress, against the best competition on the planet. As he does this, he gains confidence, and that is huge.”

Everyone in the Carig article says the right thing. The Yanks’ coaches and player personnel recognize that Hughes’ change-up is both a necessity and a work in progress. Hughes knows that he can be a major contributor now at the Big League level and will continue to develop a feel for this important pitch.

Yet, I can’t help but think that the Yankees are sacrificing something by moving Hughes to the pen. I’m fully in favor of getting Hughes Major League experience against good hitters in key spots. AAA hitters no longer offer much of a challenge to the young righty. At the same time, though, Hughes and the Yanks can’t sacrifice his future effectiveness for 40 or 50 bullpen innings this year.

According to the pitch f/x breakdown, Hughes has thrown a career-low 1.2 percent of his pitches as change-ups this year. He last threw one in a game situation on June 10 when he threw 3.2 innings in relief of Chien-Ming Wang. Now that it’s been over a month since he last threw a change, I can only hope he doesn’t lose the progress he made on that pitch.

Dunn promoted, McAllister disabled
Quick Hits: Halladay, Steinbrenner, Notre Dame, Francoeur
  • gxpanos

    FB, cutter, curve, change is an exciting repertoire.

    The ’09 Bridge to Mowhere sucks balls.

  • Bo

    What are they sacrificing? Isn’t better for him to get major league hitters out and work on his other pitches in the pen rather than be in AAA where he has nothing left to prove?

    The big league team winning takes precedence over developing young pitchers. And there have been plenty of starters who developed coming out of the pen.

    Would it be better for the big league team to have a huge hole in the pen and Hughes learning a change up in Scranton? Dont think so

    • Mike Axisa

      Given the injury to Wang, I don’t see why he can’t start in the bigs.

      • Chris P.

        I totally agree Mike. I understand he probably can’t start right away, but if it were up to me I’d send Hughes down to stretch him out and live with Mitre in the meantime.

        • Mike bk

          if they every planned to do that it should have been done 2 weeks ago.

      • Chris

        I assume that they don’t want him starting for a month and then going back to the pen when Wang comes back. If Wang’s injury were season ending, then Hughes would take his spot in the rotation.

        • Stryker

          so why, then, would it be bad thing if/when CMW comes back, he goes to the bullpen instead of hughes? i don’t see why he ever had to be bumped from the rotation in the first place. the yankees could have EASILY done the same thing with wang that they’re doing with hughes now.

        • Mattingly’s Love Child

          The thing is, Joba is gonna hit his innings limit before the end of the season. So if Hughes gets stretched out to replace Wang, and Wang returns in mid-late August, then Wang just replaces Joba.

          • Chris

            Joba may not hit his innings limit before the end of the season. He’s on pace for 164 innings this year. I don’t know that that’s beyond what the team plans for him this year. Even if it is, they could simply skip his spot 1-2 times in September to keep his innings under control, rather than pulling him from the rotation.

            • Mattingly’s Love Child

              I was under the impression the limit was 150, but basically Joba would have to keep up his ineffectiveness in order to reach that limit at the end of the year. I would hope that he is more effective and goes deeper into ballgames in the 2nd half….of course that hope is probably misguided.

              • Mike bk

                even when he is “effective” he is only going 5-5 1/3 a start on average so that means 30 starts which means what he misses the last 3 weeks, big deal.

    • Ed

      What are they sacrificing? Isn’t better for him to get major league hitters out and work on his other pitches in the pen rather than be in AAA where he has nothing left to prove?

      What makes you think he has nothing left to prove in AAA ? He’s pitched about 77 innings in AAA, not a big total. He made it through the minors using his fastball and curve almost exclusively, which means we don’t even know if he can get minor league hitters out with his change.

      Remember Ian Kennedy? AAA hitters couldn’t touch his fastball and he was destroying the league. He got his callup, then was promptly demoted and told to work on his change. He was getting lit up for a while when he actually tried using his other pitches. There can be a lot left to learn in the minors that isn’t obvious from a stat line.

      The big league team winning takes precedence over developing young pitchers.

      Yes, but sometimes developing pitchers is the best way to help the team win.

      And there have been plenty of starters who developed coming out of the pen.

      Correct, but you do that with multi-inning stints. Not by having the guy throw max effort fastballs for one inning at a time.

      Would it be better for the big league team to have a huge hole in the pen and Hughes learning a change up in Scranton?

      It wouldn’t be a huge hole in the pen. Hughes is throwing about 3 innings a week. That’s not much. But there is a huge hole in the rotation. If Hughes had been working on his change in the minors instead of sitting in the pen, he’d be in the perfect spot to fill that hole. That would expose the bullpen less, and would do far more to solve any bullpen issues than contributing 2-3 innings a week from the pen would.

  • JRVJ

    I think there’s a number of different ideas in this article which aren’t necessarily related.

    The problem doesn’t seem to be that Hughes is in relief per se, but that while in relief, he’s not throwing his change-up.

    I would think that this is something the Yankees could try to remedy, by having Hughes throw a change-up here and there when he comes in with a large enough lead and no baserunners.

    OTOH, going back to June 14th, Hughes has not thrown more than 27 pitches in a game (in order, he’s thrown 21, 24, 11, 27, 16, 9, 15, 8, 13, 19 and 26). That probably means at most that Hughes will throw one change-up per appearance, MAYBE two in games where he’s throwing around 20 pitches.

    Doable, for sure.

    • Mattingly’s Love Child

      The Yankees could try to remedy the not throwing the changeup thing by having him pitch more than 1 inning at a time. Have him be a 2-3 inning guy. Sure that means he can’t pitch every day, but it can accomplish several things:

      1. He gets way more innings than he’s on pace to get. Still not as good as starting innings, which is what I’d prefer. But if the Yankees are committed to leaving him in the pen for the remainder of 09, this gets him more innings, thus a better base for next year.

      2. Gives the remainder of the pen rest. On days that Joba and Andy can’t go more than 5-6, this could help prevent the bullpen from being overexposed.

      3. Gives Phil a chance to see lineups 2x, thus necessitating some development of the changeup and how to attack hitters in a more advanced way. Again, it isn’t perfect, but better than what he has now.

  • Mike Axisa

    He’s got the arm slot for a split, it would be nice to see him give that a shot.

    • dan

      Aren’t splitters supposedly really hard on the elbow?

      • jsbrendog

        randy johnson has 300 wins with a splitter..i dont think he had any elbow issues did he? clemens threw a splitter…pitching in general is hard on the elbow and if he has the arm angle then its probably not as bad as itd be otherwise i would venture to guess

      • Ed

        Depends on how exactly you throw it. You’re jamming the baseball between your index and middle fingers. The further back you get it, the nastier the break.

        The problem is if you jam the ball too far back, it stretches the connections between your fingers and your elbow and eventually leads to elbow problems. The bigger your hands are, the less of an issue you’ll have. And some people don’t have to push the ball as far back as others to get the same break. So that’s why some people have issues with it.

      • Marcus

        Is this why you rarely hear of young pitchers having a splitter in their repertoire? Did RJ and Clemens add theirs later in their career?

  • Tony

    We’re already replaying Joba’s 07 with Hughes this year. What happens when he replay Joba’s 09 with Hughes next year? You know:

    This guy (who was never made to start for a full season) seems to have a stamina issue and trouble maintaining his mechanics. Trade him!

    This guy can only throw two pitches. Trade him!

    Why is this guy’s velocity down any time he stretches him arm out for the first time in his life?

    • Benjamin Kabak

      Why is this guy’s velocity down any time he stretches him arm out for the first time in his life?

      Prior to Aug. 2007, Joba was a starter. After May 2008, Joba was a starter. So there were approximately 9 months of his life during which Joba was not a starter. 2009 does not mark not the first time in his life that he has been stretched out as a starter.

      • Tony

        Joba has never thrown more than 120 innings in a season. He just threw 90 in 3 months.

      • Chris P.

        Plus it’s pretty normal to ease guys into the majors by temporarily putting them in the bullpen. I’d guess if there was a significant risk of Injury or ineffectiveness teams wouldn’t do it so much.

  • YankeeScribe

    As the article stated, AJ Burnett and Roy Halladay don’t have a changeup so Hughes certainly can succeed with a combination of fastballs, curveballs, and a cutter. It’s not a necessity that he refines his changeup…

    • Mattingly’s Love Child

      I’m not certain on this, but I believe both of their fastballs have a hell of a lot more movement that Hughes’. His is notoriously straight. I don’t disagree that he could get by without the changeup, but I think that is a major difference in the type of movement hitters see.

    • I Remember Celerino Sanchez

      A.J. could really use a cutter.

      In watching him for half a season, I think one of the reasons he’s never been a consistent, ace-type starter is that he really only has two pitches. If he can’t command one (or, on bad days, either) there is nowhere else for him to go. Most dominant starters have more than two pitches.

      I think for a guy like Hughes, developing the changeup is really important if he’s going to be a front-of-the-rotation starter.

      • I Remember Celerino Sanchez

        I meant, A.J. could use a changeup.

        Me = English laguage fail

        • Giuseppe Franco

          Burnett already has a change up. He just doesn’t throw it very much.

          Sabathia and Eiland tell him all the time that he needs to throw it more often.

    • Chris

      According to Fangraphs, both AJ and Halladay do have changeups that are thrown rarely (5% or less of pitches). That’s basically the frequency that Hughes was throwing it as a starter.

    • Mike Axisa

      Roy Halladay most certainly has a changeup. I saw him demonstrate the grip before a ST game on ESPN this year.

      • Simon B.

        I’m sure most guys know how to grip a changeup. He doesn’t really throw it to any appreciable degree though.

        • Chris

          When it’s your 4th pitch, you don’t need to throw it more than Halladay does.

  • Simon B.

    I was okay with Hughes going to the bullpen as long as he got regular work and was a 2-3 IP type guy. They haven’t done either with him, and this is looking like a massive mistake to me, especially since it sounds like they have no intention of taking him out of this “intermittent 1 ip” role for the rest of the year, so he’s going to fall well short of his workload development AGAIN.

    Ugh, I just don’t have much confidence in the Yankee organization anymore. They just make so many mistakes. They’d be in the cellar if not for financial muscle.

    • JobaWockeeZ

      Yeah they’ve been using him for one inning instead of the 2-3 innings we would have liked. Don’t know why though. Last 7 times we’ve seen him are all < 2 innings.

  • steve s

    Who among us feel confident that the Yanks will handle Hughes any better than they have Joba? Who is calling the shots on this? What does Dave Eiland really bring to the table? Shouldn’t the Yanks be considering a wake-up type pitching coach move (Rick Peterson anybody)? I guess that’s enough questions for one post.

    • Chris

      What’s wrong with how they’ve handled Joba? They put him in the pen in 2007 and 2008 to limit his innings, and now he’s a starter. Seems fine to me.

      • tampayankee

        I guess 4 innings and done is the sign of a great 3rd year MLB pitcher. Also not being able to crack 91mph when you are a power pitcher is fine also? The Yankees babied this giant baby and they are getting the fruits of their labors. Dave Eiland is the WORST pitching coach in baseball. How do you take young talent and make it look so bad? Tim Lincecum has the same MLB experience,the same age is as thin as a rail and yet pitches 200+ innings and does it well.
        I just do not understand how Pettite starts over Hughes?

        • Rick in Boston

          Can’t “crack” 91? You might not understand what that means. He has not once this year had an average FB below 90 MPH in any start. Yes, it’s down from last year, but it’s not as bad as you might think.

          What would you rather do? Throw him out there, pitch 7 innings no matter what and blow out his arm? Lincecum is also more than a year older than Joba and is defying most scouts who thought he would blow out his elbow/shoulder in college. Lincecum is a freak of nature who might not be that good for an extended period of time – short, skinny guys who throw that hard aren’t front-line guys for many years.

          • Rick in Boston

            Oh, and Lincecum’s FB? Not much fast on average than Joba’s.

      • steve s

        Joba has gone from scary dominant to barely effective/mostly ineffective with lousy command. He went from being a true untouchable to having reduced market value. Handling doesn’t seem fine to me under any crtieria you’d might like to apply.

  • Ivan

    Right now it just seem smarter to just put Hughes in the rotation.

    I mean putting him in the rotation now, helps his development in the future especially with his change up.

    • JobaWockeeZ

      And the Yankees could always make a trade for a reliever should Hughes go back into the rotation without giving up much rather than go for the big name starters, Lee or Halladay I’ve been hearing about.

  • Tom Gaffney

    “Now that it’s been over a month since he last threw a change, I can only hope he doesn’t lose the progress he made on that pitch.”

    I respectfully disagree, here. What progress? His change sucks – it’s always sucked. Every year, someone from the organization claims his change is improved but each year, when we actually see it, it still sucks. It’s never improved from day one. This is going on year 4 of working on the change – it’s probably never going to happen.

    His curve went from zero to plus pitch in about a month. He learned the cutter in a 3 week rehab assignment last year. He picks up pitches ridiculously quickly – the changeup is simply not a good pitch for Hughes. He has three good pitches now and his cutter acts as a decent counter for his 4-seamer. Let him get consistency with his cutter, then teach him something else – maybe a circle-change or a split. The straight change just isn’t his pitch. He hasn’t shown an ounce of improvement in the pitch in 4 years

  • Frank Fernandez

    You’d think this “development” argument would go away every time we put a promising young pitcher in the bullpen to fill a glaring need, but here it is again. Which pitch has Joba improved since he has been a starter? Put another way, have any of his pitches improved more than his fastball has deteriorated?

  • Simon B.

    His changeup actually got a LOT worse this year. Eiland changed the grip to be more splitter-like in Spring Training and it lost a lot of speed differential and Hughes couldn’t command it in the least.

    In the past, he had trouble throwing it for strikes, but this year, he could barely even get it in the air as it often bounced.

    Just another reason to be skeptical about Eiland.

    • Mike Axisa

      Actually his changeup has been better this year than last. FanGraphs has it valued it -3.82 run last year, but -1.92 this year. But yeah, it’s still bad.

      • Simon B.

        Those pitch values are pretty experimental even in large samples, and we’re talking about minuscule samples when it comes to Phil’s changeup. He’s never had a lot of confidence throwing it in the majors, and he pretty quickly gave up on this new one this year. We’re talking about less than a dozen changeups this whole season.

        I’m commenting on it from what I’ve seen, and from what I’ve seen between Spring Training and the regular season, it was even worse. 5 fewer mph on his speed differential, and he either pulled it down into the dirt, or he flew it up high.

    • I Remember Celerino Sanchez

      I’m not challenging you, but I’m curious. What is your source for this story? I haven’t heard anything about it.

    • Klemy

      I don’t really have any faith in Eiland either, but I’ve always just had that feel…with nothing to back up my dislike.I’ve never known if it was warranted or not and certainly had nothing to prove any points to make an argument. So, I always keep my comments to myself. lol

  • Bruno

    Stop me when this sounds familiar.

    The Yankees move a heralded pitching prospect into the bullpen,


  • Observer283

    How much is Hughes throwing his cutter out of the bullpen? Is he throwing it anywhere near as much as he threw it as a starter earlier in the season?

    If he is still utilizing his cutter, could it be that this will be the third pitch to compliment the fastball and the curve?

    Also, I think I saw somewhere on this site that it is difficult to have both a good cutter and a good change. (Mo and Pettite being examples of this).

    But if he is not utilizing/developing his cutter out of the bullpen, then I believe the Yankees are hurting his progression.

  • BklynJT

    Eiland said himself that coming into this season, Hughes’ change-up was below average. That certainly doesn’t give me much confidence that he will develop that into an effective pitch. Hughes said himself that he doesn’t want to get beat using his 4th best pitch, so I don’t think he nor the catcher would call that pitch much in game situations. And given that the change-up is a feel pitch, I don’t really see Hughes ever developing that pitch into a usable 4th pitch. What’s another effective pitch that a righty can use to counter left handed hitters.

  • Mike HC

    For me, a lot of this is nonsense. The players have to produce. If Hughes can’t recover from pitching half a year in the bullpen, then he would not have made it anyway. If Joba was irreparably damaged because of his stint in the bullpen, he also would not have made it anyway. There are always going to be obstacles to overcome and no matter what is thrown a players way within reason, they have to figure it out themselves in the end. Putting a young pitcher in the bullpen to start his career should not have a negative impact on his development.

    • Tank Foster

      I agree. Sometimes I think people make this out to be more complicated than it is. Athletics is about continuous adjustments and improvements. You pitch in the bullpen and use mostly 2 pitches. Fine. You do what you do to get batters out and help the team. Next year, or later this year, whenever they stretch him out, you go back to work on developing additional pitches, if needed.

      There’s a bunch of things I don’t get. First of all, who said a starter needed more than 2 pitches? If you have two pitches of different speeds and can spot them on either side of the plate, you can get just about any batter out. Clemens was fastball/split finger. Did Clemens throw many changeups or sliders? Isn’t Halladay mainly sinker/slider?

      Second, I admit all pitchers aren’t the same and maybe some need a third pitch. Still, how many times do you throw your third pitch? As for him “developing” his changeup, I think this stuff is overblown. Chances are he knows how to throw it perfectly adequately. He just has to get better at controlling it. How many times do you see an experienced pitcher go out there and utterly fail with one of his pitches, and still get through the game and pitch well.

      Hughes is a good pitcher. I don’t know how good, but he’ll be fine. The idea that he’s being ruined or delayed or whatever by pitching relief this year seems really silly to me.

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