Last time at the Stadium, they cheered Javy. The bullpen had completely melted down, turning what was once a 5-0 Yankee lead in the first into a 9-7 deficit in the ninth. The Red Sox threatened again, too, putting runners on first and third with two outs against Damaso Marte, who was in the midst of his longest 2010 appearance. With the righty Kevin Youkilis, who had homered earlier in the game, coming to the plate, Joe Girardi did not want to experiment by extending Marte further. He tapped his right arm while striding to the mound. The only right-hander warming in the pen was Javier Vazquez.
It took Vazquez just four pitches to strike out Youkilis, which kept the deficit at two and paved the way for a dramatic ninth-inning comeback. Vazquez heard cheers after Youkilis whiffed at strike three. It might have been the first time he heard sincere cheers all season. The first month of 2010, his return to the Bronx, had not gone according to plan. Vazquez, who had finished fourth in the NL Cy Young voting in 2009, stumbled at the start. He gave up a lot of home runs to Tampa Bay. He had a better, but not at all good outing against Anaheim, and followed that with a similar start against Oakland. Then, against the Angels again, he didn’t even complete four innings.
Vazquez got a chance to please the home crowd on May 1, in a start against the White Sox. The Yankees had come from behind to beat the Sox the previous night, but they looked a bit flat at the start of that Saturday’s game. Vazquez didn’t help matters. He gave up runs in each of the first four innings, and was removed before recording an out in the fourth. Unsurprisingly, the fans in attendance booed him mercilessly. They applauded Girardi for rejiggering the rotation so that Vazquez would miss the Red Sox — twice. They came up with ridiculous and asinine proposals that would ship Vazquez out of town. More than a few just wanted him released.
Javy, of course, would have none of that. He responded to the extra rest by pitching his best game of the year, a seven-inning, two-run performance against the Tigers that resulted in a loss only because the Yankees scored no runs. He then thoroughly dominated the Mets, allowing just one hit through six innings. If not for a bunt that nicked his finger, he might have pitched a complete game. But his next time out, against Minnesota, he again faltered. That might have been a result of the finger — he displayed no command of any pitch other than his four seamer, which indicated a poor grip of the ball. Then again, it might have been just another bad start.
Last night, against the AL’s worst offense, Javy rose again. He breezed through the first few frames. The Orioles looked like they didn’t have a chance. Even when they did manage a hit, Javy induced a groundball to erase the runner. He made just one bad pitch, a 1-2 fastball that ran far too high in the zone. He did seem to tire by that point; after throwing 61 pitches in the first five innings, he needed 42 to get through the final two. He also worked out of a jam in the seventh, preserving the 1-1 tie and paving the way for the go-ahead runs in the bottom of the frame.
There were plenty of differences between Javy’s start on May 1, the one in which fans booed him off the field, and the one last night. Yet, there also weren’t so many. Command was obviously the No. 1 difference. Earlier in the season Vazquez could not spot pitches like he had in the past. He’s a four-pitch guy who doesn’t possess overpowering stuff, so command plays prominently in his approach. If he can’t spot the fastball, he’ll have trouble fooling pitchers with off-speed and breaking pitches. Last night his command appeared to be there, much like it was against the Tigers and Mets, and which it certainly was not against the Twins.
During his start on May 1, he averaged 89.58 mph and had a max velocity of 92.7 mph. Yesterday his velocity averaged 89.16 and maxed out at 91.3. The difference there, however, seemed to be in the break. He got a bit more on the horizontal plane, and a bit more on the vertical one. Both serve to help deceive batters. His curveball dipped a bit more, his slider broke much more sharply away from right-handers, his curveball displayed more vertical break, and his two-seamer ran in more on righties. The velocities were similar, but it was about the command and the movement. He used both to stymie the Orioles hitters.
He also varied his pitch selection much more. Against the White Sox he threw 36 four-seamers, 21 curveballs, 10 changeups, nine two-seamers, and seven sliders. Last night he employed a relatively even distribution of pitches. He went with the four-seamer 36 times again, but supplemented this with 18 changeups, 17 curveballs, 16 two-seamers, and 12 sliders. He threw more pitches, yes, which led to the higher totals, but he didn’t favor one secondary pitch. He laid off the slider a bit, but he used the other three equally.
Strangely, he generated more swings and misses against the White Sox. That included three on the four-seamer, two on the changeup, one on the slider, and three on the curveball. Still, the Sox pounded him. Agains the Orioles he induced four swings and misses on the four-seamer, two on the changeup, and one each on the slider and curveball. The difference, of course, is that between those swings and misses he still induced poor contact last night, where he let the Sox hitters get the barrel of the bat on the ball previously. Again, movement and command play the biggest part in that trend.
The Orioles do feature the worst group of hitters in the AL, which might lead some to continue doubting Javy. Yet, despite the ineptitude of the opposing hitters, Vazquez did pitch noticeably better. His pitches hit the catcher’s glove. He wasn’t afraid to use any of his pitches. He showed more movement on each of his pitches*. This might not be the Javy we see every time. But if he can throw like this, he’ll have good outings against even the better offenses.
*I deliberately chose to compare starts at Yankee Stadium, in order to avoid any possible PitchFX calibration issues. Also, thanks to Brooks Baseball for the excellent PitchFX tool.