It wouldn’t be hard to make a case that last night’s start was the biggest of Phil Hughes’ young career. The Yankees had lost four in a row and the whispers of a Metsian choke were getting louder heading into the season’s final week. Whether it was panic or not, Brian Cashman, Joe Girardi, and the rest of the coaching staff placed enough importance on the game to alter their pitching plans and give the ball to Hughes rather than Dustin Moseley in a nationally televised game that could potentially guarantee them no worse than a tie of the Wild Card. It was the first time since last November that a Yankee game had that electricity, that playoff kind of atmosphere, and Hughes certainly delivered.
On the heels of a six inning, three hit, one run outing against the Red Sox on Sunday, the overall season performance is more than fine for a 24-year-old kid in the AL East. Hughes has made 29 starts (and one one-inning relief appearance) and pitched to near-perfectly aligned 4.21 ERA, 4.30 FIP, 4.38 xFIP, and 4.30 tRA. To paraphrase Denny Green, he is who we thought he is. The plan to monitor his workload has gone rather smoothly, and Phil has finished very strong: .191/.286/.338 in his last three starts, taking the ball into the seventh inning each time. It’s not a question of if the righty has earned a spot in the playoff rotation, but where exactly he slots in.
Obviously CC Sabathia will start Game One of the ALDS, regardless of opponent and location, and whatever the team does to line him up for that start is beyond the scope of this post. Everything after Sabathia is a bit up in the air, at least to us outsiders, and chances are it’ll depend at least a little bit on the matchups. If the Yankees win the division, they’ll start the ALDS at home against the Rangers, but if they settle for the Wild Card (a far more likely scenario) they’ll start the postseason against the Twins in Target Field.
As we already know, Hughes’ bugaboo this season has been the longball, especially at home. He’s allowed 20 of his 25 homers in the Bronx, and opponents had tagged him for a .325 wOBA at home compared to .280 on the road. That’s the difference between this year’s versions of Jason Kubel and Jason Kendall, for some perspective. Assuming the Yanks take the Wild Card and face the Twins (again, the far more likely scenario), the series opens in Target Field, a park that has suppressed homers to 60.9% of the league average in its first year of existence. In the frigid cold of October in Minnesota, chances are the long ball will be at even more of a premium.
Those homer suppressing tendencies play right into the Yankees’ hands with Hughes, and it helps neutralize his biggest weakness. With CC starting Game One, starting Hughes in Game Two against the Twins gives the Yanks the best potential rotation setup in the five game series. Not only does it help with his homer problem, but it also pushes Andy Pettitte back to Game Three in Yankee Stadium. That will help keep Minny’s lefthanded power somewhat in check, which is especially important with the short porch in right. That would also take Jim Thome (.477 wOBA vs. RHP, .335 vs. LHP) out of the equation for at least the first few innings of Game Three, something that can’t hurt in a homer friendly park. And just looking at the scenarios, if the Yanks are up 2-0, they have Andy going to close things out. If they series is tied at one, Andy’s there to help them take the lead. If they’re down 0-2, there’s Andy to stop the bleeding.
Of course there’s a significant drawback here. Given the ALDS schedule, Sabathia can start Game Four on three day’s rest, then whoever starts Game Two can start Game Five on five day’s rest. That puts Hughes, after a full season and the largest workload of his career, on the mound with the season on the line. Anyone with a brain between their ears would be more comfortable with giving the ball to Pettitte in that situation regardless of matchups, stadium, etc. However, I suppose if things go according to plan in Games Two and Three, that deciding fifth game won’t be necessary.
Those fourth and fifth games can’t be a concern right now, the goal is too put the team in the best position to win during the first three games, the only ones guaranteed to be played. Hughes has pitched well enough down the stretch to earn a postseason rotation spot, and if they end up playing the Twins as the Wild Card, it’s stands to reason that throwing Phil in Game Two and Pettitte in Game Three takes the most advantage of their skill sets and puts the team in the best position to win. Now, obviously things would change if they jumped ahead of the Rays and somehow won the division, but that’s a road we’ll cross if it happens. For now, yeah, I think St. Phil has to get the ball for that second game in Minnesota.