It was a year of two halves for Boone Logan, the Yankees’ polarizing southpaw reliever. As a founder of the Boone Logan fan club on Twitter and a frequent defender of his, I believe I might be of service in this discussion. I have always viewed Logan as useful bullpen piece: lefties with his power fastball-slider combo don’t grow on trees, and at times he is not entirely useless against opposite-handed hitters. He doesn’t have the consistency or command at this stage in his career to be a Matt Thornton type who is deadly against both righties and lefties, but he is a solid contributor in the Yankee ‘pen. In the first half of 2012, Logan at times looked like he was taking the next step and becoming the kind of shutdown lefty that the Yankees have been fruitlessly seeking for many years.
Logan got off to a strong start to 2012, giving up just one run in the first month of the season, and striking out about 13 batters per nine innings (though with a walk rate approaching 5/9 innings). May was a rougher month ERA-wise as he gave up five runs in 9 2/3 innings, but his peripherals were vastly improved — he walked just one batter the entire month. June saw him give up just two runs, though his strikeout rate dropped somewhat. Overall in those first three months of the season, Logan’s line was: 28 innings, 37 strikeouts, eight runs (2.57 ERA), 11 walks, and two homers allowed while being used very heavily by manager Joe Girardi.
In a post I wrote earlier in the year for TYA, I wondered what was the cause for Logan’s early success. One area that I highlighted was a change in Logan’s pitch mix, where he was throwing more sliders than in previous years, and fewer fastballs. He was also getting vastly improved whiff rates on the slider, indicating that he was not losing effectiveness by throwing it more often. There was some tangible evidence suggesting that the big first half was legitimate improvement and not a small sample size fluke.
While it was only three months, Logan’s first half performance was very important for the Yankees. Their bullpen depth was shortened due to injuries/ineffectiveness of several guys ahead of him on the depth chart. He often worked in a setup role rather than just as a specialist, and he handled himself quite nicely. While the Yankees obviously still missed Mariano Rivera and Joba Chamberlain, Boone’s early effectiveness did help to cushion the blow. Logan’s heavy workload in the first half (where he was among the league leader in relief appearances) may have taken a toll on him later in the season, but there is no question that he answered the bell when the team needed him early on.
After yesterday’s blowout victory over the hapless Red Sox and a loss to the Orioles, the Yankees suddenly find themselves with a few inches of breathing room. With only two games remaining, the Yankees can assure at least a tie for the division lead by winning one of the upcoming contests, and will hold on to the division lead if they can finish up the sweep. Things have been incredibly tense over the last few weeks, driving even the most level-headed Yankee fans to the brink of panic. However, the team has held on, flirting with mediocrity at times but doing just enough to stay afloat. While anything can happen over the next two games, we can be reassured by the fact that the Yankees are for sure going to be in the playoffs in some form, and that they control their own destiny.
Last night’s win over the Red Sox was big not only because of the implications of the division race, but also because of some promising developments. Of course, these have to be taken with a grain of salt because the Yankees have not exactly faced stellar competition of late (the checked-out Red Sox fielding a AAAA lineup looked particularly pathetic), but there have been a number of encouraging signs.
After an up-and-down 2012 that saw CC Sabathia show signs of mortality, he has finished the season strong. Over his last three outings, he has looked more like the reliable ace he has been throughout his big league career, a welcome development just in time for the start of postseason play. He is potentially set up to pitch in the one-game playoff if the Yankees don’t end up winning the division, or else could start Game One of the Division Series. Whenever he ends up pitching, Sabathia getting his mojo back is incredibly important for the Yankees’ playoff chances. Another important aspect of CC’s outing today is that the Yankees didn’t have to use any of their key relievers. This leaves Rafael Soriano, David Robertson, and company available as the Yankees try to lock down the division over the next two games.
The Yankee lineup also has seen the return of some key players. Mark Teixeira announced his return from the DL in loud fashion with a home run off of old friend Alfredo Aceves. He also made it through the game playing 1st base, which bodes well for his chances to play at his natural position in the playoffs. This bumps Nick Swisher back to right field, and hopefully prevents the Yankees from needing to play Raul Ibanez or Andruw Jones in the outfield. Brett Gardner is also back. Though he was hitless in his only at-bat, he played the outfield without incident, and could be a factor come playoff time. I would guess that Gardner may be a bit rusty offensively to start every day in the outfield (especially considering how well Ichiro has hit of late), but he could still have a major impact as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement.
Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano have had their struggles this season, but their bats look to be coming to life at the most crucial time. Cano in particular has absolutely crushed the ball of late, racking up seven straight multi-hit games. Granderson meanwhile did not let his demotion to the #7 spot in the lineup faze him, and he can provide some valuable punch at the bottom of the order if he continues to hit in that spot. Russell Martin has also posted some valuable contributions of late. With their hitters getting healthy and starting to click, the Yankee lineup is suddenly incredibly deep and dangerous again.
Of course, there are still plenty of reasons to be nervous, and the next few days will assuredly be agonizing. However, the Yankees do at very least seem to be peaking at the right time, and perhaps this will provide just enough of a boost to outlast the Orioles. I am hopeful that the Yankees can pull it out with as little drama as necessary, if the Red Sox and Rays would only be so accommodating. Regardless, there is definitely some exciting baseball to come.
The Yankees’ recent stretch of strong play has propelled them to a two-game lead over the pesky Orioles, giving them some much-needed breathing room against an opponent who has refused to go away. While there is still plenty of baseball left, the likelihood of the Yankees winning the division title, or at least earning a playoff spot, grows ever larger. The Yankees have won eight out of their last nine games, and 10 out of their last 12. This run is all the more impressive because they have not gotten huge contributions from their stars. Mark Teixeira is still out, and Curtis Granderson, Alex Rodriguez, and Robinson Cano have all underperformed in September. Despite the offensive struggles of their impact players, the Yankees have solidified their place at the top of the division due in large part to the play of two veterans who appeared washed up at various points in the season.
Since September 6, Ichiro Suzuki seems to have discovered a fountain of youth that transformed him into the dangerous, dynamic Ichiro of old. Over that stretch he is a ridiculous 24 for 48, good for a .500/.520/.708 line, with two home runs thrown in for good measure. One could nitpick by saying that he has only walked three times (once intentionally) during that stretch, but honestly, when a guy’s hitting .500, there’s not much to complain about. Ichiro has also stolen eight bases in his last 16 games, providing a speed element to the Yankee lineup that has been missing for much of the season because of the injury to Brett Gardner.
Like the dark wizard that he physically resembles, Raul Ibanez has demonstrated an incredible ability to bounce back from the most improbable circumstances. Slow in the field and anemic at the plate for much of August and September, Ibanez has started to show signs of life. While we are only operating with a tiny sample size here, Ibanez has made a huge impact for the Yankees over the last three games. In those games, he is a combined 7 for 12, and his two big home runs were key to the Yankees’ comeback win against the A’s on the 22nd.
Fellow geriatric Andy Pettitte has particularly impressed since coming off the DL recently. While several other Yankee starters have picked up their game of late, Pettitte has showed little rust in his return, tossing 11 scoreless innings in two outings (albeit against weak competition). While one would worry about a pitcher retaining his command and feel following a long layoff, Andy seems to be back in midseason form. With at least one more start remaining in the regular season, Pettitte seems to be making a strong case for the #3 spot in the playoff rotation, if the Yankees can make it that far.
It is incredibly improbable, but fantastic, that these players have all managed to turn back the clock and provide some big performances in very important games. Given the advanced age of this trio, it would be reasonable to expect them to fade at the end of a long season, wearing down physically and overall demonstrating a diminished level of performance. The fact that Pettitte, Ichiro, and (recently) Ibanez have elevated their game is a testament to the excellent conditioning and great work ethic that these players have maintained over the course of their career. We could also throw Derek Jeter into this category as well, though he has been pretty strong throughout the season. It has been a pleasure to see these consummate professionals pick up their more-heralded teammates throughout the stretch run. Hopefully, the Yankees’ stars can pick things up over the next week and a half as the Yankees look to hold on to their division lead. It should be a wild ride.
I know it has been a little while since he pitched, but I wanted to take a look at Ivan Nova‘s last outing. It was one of his most impressive performances of the season despite it being his first start back from injury. In total, Nova went six innings, giving up just two runs on four hits (only two of which went for extra bases) and two walks, with eight strikeouts.
Honestly, my expectations were pretty low for Nova in this start. He has been hit hard all year, giving up a ridiculous quantity of extra-base hits en route to a 4.81 ERA (including his most recent outing). While his strikeout rate is at a career high and his walk rate has been pretty low, one would expect him to be having a career year. Instead, Nova has been one of the weak points in the Yankee rotation, and I figured that missing time with a shoulder injury would likely cost him his rotation spot. However, Nova proved the doubters wrong with a strong outing. I was curious to see what was working for him.
Looking at Nova’s outing on Brooks Baseball, the first thing that comes to mind is his fastball. His average velocity on the pitch jumped a good 0.6 MPH, going from 93.46 to 94.07. Just to put that number in context, an average fastball of 94.07 MPH would place Nova 7th among qualified starters in average fastball velocity (behind usual suspects Stephen Strasburg, David Price, Jeff Samardzija, Matt Moore, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander). With the increased velocity also came better movement, as both the vertical (by about two inches) and horizontal movement by about 2/3 of an inch) on the heater were increased. The extra life on the pitch corresponded to a four-fold increase in whiff rate, 16% in his last outing compared to just over 4% for the rest of the season. This is a massive difference, even though the change in velocity and movement seems to be relatively small. For what it’s worth, Texas Leaguers shows more dramatic differences in velocity and movement.
While the improved fastball is the main thing that jumps out at me, there are some noticeable differences in Nova’s curveball as well. The velocity of the pitched jumped about 2-3 MPH over his season average, though the vertical and horizontal break actually decreased. This could mean that he was throwing a tighter, sharper pitch, and consequently, opposing hitters whiffed at it about twice as often as they did earlier in the season.
The fastball and curve were Nova’s bread and butter in his most recent outing, as they have been throughout the season. He threw them about 83-percent of the time earlier in the season, and threw them nearly 90-percent of the time his last time out. I have no idea if Nova made a mechanical change during is time on the DL — it appears he did — or if the extra rest has simply given his raw stuff a little boost. Regardless, the extra hop on Nova’s fastball and tighter curveball seemed to be very effective in the small sample size of one outing. At this point in the season, Nova is auditioning just to earn a spot on the postseason roster. Unless he is absolutely lights out and another Yankee starter suffers an injury or setback, it is hard to picture Nova earning a spot in the playoff rotation. Regardless, if he continues to show his improved fastball velocity and more effective curveball, the Yankees could have a tough decision on their hands.
After yet another close game (though thankfully, last night’s was of the winning variety), the collective blood pressure of the Yankee fanbase is once again a little higher than optimal. While the Yankees were able to jump ahead of the Red Sox in the early going, the inability to accomplish the mythical shutdown inning allowed the Red Sox to stay within striking distance for the majority of the game. This has been a problem for much of the recent stretch of subpar play.
While David Robertson and Rafael Soriano have individually had very strong seasons, the Yankee bullpen, and these two stalwarts in particular, have shown mortality at particularly inconvenient times. Robertson’s fastball velocity is down slightly from last season, and his reduction in the use of his curveball in favor of the cutter is a little puzzling. Several recent Yankee losses can directly be tied to blowups by one or both of the Yankees’ top relievers. While Joba Chamberlain has impressed in his recent outings, he is probably still not at the point of being relied upon to be a consistent shutdown presence in the 7th inning. The Clay Rapada/Cody Eppley/Boone Logan trio have performed adequately, though none of them (possibly excepting Logan) really are useful against opposite-handed batters.
As the Yankees battle through the last few weeks of the season and hopefully into October, it is evident that they could use another bullpen arm with the ability to retire hitters from both sides of the plate. Presumably, a trade is incredibly unlikely at this juncture, so whatever help the Yankees are going to find will have to come from within. With several players on track to return from injury, the Yankees will have a few options as they shuffle their rotation to accommodate the returnees. Here are some of the ways they can proceed, and variables to consider.
Nova should be back from injury relatively soon, but his uneven 2012 season raises questions about how he can be most effectively deployed. He’s currently in line to replace Freddy Garcia in the rotation, but given his propensity to surrender extra-base hits, there’s no guarantee that he will be a significant upgrade. While Freddy’s repertoire doesn’t really translate well to a short relief role (though he could be an effective long man), Nova could be an effective option for shorter stints, allowing him to focus on his fastball and slider and not worry about his other pitches.
Andy Pettitte is also on his way back, though his timeline for returning to the rotation is unclear at the moment. The Yankees are currently planning to let Pettitte build his innings back up on the Major League roster, which will likely entail him making piggyback starts with one of Nova, Garcia, or Phelps. If Nova and Pettitte both make it back into the rotation, Phelps likely gets bumped back into a relief role. Phelps has been very impressive when used as a reliever this season (albeit in a small sample), so he could be an intriguing option to add more depth to the Yankee bullpen.
Yes, Wade has been incredibly disappointing in the majors this year, but he has handled himself fairly well since being demoted to AAA (2.27 ERA). That said, his strikeout rate is down compared to 2011 and his walk rate is elevated, and both trends continued when he was sent down to the Scranton traveling road show. Even though Wade is not pitching as well as he did last season (or early this year), it could be worth giving him some innings to see if he can get his confidence and stuff back.
Mark Montgomery (obligatory)
I know the Yankees have said that they will not call up Montgomery this season, but I think it is an option worth considering. He has continued to dominate his minor league opposition, and I’m not sure if there is a serious developmental case to be made for keeping him in the minors much longer. AA hitters simply have no answer for his slider, and he is striking them out in droves. While there is some obvious risk inherent in calling up a minor leaguer to contribute to a playoff chase (some may fear that getting hit around could ruin him forever, a la Mark Melancon), Montgomery has the talent and upside to be a shutdown guy right away. I trust that the Yankees know better than me regarding his big league readiness, but the possibility that Montgomery could be a shot in the arm to the Yankee bullpen (a la rookie Joba Chamberlain or Francisco Rodriguez back in the day) is hard to ignore. Considering the Yankees’ recent bullpen struggles, it seems worthwhile to reconsider the calculus of whether keeping Montgomery down is really the best option.
While a Montgomery callup doesn’t seem forthcoming (though I will continue to dream), returning Phelps to the bullpen could give the Yankees the reliable middle-inning arm that they have been missing since Cory Wade began to struggle. While Montgomery has the highest upside, Phelps is the safest bet. Phelps has excelled in the role when called upon this season, and since the Yankees may not want to overwork Chamberlain and Robertson, it makes sense to have another reliable middle relief arm who can pitch to both righties and lefties. It would be hard to expect much out of Nova or Wade if they were given a relief role, and they would definitely have to impress in their few opportunities to earn their spot.
Of all the problems facing the Yankees this season, the bullpen is probably the least of them. That said, it has contributed directly to several losses, and the Yankees do have several decent options available that could improve the situation. I assume when Pettitte and Nova are back, we will start to see some pieces in motion, as the Yankees look to fortify the middle innings.
The Yankees, clinging to a slim one-game lead in the AL East, saunter into Fenway to begin a series with the reeling Red Sox. As Mike outlined in his series preview, the Red Sox have been pretty awful this season, falling to unimaginable 15 games below .500. While they struggled for much of the season, they have been particularly awful of late. The Sox have lost a ton of talent since the Yankees played them last in late-July, both due to injury and the blockbuster trade (also known as a salary dump) they completed with the Dodgers. While the Yankees are playing for a division title and a playoff spot, the Red Sox seem to have little to play for other than their pride (or what remains of it). On paper, this is a matchup that heavily favors the Yankees, who despite their own problems should field a more talented and motivated roster than that of the Red Sox.
It also has all the makings of a trap series. With a big three-game series with the Rays looming on the horizon, it would be easy for the Yankees to overlook the crappy Red Sox and look ahead for the matchup with their actual competition for the division title. Meanwhile, while Boston seems and demoralized, I imagine getting the opportunity to ruin the Yankees’ season could get at least some of them fired up.
While the Red Sox roster is depleted, there is still enough talent to cause trouble for the Yankees. They are missing David Ortiz and Will Middlebrooks, but Dustin Pedroia, Cody Ross, and Jacoby Ellsbury could provide enough punch to pile up some runs against some shaky Yankee pitching. Plus, future Hall of Famer Pedro Ciriaco is still there, and will look to improve on his .469/.485/.625 career line against the Bombers. Hopefully the Yankees can figure out a way to retire him.
On the pitching side, there will be some interesting matchups. The Yankees will put perhaps their best pitcher of the season (#HIROK) up against Jon Lester in game one. Even though Lester is hardly the dominant Lester of years past, he is still a strong competitor who put up a good performance against the Yankees the last time he faced them. At best, this is a small advantage for the Yankees. The Phelps-Cook matchup in game two could be a slugfest, as Cook has been mediocre while Phelps has failed to get past the 5th inning in his last two starts. As for game three, Felix Doubront has posed some problems for the Yankees in the past, while Phil Hughes has been pretty solid of late (in part thanks to the new slider). While the Yankees should be favored in all three games, none of these matchups strikes me as a sure thing.
Given the close nature of the Al East race and the atrociousness of the Red Sox, taking anything less than 2 out of 3 games in this series would be a major failure. The Yankees have problems of their own, such as Mark Teixeira‘s recent injury, but they are light years ahead of where Boston is at this point, both in terms of on-field talent and off-field intangibles. While the Red Sox should be jazzed up for the opportunity to stick it to their longtime rivals, the Bombers should be motivated to add insult to Boston’s injury. The Yanks will have the opportunity to get themselves a little breathing room in the division as Baltimore and Tampa will be squaring off while the Yankees are playing the Red Sox. A sweep will put the Yankees in strong position to hold on to their division lead, and go into the playoffs with some positive momentum.
The Yankees’ offensive outage over the last few weeks has been perplexing and frustrating, given the number of talented hitters on the team. As discussed in my most recent post, injuries can explain a large portion of the Yankees’ struggles. Missed time by Alex Rodriguez, Brett Gardner, and Mark Teixeira, among others, has led to extra playing time by bench and platoon players such as Andruw Jones, Raul Ibanez, Ichiro Suzuki, Eric Chavez, and Jayson Nix. Not surprising, they have largely failed to replace the lost production due to the injured Yankee stars.
However, injuries don’t tell the whole story. As discussed in Tuesday’s post, the Yankees have also had to endure simultaneous underachieving of several important regulars. The most perplexing struggles have been those of Curtis Granderson, who has been having a disappointing 2012 anyway, but has been absolutely horrendous of late. His wRC+ has dropped 34 points between 2011 and 2012 (though to be fair, 2011 was a career year for Granderson), and recently, he has been even worse. Since August 1, Curtis is batting a measly .179/.256/.387. This is not a small sample size fluke, but over a month of absolutely awful performance.
I was curious to see what factors might be responsible for Granderson’s decreased production compared to 2011, and while I found no definitive solution, there are a few possibilities. Compared to 2011, Granderson has been much less effective against fastballs. While he is still above league average against the heater, according to Fangraphs, he is not crushing the pitch to the same extent that he was in 2011. Additionally, Granderon’s performance against the curveball has suffered, going from about league average in 2011 to below average in 2012. He is also swinging at slightly more pitches in 2012 (41.7% compared to 40.6% in 2011), but making less contact (72.3% of swings in 2012 compared to 78.2% in 2011). He is swinging more both at pitches in the zone (not necessarily a bad thing) and out of the zone (almost definitely a bad thing). However, the decrease in contact is not explained by fishing out of the zone, he is actually making less contact in the zone as well. The contact rate is also significantly lower than he has posted in previous years, indicating that this is not just regression to the mean after a career-best 2011.
What could all this signify? The fairly significant drop in contact is a red flag to me, possibly indicative of poor pitch recognition, bad swing mechanics, or decreasing bat speed. It is hard to pinpoint which of these three (or any other factors) may be the most likely culprit here. At 31, Granderson is not exactly over the hill, though his 2012 regression could be an indication that Granderson’s prime may be behind him. He is still hitting for power, as demonstrated by his 34 home runs this year, but his batting average, OBP, and slugging have all decreased dramatically.
The question is whether Granderson’s statistical decline from 2011 is a product of a season-long decline, or more the result of his recent slump. Looking at his monthly wOBA, there is a definite trend: .395 in March/April, .362 in May, .344 in June, .342 in July, .292 in August, and .072 in September. While August and September look like extreme outliers that may skew his overall line somewhat, the decreased production each month is a major cause for concern.
Ultimately, there is not much the Yankees can do about Granderson this year. He is their only everyday center fielder with Brett Gardner out, and one of the biggest sources of home-run power in the lineup. He will probably be hitting in the top half of the Yankee lineup for the rest of the season, so he will have ample opportunities to drive baserunners in and help create offense. They have to hope that he can turn things around (or at least get back to the solid, but not spectacular level of production seen in June and July), perhaps with some #curing help from Kevin Long.
Granderson’s decline probably puts his future with the Yankees in jeopardy, though it is hard to imagine them not picking up his option for 2013. That said, Granderson needs to pull his weight in the Yankee lineup for the rest of the season if the Yankees are going to hold on to their division lead, and prove that he is worthy of another big deal in New York. He will need to do more than that for the Yankees to make a deep playoff run. The talent is still there, but he needs to get things sorted out quickly, as his teammates have been pulling his dead weight for far too long.
Not so long ago, I wrote an uncharacteristically pessimistic post that was admittedly a bit trollish in its conception: exploring the problems and challenges that could face a Yankee team that at the time enjoyed a comfortable six-game lead over its division rivals. While the Yankees had several hurdles to overcome, I concluded that the division lead along with the talent gap between the Yankees and their pursuers should allow the Yankees to cruise to a division title and playoff berth.
I still believe that to be the case, but the events of the last few weeks have increased the likelihood of an different outcome. The combination of poor play by the Yankees and strong performances from the Rays and Orioles have whittled the Yankees’ division lead down to one game. In Wild Card race, the Oakland A’s have gone on a tear, and currently hold the same record as the Bombers. Suddenly the possibility of the Yankees losing the division or even missing the playoffs doesn’t seem so remote. The specter of a monumental collapse a la Boston in 2011 looms over the collective psyche of nervous Yankee fans, who fear karmic payback for their schadenfreude of yesteryear.
Since the folks here are mostly rational, I thought it would make sense to analyze which contributors to the Yankees’ struggles seem likely to persist, and which ones may be resolved going forward. I’ll take a look at some reasons for why Yankee fans should be concerned, as well as some reasons why things are still looking promising. Feel free to add your own to the list if I leave anything out.
Reasons to panic
Death by bullpen: Outside of Rafael Soriano and David Robertson (who have had their occasional slip-ups), the rest of the Yankee bullpen has been unreliable of late. This has at times caused Joe Girardi to make multiple pitching changes in a single inning, delighting binder-joke aficionados worldwide. It has also made keeping leads in the middle innings a difficult task. Cody Eppley in particular seems less effective than he was earlier in the season, Joba Chamberlain has struggled mightily since returning from the DL, and Derek Lowe has been awful since the Yankees acquired him. Boone Logan has continued to hold down the fort, but his heavy usage could take a toll on him.
Injuries: Although Alex Rodriguez just returned, the Yankees are still suffering injuries to several important contributors. Andy Pettitte hasn’t pitched a rehab outing yet, Curtis Granderson has been hampered by hamstring tendinitis, Mark Teixeira is still out, and Robinson Cano may have tweaked something in his hip while going after a ground ball in the 9th inning yesterday. These injuries have forced the Yankees to rely heavily on their bench. While some bench players (Eric Chavez in particular) have been up to the task, others (I’m looking at you Andruw Jones) have struggled mightily. The Yankees have gotten by so far in 2012 with solid contributions from their bench, but their recent offensive woes (wRC+ of 74 the past 2 weeks) show the effect that losing several middle of the order contributors can have on overall offensive production.
Reasons to relax
Help is on the way: Alex Rodriguez’s return instantly lengthens the Yankee lineup, adding some desperately needed right-handed power to a team that has been punchless of late. Mark Teixeira, Andy Pettitte, and Ivan Nova are on the road to recovery, and could provide some much needed depth to an anemic lineup and struggling rotation respectively.
Slumpbusters: Of late, the Yankee lineup has struggled offensively. Only three members of the Yankee lineup have posted above league-average production over the last 2 weeks: Robinson Cano (146 wRC+), Derek Jeter (137 wRC+), and Nick Swisher (128 wRC+). While this trio has been carrying the offense, the rest of the offense has been putrid. This includes (skip this section if you have a weak stomach) Russell Martin (56 wRC+), Curtis Granderson (36 wRC+), Eric Chavez (40 wRC+), Ichiro (10 wRC+), Andruw Jones (-8 wRC+), and Raul Ibanez (-25 wRC+).
With only one third of the lineup performing anywhere above the league average or near their career norms, there is no wonder that the Yankee lineup has had trouble scoring runs of late. It seems improbable that this horrific stretch can continue, and eventually some of these guys can turn things around. While several of these guys have been horrible all season, there is enough talent there for a few of them to get things going again.
Look at the schedule: While the Yankees’ schedule for the beginning of September is tough (two more games against the Rays and four against the Orioles), things soften up for the Bombers after the big rivalry games. There is one more three-game series against the Rays, but otherwise, the Yankees’ opponents include the Twins, Red Sox, and Blue Jays. A few years ago this would have been a formidable slate, but at a collective 51 games under .500, the Yankees shouldn’t have too much to worry about. This is especially true if the Yankees get some of their starters back and contributing by then. Baltimore also has a light schedule (though a three-game series against the suddenly-good A’s could prove challenging), while the Rays have some tougher matchups remaining, including the White Sox and the Rangers. If the Yankees can survive the games against Baltimore and Tampa with their lead intact, they should be able to hold their ground against some weaker opponents down the stretch.
Overall, the Yankees do have some real concerns to address down the stretch. Getting some injured players back could help, but the fact of the matter is that this team has looked lifeless over the past few weeks. A combination of crappy hitting, sloppy fielding, and poorly-timed pitching meltdowns has resulted in some frustrating losses recently. Two thirds of the lineup needs to either get healthy or remember how to hit, and the Yankees will need to get some big performances from their starters to prevent the bullpen from getting overexposed. I still think this team has too much talent, especially when compared to Baltimore and Tampa, to lose this division. The favorable schedule also helps in that regard. But as they say, these games aren’t played on paper. A number of players will have to start living up to the numbers on the back of their baseball card if the Yankees are going to make a run into October.
It has been fascinating, and at times frustrating, to watch Phil Hughes develop from a prospect into a rotation mainstay. At the time he was drafted, Hughes was a big kid who projected to have solid fastball velocity and a good slider. Within a year or two, he developed a true plus curveball after being forced to shelve his slider, and used the hook along with impressive fastball command to carve up his minor league opposition. His ability to develop the curveball into a dominant pitch after not using the pitch much in high school was impressive, and indicative that he had a good feel for pitching (whatever that means).
After a dominant minor league career, Hughes made his major league debut at the tender age of 20, and tantalized Yankee fans in his second start with 6 1/3 no-hit innings against the Texas Rangers. In that outing, Hughes looked like the future ace many of us hoped he could become. He commanded his fastball well, and made good use of his curveball and changeup to keep hitters off balance. In particular, I remember him making future teammate Mark Teixeira look silly on several breaking balls. Then of course came the infamous, possibly career-altering injury. After striding too far in an attempt to get a little more oomph on a curveball, Hughes badly injured his hamstring, limped off the field, and never really achieved that degree of dominance again.
The rest of Hughes’ Major League career has been consistent only in its inconsistency. His velocity and weight fluctuated, he suffered several injuries, and otherwise struggled to fulfill his potential. His curveball regressed, becoming a loopy creampuff instead of a snappy strikeout pitch. The changeup didn’t really develop as hoped, leaving Hughes primarily as a two-pitch pitcher. Consequently, Hughes faced countless long at-bats as hitters were able to sit on his fastball and foul off pitch after pitch, driving up his pitch count and tiring him out. He also frequently pitched up in the zone, causing him to allow fly balls at a high rate. Particularly in hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium, these fly balls had a high probability of turning into home runs, and this problem has plagued Phil in recent years. He also tried to add a cutter to give left-handed batters a different look, but it never became an effective out-pitch for him.
Despite the inconsistency, Hughes has been an important fixture in the Yankee rotation over the last few years. He has had his successes, including a sparkling stint in the bullpen in 2009, an All Star appearance in 2010, and truth be told a pretty solid 2012 (even though his FIP and xFIP are less impressive than his 4.02 ERA). 2012 has been an interesting season for him because he got off to a rocky start, giving up four or more runs in three of his first five starts. Thereafter, Hughes has only given up more than three runs four times. While he may have tired a bit as his innings count rose, he has been a fairly reliable piece in a rotation that suffered injuries to three starters.
It is interesting to see how Phil has tinkered with his approach throughout the season, rather than just sticking with his regular repertoire and hoping that things will fix themselves. Michael Eder of The Yankee Analysts has some great posts (complete with gifs) documenting this transformation. Early in the season, Hughes scrapped the ineffective cutter and began featuring the changeup more prominently. He started making use of a sharper 11-5 curveball that featured more horizontal movement, resulting from a lower arm slot. And just in his last start, he resurrected the mythical slider, which served as an effective weapon against same-sided batters (who have been giving Phil trouble this year).
There are certainly positive and negative spins that one could put on Hughes’ constant changes to his repertoire. On the negative side, one could point to the inconsistency of his secondary pitches, and his inability to develop any one of them into a reliable above-average offering. The fact that he has to keep tinkering is evidence that his regular repertoire is not good enough to be a consistently effective big league starter. The flip side of this is that Phil is hard-working and resourceful enough to constantly add to and modify his repertoire, which gives us hope that he may continue to make adjustments in the future.
Hughes is still somewhat of an enigma, but I think at this point in his career Yankee fans know what to expect from him. He is a solid #3-#4 starter who can eat innings, is capable of the occasional awful outing if his fly balls are leaving the yard, strike batters out at a respectable clip (about 7.5/9 this season), and keep them off base by limiting his walks. While he is unlikely to morph into the ace we dreamed he would become, it is nice to hear that he is still working to hone his craft, and try to become the best pitcher that he possibly can. Considering he is only under contract for one more season after this one, it will be in the Yankees’ interest to track Hughes’ evolution closely, to see if he can find a mix of pitches that will allow for more consistent effectiveness.
A few days ago, the Red Sox and Dodgers completed a potentially franchise-altering trade. Boston sent underachieving malcontents Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, and Adrian Gonzalez (who is actually still pretty good) plus Nick Punto to suddenly-loaded LA. In return they received several solid prospects, the thoroughly mediocre James Loney, and most importantly, massive salary relief. It was shocking to see a wealthy big market team unload all this talent for pennies on the dollar, truly a fire sale that only Tobias Funke could properly dramatize.
The deal will have a major impact on the Red Sox and Dodgers for years to come, and the reverberations could be felt throughout the league. The Red Sox significantly increased their flexibility by shedding some $260 million in future contract obligations, allowing them to be big players on the free agent market in 2012 and in upcoming seasons. While the 2012′s free agent class is not considered a stacked group, they could have room in the budget to sign several impact free agents. These could include such notables as Zack Greinke and Josh Hamilton, both incredibly talented players (albeit with risks attached). If the Red Sox choose to spend big this offseason, it could be reminiscent of the Yankees’ spending spree in the 2008-2009 offseason, in which they signed Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, and A.J. Burnett.
As we remember, these signings contributed heavily to the Yankees’ 2009 World Series title, so a similar splurge by the Red Sox could have them back in contention in a hurry. However, failing several big acquisitions, it is difficult to see the Red Sox being serious playoff contenders in 2013 and possibly 2014. While they have some talent remaining on the team and some intriguing players down on the farm (Xander Bogaerts, Matt Barnes, and Jackie Bradley Jr. especially), it is hard to see that roster being a serious threat to win the AL East. Consequently, they will need to decide whether they are doing a full rebuild, or a Yankees-esque reload. If they go big on the current free agent class, they risk burdening themselves with the types of big expensive contracts that got them into this mess in the first place. However, a rebuild will likely doom them to non-competitiveness for several years, and this may have significant financial ramifications.
Assuming Boston doesn’t go for the full reload in 2013, the Yankees should be the AL East frontrunners, with the Rays as the main competition. This is especially the case if Baltimore comes back to earth after a 2012 season that seems somewhat fluky. Toronto will likely not have the same number of injuries again, but I don’t think that team has enough impact talent to be a competitor yet.
The defanging of the Red Sox definitely helps the Yankees in the short term, but how about the long term? A lot of that depends on how the Red Sox end up deploying their newly-acquired flexibility. The Yankees likely won’t be huge spenders on the free agent market over the next two years if they are serious about adhering to the austerity budget. If Boston hasn’t loaded up on big free agents after 2012 or 2013, they could be serious competitors for some big name players that could hit the market in 2014 , most notably Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez. The trade could also put Boston in the position to build a sustainable powerhouse if they are more fortunate with their free agent signing and hit it big on with a few of their prospects. One question, however, could be whether Boston’s willingness to dump players recently signed to long-term contracts shows a lack of loyalty, and could make it difficult for them to attract free agents. I think money talks ultimately, but that could be a tie-breaker.
While they are not in the same league as the Yankees, the sudden willingness of the Dodgers to spend big to acquire impact players should draw the attention of Yankee fans. We are largely used to a unipolar landscape where the Yankees are the dominant franchise financially, capable of outbidding all comers to acquire their choice free agents. There have been some exceptions to this paradigm of late, most notably the Yankees’ failure to sign Cliff Lee, but it largely has held true. Seeing the new-money Dodgers throw that kind of cash around begs the question of how much they are willing to spend to make their team a World Series contender. Could they even outspend the Evil Empire? After this big trade, they are pretty close, and if they are willing to spend even more money, they could be a force to be reckoned with on the free agent market.
Ultimately, the Yankees will be fine, but there is no doubt that this deal is a potential game-changer. The Yankees may not be able to count on being able to sign all the best free agents to fill their holes, as fewer top guys have been hitting the market, and more teams have the financial resources to compete for the ones that do. The Red Sox suddenly have huge flexibility to bring in new impact players, while the Dodgers showed a willingness to spend at Yankee-esque levels to become relevant. In the short term, the Yankees should maintain their hold on the AL East, but they certainly can’t get too comfortable at their perch.