Archive for Pitching
The Yankees started 2013 with four of their five best hitters on the DL, so the plan was to ride out the storm on the shoulders of an experienced and deep pitching staff. That worked well for a while, but the injured guys have yet to return — or, in some cases, they returned only to get re-injured — and there’s only so long you can be a pitching and defense team in a small ballpark in the AL East.
The starting staff has held up reasonably well this year, though there have been some individual ups and downs. That inevitable over the course of the season. Here’s what the rotation has done month-to-month this season:
June and July kinda cancel each other out in terms of ERA, but otherwise the rotation has been pretty steady overall. It’s not an elite rotation though — a 3.96 ERA and 3.90 FIP place them 16th and 19th in baseball, respectively. Firmly middle of the pack.
A middle of the pack rotation and a bottom four offense (85 wRC+) is not a combination that lends itself to playoff contention. The Yankees have remained in the hunt — five back in the division, three back of a wildcard spot in the loss column — because a good bullpen (with an elite eighth/ninth inning combo) and good timing have helped them to a 16-9 record in one-run games. That’s the kind of good fortune you don’t want to have to rely on to contend.
Adding a bat(s) will be the top priority leading up to the trade deadline, but would it make sense for the Yankees to seek out a rotation upgrade as well? Hiroki Kuroda (2.65 ERA and 3.62 FIP) has emerged as the team’s ace, but he’s their only starter to make at least ten start with a sub-4.00 ERA. CC Sabathia (4.07/4.05) is trending downward and Andy Pettitte (4.39/4.75) has been very sketchy since returning from the DL. Ivan Nova (3.63/3.00) has pitched well of late, but two starts doesn’t mean much of anything. Phil Hughes (4.57/4.48) and the injured David Phelps (and Vidal Nuno) are back-end fodder. Michael Pineda is a complete unknown.
The Yankees have rotation depth, but it’s all back of the rotation depth. There is only so much lineup help they can reasonably add in the coming weeks, so maybe another way to improve the club is to replace one of those back-end types (Nova, Hughes, Phelps, etc.) with a better starting pitcher Strengthen the team’s strength, basically. Besides, it’s not like the team won’t need a starter or two next year either; adding an arm they could control would be a nifty pickup.
The issue with adding a quality starter is that there aren’t a ton of them on the market. With Ricky Nolasco already moved to the Dodgers, Matt Garza is top pitcher on the trade market. He’s an impending free agent and while he would certainly help New York in the second half, he wouldn’t do them any good next year. Yovani Gallardo is owed a bunch of money and comes with major red flags, ditto Jake Peavy. The surely available Joe Saunders, Joe Blanton, and Mike Pelfrey don’t help and are probably downgrades at this point.
If the Yankees were to add a starting pitcher, the best target might be Astros right-hander Bud Norris. The 28-year-old has a 3.63 ERA and 3.55 FIP this year, though his strikeout rate (6.39 K/9 and 16.7 K%) has dropped now that he’s no longer facing the opposing pitcher three times a game. Pitching coach Larry Rothschild has a history of improving strikeout rates, so maybe hethat would help. Norris has spent his entire career in a hitter’s park and will earn just $3M this year, plus he’s under team control as an arbitration-eligible player through 2015. That’s the kind of guy the Yankees could add at the deadline to improve their rotation both in the second half and into the future.
I don’t expect the Bombers to seriously pursue a rotation upgrade prior to the non-waiver deadline in 13 days. They need to focus on finding some help for the offense. That should be their very top priority. I don’t think they should rule out adding another starter though, especially considering Sabathia’s decline and Pettitte’s recent shakiness. There is definitely room for improvement in that rotation. Having a bunch of back-end types in reserve only helps so much.
Despite last night’s uplifting win, the Yankees have still lost six of their last eight games and 21 of their last 34 games. That dates back to the game after the 11-inning win/ninth inning comeback against Fernando Rodney and the Rays in Tampa. One win against a mediocre Twins club who was very willing to beat themselves by throwing the ball away on more than one occasion doesn’t mean the Yankees are out of the woods yet.
The offense has been the primary culprit behind this month-long slide. The so-called Bronx Bombers have scored just 112 runs during that 34-game skid, an average of 3.29 runs per game. The AL average this year is 4.36 runs per game, so we’re talking a full run below-average for more than a month by a team that plays in a very hitter friendly home ballpark. The Yankees have hit .228/.289/.335 as a team during that stretch, on par with the washed up Victor Martinez (.233/.290/.339). It’s bad.
The offense is not alone, however. The starting rotation, considered the strength of the team by pretty much everyone coming into the season, has been a let-down over the last month as well. The starters as a whole have a 4.64 ERA and 3.82 FIP during the last 34 games, so better than average peripherals with below-average results. Here are how the individual starters have fared during the slide:
I’ve excluded Vidal Nuno (two runs in six innings) and Ivan Nova (three runs in 6.2 innings) because both made just spot one start during the 34-game stretch and haven’t contributed to the carnage every five days. Outside of Kuroda and maybe Hughes, it’s the regulars who have been let downs.
Sabathia has been crazy homer prone of late — he’s allowed 17 homers at the halfway point, just five fewer than the career-high he set last season — and he hasn’t just fallen victim to Yankee Stadium cheapies either. Hit Tracker classified five of the eight homers he’s allowed during the 34-game slide as “plenty,” meaning they cleared the fence by more than ten vertical feet or landed more than one fence height beyond the wall. Between his overall velocity loss and increased propensity for mistake pitches, the increased homer trend seems more likely to continue than improve going forward.
Since coming off the DL early last month, Pettitte hasn’t given up a ton of homers (just two) but he has given up a lot of hits overall (42 in 36.2 innings). Ten of those 40 non-homer hits have been doubles, so opponents are still hitting for power against him even though the ball isn’t going over the fence. Andy has never been shy about giving up hits, but he hasn’t had his usual stinginess with men on-base recently. Opponents are hitting .328/.377/.422 (.433 BABIP) against him with men on and .333/.367/.462 (.429) with runners in scoring position since coming off the DL. It’s easy to say that will improve as the season goes on, but you never really know with 41-year-old finesse pitchers. Andy Pettitte is guarantees to be awesome just because he’s Andy Pettitte.
Phelps’ poor numbers are the product of two exceptionally bad outings. He allowed five runs in one-third of an inning in late-May and nine runs in 2.1 innings over the weekend. In the four starts between the two duds, he’s allowed just seven runs in 23.2 innings (2.66 ERA and 3.27 FIP). That doesn’t excuse the two disaster starts obviously, but I prefer seeing two disasters and four strong starts than six consistently mediocre ones. At least the former suggests he might have just had two really bad games relatively close together and isn’t fighting through some kind of mechanical problem or injury. Either way, the Yankees do need him to be better than he has been of late.
Last night’s ten-run outburst is hardly an indication New York has gotten over their offensive woes. They have a lot of trouble scoring runs and they need their pitching staff to not just be good, they need them to be damn near great. The rotation has not been very good of late and that’s a big reason why they’ve been unable to string wins together. Nova is waiting in the wings if they need to make a change, but he hardly inspires any confidence. Nuno is out with a groin injury with no return in sight. Michael Pineda‘s rehab window expires Monday but I find it very hard to consider a guy coming off major shoulder surgery to be a potential rotation savior. Besides, it seems more likely that he’ll be optioned to Triple-A next week than added to the big league roster. Long story short, the guys in the rotation simply have to start pitching better to keep this team in any kind of race.
Not too long ago, Mariano Rivera went through a three-week stretch that was decidedly un-Mariano-like:
Those last three appearances during the West Coast trip had a Murphy’s Law element to them. Rivera was getting blooped to dead rather than hit hard — I remember at least three broken bat bloops, one in Oakland and two against the Angels — and during that eight-game stretch you see above he fell victim to a .636 (!) BABIP. Rivera also walked a batter in four consecutive appearances for the fourth time in his career and the first since early-2002. Like I said, un-Mo-like.
Since that rough eight-game stretch, Rivera has settled down and rattled off three near-perfect appearances, allowing just one base-runner (a single) in the three innings. Coincidentally — most likely not — he has started to use his two-seam fastball a little more often of late. Here’s a pitch he threw to Evan Longoria on Saturday, just for a visual:
Here’s the zoomed-in, slow-motion replay, if you’re interested.
That wasn’t just a show-me two-seamer to Longoria, something to back him off the plate and keep him off the cutter. It was a nasty two-seamer that PitchFX clocked at 93.8 mph (!) with just under ten inches of horizontal movement. Bartolo Colon, who had the nastiest two-seamer in recent Yankees memory, averaged 9.5 inches of horizontal movement with his two-seamer back in 2011, for comparison.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Rivera’s recent two-seamer usage is just how much he’s actually using it. He’s thrown more two-seamers than cutters in each of his last two appearances, and not by a small margin either — ten cutters and 17 two-seamers in those last two outings combined. Here is his cutter and two-seamer usage by appearance this season:
You can click the graph for a larger view.
That one little bump at appearance #21 was the blown save against the Mets, the start of the eight-game slump discussed above. These last five games, dating back to the final two games of the West Coast trip, are when Rivera really started to rely on the two-seamer. I don’t know if it took him some time to get a feel for a pitch or what, but the results have been better the last three outings rather than the first two. Then again, two games. Wouldn’t read much into that.
Believe it or not, this is not the first time Rivera has turned to the two-seamer following a slump. He did the same thing in late-May 2010, and we’ve seen him do it a few other times through the years as well. That two-seam fastball didn’t come out of nowhere, Mo has thrown it here and there over the years. I can’t ever remember him using it as much as he had these last few appearances, however. It was his primary pitches the last two times out.
Rivera has always gone back to using cutters almost exclusively after breaking out the two-seamer in the past, but who really knows what he’ll do this year. It is his final season, so perhaps he’ll just empty out the entire bag of tricks. I remember seeing him throw a changeup a few years ago (I think it was Spring Training, actually), so maybe that’s next. It would be kinda neat if Mo went back to his roots and broke out his starter’s repertoire from here on out, but as long as he gets outs, I don’t really care how he does it. Right now, he’s doing it with that wicked two-seam fastball.
The Yankees welcomed Andy Pettitte back to the rotation last night after he missed 18 days with a strained trap muscle. It was the first time he had to be placed on the DL this year but the second time he had to miss starts — a stiff lower back sidelined him for more than a week back in April. Rainouts and off-days allowed the Yankees to skip his turn without much of a problem early in the season.
Less than two weeks away from his 41st birthday, Pettitte is the oldest regular starter in the big leagues by almost one full year — former Yankee Bartolo Colon won’t turn 41 until next May. With age comes injury concerns, and not just the increased risk of getting hurt. It takes older players a longer time to recover as well. In an effort to stay healthier, Andy has considered modifying his between-starts routine a bit.
“He’s talked about backing off a little bit,” said Joe Girardi to Dan Martin over the weekend. “But it’s hard when you’re a creature of habit. When you’ve had as much success as he’s had, it’s hard to change what you do, but I think it’s important that he does it.”
Pettitte usually throws two bullpen sessions between starts, which is something he would look to change. That said, he is concerned about how it would affect him on the mound every five days. He might feel stronger physically, but it could come at the expense of losing rhythm and feel for pitches. That would be very bad since he’s a finesse pitcher.
“Truthfully, I don’t know,” said Andy when asked how he would react to changing his routine. “I’m used to doing two bullpens. We’ll just how it goes … I know what I’ve got to do mentally to prepare for this game and I understand where they’re coming from, of course, because of my age and how much time it takes and the adjustments you have to make as you get older.”
Regardless of how they do it, one of the Yankees’ top priorities for the rest of the season should be keeping Pettitte healthy and in the rotation. If that means cutting back to one bullpen between starts or even limiting him to 90-100 pitches per start instead of 100-110, so be it. The team lives and dies with its pitching, and Andy is one of their three best at worst. Obviously keeping him on the field is much easier said than done regardless of his age.
Hiroki Kuroda, the third oldest starter in the big leagues at 38, modified his offseason routine in an effort to stay fresh deeper into the season after hitting a wall last September. I don’t know if Pettitte did anything differently this winter, but he’s clearly thinking about doing something differently during the season. As good as Vidal Nuno looked in his three spot starts, Andy is the guy the Yankees want in their rotation right now and they need him to stop missing starts every month. He’s too vital to the team’s success to be a 20-22 start guy than a 30-32 start guy.
Last night’s victory was the 54th game of the season for the Yankees, otherwise known as the one-third point. The Bombers are on pace to go 93-69, which I think exceeds expectations coming into the year. For a while the mantra was just tread water until the injured guys come back, but instead New York is tied for first place in the AL East with the Red Sox. Of course, they’re also just two games out of fourth place in the loss column. The division is as tight as anticipated so far.
The old saying is that the first third of the season is for evaluating, the second third is for making changes, and the final third is for riding those changes out. So, with that in mind, lets take a look at what happened over the last two months to see where the Yankees need to improve and where they can stand pat.
Rock Solid: The Starting Rotation
The Yankees have already used seven different starters in 2013, and collectively they’ve pitched to a 3.79 ERA (3.88 FIP) in 318.1 innings. Hiroki Kuroda (2.39 ERA/3.37 FIP) has emerged as the ace with CC Sabathia (3.71/3.75) running into some early troubles, which are almost certainly related to his overall loss in velocity. He’s getting up there in age and there are a lot of miles on that arm, it happens. Sabathia showed last night that it’s a little too early to pen that career obituary — the ability to be an ace is still in there.
As expected, Phil Hughes (4.97/4.70) and David Phelps (4.32/3.42) have had some ups and downs. Ivan Nova (6.48/3.66) lost his rotation spot to Phelps thanks in part to a triceps injury that landed him on the DL for close to a month, but he was on his way to losing the job based on his performance anyway. Andy Pettitte (3.83/4.16) has been his typically reliable self when he’s actually been on the mound — back and trap issues have limited him to just eight starts so far. Those nagging issues have given Vidal Nuno (2.12/4.24) a shot, and he’s done well in three spots starts.
With two aces (potentially), a rock solid number three (when healthy), and a collection of four back-end guys, the Yankees do have some rotation depth and appear to be in good shape going forward. Obviously that can change in an instant, but the rotation is not a pressing need right now. I don’t think they have enough depth to trade away a starter, but it shouldn’t be completely off the table under the right circumstances. The rotation was going to have to carry this club early on, and it has.
Needs Work: The Offense
It’s been a long, long time since the Yankees fielded an everyday lineup this bad. They average just 4.1 runs per game — they’ve scored the fewest runs in the division by 19 (!) — with a team 89 wRC+, their worst offensive attack since the early-1990s. Yeah, it’s been a while. Obviously losing Mark Teixeira (wrist), Kevin Youkilis (back), Alex Rodriguez (hip), Derek Jeter (ankle), and Curtis Granderson (forearm, hand) for extended periods of time hasn’t helped matters.
Robinson Cano (133 wRC+) has been the rock in the middle of the lineup even though he’s run a little cold of late. Vernon Wells (100 wRC+) and Travis Hafner (126 wRC+) were outstanding in April before hitting the skids in May, but they’ve been Cano’s primary running mates in the middle of the order. Brett Gardner (103 wRC+) has done a good job of setting the table all season, and Frankie Cervelli (138 wRC+) was a big contributor before a foul tip broke his hand and sent him to the DL. Lyle Overbay (98 wRC+) chipped in some big hits during Teixeira’s absence.
Shortstop and right field have been big problem areas this year, ditto catcher since Cervelli’s injury. A collection of replacement level types — Eduardo Nunez, Reid Brignac, Jayson Nix, and Alberto Gonzalez — have mustered a 53 wRC+ filling in for Jeter while Ichiro Suzuki (65 wRC+) has done most of the damage himself in right. Chris Stewart (80 wRC+) and Austin Romine (-35 wRC+) have been just awful since Cervelli got hurt. Brennan Boesch (120 wRC+) and David Adams (78 wRC+) have been alright in part-time roles, Ben Francisco (12 wRC+) and Chris Nelson (36 wRC+) … not so much. Those last two guys have already been dropped from the roster.
Teixeira and Youkilis returned to the lineup just last night, and while they will be a nice boost, the Yankees still need more offensively. Granderson, Jeter, and Cervelli aren’t returning anytime soon, so the club should probably explore trade scenarios for right, short, and behind the plate. Shortstop is the big one to me; Jeter has already had one setback and it shouldn’t be a surprise if his rehab continues to progress slowly. There aren’t many quality shortstops out there to be had, but I do think the Yankees should look hard for one, even if they have to overpay a bit. It’s been a major weakness.
Exceeding Expectations: The Bullpen
We’ve gotten used to the Bombers having strong bullpens over the years, and this season is no different. Joe Girardi‘s relief corps owns a stellar 3.28 ERA (3.35 FIP) in 164.2 innings, and they have the fifth highest strikeout rate (9.73 K/9 and 26.0 K%) in all the land. Unsurprisingly, Mariano Rivera (1.77 ERA/2.47 FIP) and David Robertson (2.78/3.20) have been rocks in the late-innings.
Joba Chamberlain (3.38/2.88) missed a month with an oblique injury, allowing both Shawn Kelley (5.57/3.59) and call-up Preston Claiborne (0.61/2.45) to emerge as middle inning weapons. Kelley has been a strikeout machine of late, whiffing 21 of the last 39 men he’s faced (53.8%). Boone Logan (1.80/2.86) has been fine overall as Girardi’s only southpaw. Adam Warren (2.10/3.34) has proven to be as reliable a long man as you’ll find. Nova spent a few days in long relief as well, but as since been sent to Triple-A. Others like Cody Eppley, Brett Marshall, and David Huff have come and gone with
little or no impact. That collection of non-Rivera/Robertson relievers have really done an excellent job.
Outside of maybe adding a second left-hander — Clay Rapada is in Triple-A and Cesar Cabral is working his way back up the rehab ladder — the Yankees are pretty well set in the bullpen. Again, that could change in a hurry, but right now there are more than enough bodies for each role: long relief, middle relief, and late-innings. It’s been speculated that Joba could be made available in a trade given the emergence of Claiborne and Kelley, but I don’t see it happening at this point in time. Maybe in a few weeks.
* * *
The Yankees have exceeded expectations so far thanks mostly to the pitching staff. A handful of position players chipped in a few big weeks, but overall the offense remains a concern going forward. For an AL East team in a small ballpark, a little more than four runs a game just isn’t good enough. The injured guys will be back at some point, but I don’t think the team should just sit around and wait. If there’s an upgrade available, they need to pounce and worry about the roster logjam later. New York has more obvious needs right now than at any other one-third point in recent memory.
For the first time since signing with the Yankees, CC Sabathia is truly a concern. His last three starts have gotten progressively worse, culminating with Sunday’s seven-run, seven-inning disaster against the Rays. It was the fourth time he allowed four or more runs in his last seven starts, raising his season ERA to 3.96 (4.09 FIP). The eleven homers he’s surrendered are half last season’s total in a little more than one-third of the innings, and the weather hasn’t warmed up much yet. He’s a concern, there’s no sugarcoating it.
“It’s everything,” said Sabathia to Mark Feinsand following Sunday’s game when asked what was wrong. “Not being able to make pitches with two strikes, fastball command. It’s just not being good … I’ve been through bad stretches in my career, but it’s tough. It’s just one of those things where you’ve got to keep working, keep going and believe that you’re going to get better. I’ve just got to make better pitches, do a better job of getting outs pitching to contact and not getting behind in hitter’s counts.”
That’s some fine generic pitcher speak right there, which unfortunately isn’t very helpful. We shouldn’t be surprised by a player declining to explicitly discuss his struggles, however. It’s typical. Sabathia is clearly frustrated though, it’s evident in his body language. Here, just look at his reaction to the Sean Rodriguez homer from Sunday:
When was the last time you saw Sabathia show outward frustration like that? I can’t remember it ever happening, certainly not before this season at least. He’s pitching poorly and it’s starting to wear on him. It’s perfectly normal. We’re talking about one of baseball’s best pitchers over the last half-decade suddenly struggling as much as he has at any time in his career. It’s a shock to the system.
Anecdotally, it seems like hitters are squaring up Sabathia much more often this year, at least compared to his other four years in New York. That isn’t showing up in his line drive rate — 21.8%, which is only a touch higher than last year (21.1%) and his career average (20.3%) — but batted ball data is fickle since it’s subject to score bias. More balls squared up could mean deeper fly balls that are still caught for outs, harder hit ground balls that still go for singles. That’s what it seems like to me, anyway.
Is that problem related to his velocity drop? It very well could be. Fastballs are not independent events — they setup everything else, and for Sabathia that’s his slider and changeup. It’s an awful lot easier to sit back on mid-80s sliders and changeups when the fastball is humming in at 89-91 instead of 93-95. Sabathia hasn’t altered his pitch selection a ton, at least in the sense that he threw 53.9% fastballs last year and 52.0% this year. That’s a small difference. He has thrown more changeups and fewer sliders than last year, but at this point of the season it could just be a sample size thing. Overall, he isn’t throwing more non-fastballs in 2013.
“The only way the velocity (is a problem) is if it’s changing his arm angle because he’s trying to muster or anything else,” said pitching coach Larry Rothschild to Feinsand on Sunday. “I don’t really see that. I think he’s trying to make pitches with what he’s got on a given day and staying within deliveries and trying to execute pitches. Early in the season he had the same velocity and pitched really well. I think it’s just executing pitches a little bit better.”
Command has appeared to be an issue for Sabathia at times this year, but there really isn’t a way to show that statistically. Walk rates and zone rates speak more to control and throwing strikes in general than command, which is throwing quality strikes. Dotting the edges, staying at the knees, pitching to the hole in the hitter’s swing, hitting the mitt, stuff like that. You can always tell when CC is off because his fastball sails up and away to righties, which I suppose could stem from overthrowing and trying to force velocity rather than just letting the ball come out naturally. I haven’t noticed if that is happening more frequently this year, however.
I have no idea what’s wrong with Sabathia. I don’t think it’s as simple is “he lost some velocity and therefore took a big step back in effectiveness,” though. His days of doing anything more than touching 94+ are probably long gone, which is perfectly normal for a 32-year-old pitcher with over 2,700 big league innings on his arm. Adjustments have to be made and that could take time — it took Mike Mussina all of 2007 to reinvent himself, for example — but it’s becoming more and more clear with each start that the Sabathia of old isn’t coming back. Given the offense and the team’s desperate need for strong pitching, the Yankees need those adjustments to come sooner rather than later. Until they come, CC’s performance is a problem.
Left-hander Vidal Nuno will start the second game of Monday’s doubleheader against the Indians, Joe Girardi confirmed. David Phelps starts the first game. Brett Marshall will apparently be on standby in case an extra long man needs to be added between games.
Nuno, 25, will be making his first career big league start. He last pitched 13 days ago, throwing 38 pitches in long relief. That is his only big league appearance to date. Nune hasn’t started a game in three weeks, but I’m sure they’ll be able to squeeze 80 or so pitches out of him anyway. If they get five innings, they’ll probably be thrilled. Adam Warren is the obvious piggyback candidate if he isn’t needed in game one.
Via George King & Chad Jennings: Joe Girardi confirmed Ivan Nova is a candidate to start one game of Monday’s doubleheader against the Indians if he comes through today’s Extended Spring Training game well. “As long as he feels good and throws the ball well (it’s possible),” said the skipper. “We are allowed to add that 26th man [for doubleheaders].”
Nova, 26, is on the DL with a triceps issue and is eligible to be activated on Sunday. I’m probably reading too much into this, but I thought it was interesting Girardi mentioned the 26th man. The rules say the 26th player has to go back to the minors immediately following the doubleheader, so either they’ll have to rearrange the bullpen — technically send down Vidal Nuno or Preston Claiborne, called them back up as the 26th man — or Nova’s going to minors to work on things following that game. My money’s on the former.
The Yankees handled most of their offseason pitching business back in November, when they re-signed the veteran trio of Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, and Hiroki Kuroda. With David Phelps set to serve as the sixth starter and Michael Pineda on his way back from shoulder surgery, the team had some depth. They did, however, spend some time looking for a veteran seventh starter type to stash in Triple-A, just someone to have around in case all hell broke loose. It wasn’t a huge priority, but it was definitely an item on the agenda.
It wasn’t until late-March, near the very end of Spring Training that the Yankees found their seventh starter. They signed former ace Chien-Ming Wang to a minor league contract after his solid showing in the World Baseball Classic and impressive private workouts for the team in Tampa. The sinkerballer has since made three starts for Triple-A Scranton (0.95 ERA, 2.94 FIP, 59% grounders) and declined to use the first opt-out clause in his contract earlier this week. The next opt-out date is a little less than a month away.
Wang, 33, is nowhere near the pitcher he was during his 2005-2008 heyday with the Yankees. Injuries, most notably surgery for a torn shoulder capsule in 2009, have sapped some heat from his trademark sinker, which used to regularly sit in the 93-96 mph range. Reports from his last Triple-A start indicate he touched the 90-91 mph, which is a step up from where he was in his first two outings. The television gun during the WBC in March had him right around 90 mph, but TV guns are not to be trusted.
“(It was a) cold night, but his fastball velocity was only 87-88, with some sink … Not the Wang of old. Threw strikes, but not impressive for me,” said one scout who had seen CMW recently to Andy Martino. Torn capsules are no joke, no one has ever come back from one and had the same kind of success they had before the injury. That’s a list of pitchers that includes Mark Prior, John Maine, Johan Santana, and Rich Harden.
Despite all of that, I find myself cautiously optimistic about Wang’s ability to contribute to the big league team at some point this year. I’m certain that feeling is mostly nostalgia-driven, but he did somewhat resemble the CMW of old during the WBC — thanks to the plethora of quick ground ball outs — and is showing decent velocity in the upper levels of the minors. I’m not sure what more we could ask for at this point.
The Yankees have some questions at the back of the rotation right now thanks to Ivan Nova‘s triceps and the general uncertainty surrounding David Phelps and Vidal Nuno. Add in Andy Pettitte’s and Phil Hughes‘ recent back trouble, and it’s not a stretch to think the team may have to call on Wang at some point this summer. Will he show enough to earn that shot, and furthermore, will he stick around long enough to take advantage of it? If he continues to pitch well in Triple-A and settles into that 90-91 mph consistently, I have to think some teams will come calling with big league offers when that next opt-out date comes around in a few weeks.
Something about Wang being back healthy and back in the organization makes me irrationally happy. Irrationally happy and hopeful. I know he’s so very unlikely to help the team in a meaningful way this year — he hasn’t been an effective big leaguer since hurting his foot in 2008, remember — but the fan in me wants to see him and that sinker in pinstripes having success. At the same time, I know that if Wang does resurface in the Bronx, it’s because something will have gone wrong elsewhere on the pitching staff. CMW is pitching well enough and showing encouraging velocity in Triple-A right now, and as tough as it is, we have to be careful not to get our hopes up too much.
Poor Aprils are nothing new for Phil Hughes. The right-hander pitched to a 9.00 ERA in April 2008, a 13.94 ERA in April 2011, and a 7.88 ERA in April 2012. He went into last night’s start against the Rays with a 6.95 ERA with a 5.36 FIP in 90.2 career innings during the season’s first month. I guess it’s just one of those things, maybe the Southern California guy doesn’t like the cold weather or something.
Anyway, Hughes had an excuse for his slow to start to this season. He missed all of Spring Training with a bulging disk in his back and the Yankees activated him off the DL sooner than expected because the bullpen was a mess and David Phelps was needed in relief. In his first two starts, the 26-year-old Hughes looked very much like a pitcher who was shaking off the last bit of rust at the end of camp. The result was nine runs in seven total innings, plus two losses in the standings.
Phil’s last two starts have been much, much better. Two runs in seven innings against the Diamondbacks last week, then another two runs in seven innings against the division rival Rays last night. In those 14 innings he allowed 12 hits (two solo homers) and two walks while striking out a dozen. Solid but not spectacular, similar to his performance from mid-May to mid-September last year. As I mentioned in the game recap last night, Hughes pounded the zone against Tampa — first pitch strikes to 24 of 27 (!) batters faced, 78 of 109 total pitches for strikes (72%) — and that’s encouraging.
The obvious answer for the recent turnaround is simply rounding into game shape after the injury-interrupted Spring Training. Hughes did all his preparation work in simulated games and minor league contests, so he didn’t face any big leaguers or throw with any fans in the stands. nothing like that. Hardly ideal conditions really, but the back issue forced the team’s hand. For what it’s worth, Phil made no excuses about his slow start and said he was ready to go when the team stuck him in the rotation sooner than expected.
“I wouldn’t have come up in Detroit if they didn’t feel like I was ready,” said Hughes to Mark Feinsand following last night’s game. “I certainly feel like I’ve made positive steps forward since then. I was ready then, I just didn’t execute that well against Detroit and obviously terribly against Baltimore … These games count whether you got a full Spring Training or not. The first two were tough, the next two were better. Hopefully that trend continues.”
This season is a big one in a lot of ways for Hughes. The elephant in the room is him impending free agency, as his performance in the coming months will dictate whether he gets a decent contract or really breaks the bank. The team also needs him to pitch well every time out because they can’t lean on their offense as they have in the past, especially against left-handers. Not that this April has been great overall, but another truly awful showing in the season’s first month would have hurt both his free agent stock and the team’s place in the standings.
I don’t think Yankees fans are ever going to be able to separate the reality of what Hughes has become from the disappointment of what he was supposed to be, but he’s settled in as more than serviceable number four starter in recent years. Someone who will occasionally flash brilliance while generating his fair share of frustration. He shook off those dreadful first two starts to turn in two really strong outings in the last week, and that’s the kind of stuff that can get hopes up. Phil has taken some positive steps forward lately, but the Yankees don’t need him to emerge as an ace. Those days are long gone. They just need him to give them enough of a chance to win every give days, and right now that’s exactly what he’s doing.