40 Days Until the Deadline: Yanks Watching Wandy

(Thearon W. Henderson)

At last year’s trade deadline the Yankees, as we all expected, explored essentially every available pitcher. After failing to significantly upgrade the rotation during the winter, and especially after losing Phil Hughes early in the season, they had little choice. The need for pitching immediately connected them to Astros lefty Wandy Rodriguez. With an ownership change inevitable, the Astros were in firesale mode. But even with speculation of a deal to the Yankees lasting right up until 4 p.m. last July 31st, nothing happened. Might 2012 be better timing for the Yankees?

There was a time last year when I really did think Rodriguez would end up with the Yankees. He was slated to become a free agent after the 2011 season, making it a near lock that the Astros would trade him. But in late January then-GM Ed Wade surprised everyone by signing Rodriguez to a three-year, $34 million extension. That did cover 2011, but it also contained a $13 million option for 2014, which 1) could be guaranteed based on performance, and 2) becomes a player option if he’s traded.

With that one move the chances of Rodriguez becoming a Yankee plummeted. Given his performances from 2008 through 2010, the contract itself might have seemed reasonable. It ran through his age-34 season, age-35 if the option vested. And it was for a relatively reasonable salary. But what makes sense for the Astros doesn’t necessarily make sense for other teams in the league. Picking up Rodriguez knowing that his 2014 option will essentially become guaranteed is far less attractive than renting him for a half a season.

Still, the Yankees are looking under every rock for possible upgrades. As we heard yesterday, the Yankees were among a handful of teams present for Rodriguez’s performance against the Royals this week. It doesn’t mean much at this very moment, but if the Yankees do need a starter come July, Rodriguez might be one of the more attractive names available.

Last year the two sides reportedly could not agree on how much money the Astros would absorb in a trade. Sensing the Astros’ desperation to move his contract, the Yankees wanted them to pick up a significant portion. Yet the Astros were not quite that desperate, and ended up holding onto Rodriguez. With a year less of service time to offer, the price on Rodriguez has likely come down from last year. Then again, there is a new owner and front office in place, and their goals might differ from the departing owner and lame duck GM that ran the show last July.

For his part, Rodriguez has pitched well in 2012. His strikeout rate is down enormously, but then so is his walk rate. The net is a 2.77 K/BB ratio that stands a bit above his 2.4 career average. Yes, he does pitch in the NL Central, but that doesn’t mean he’s avoiding the league’s best hitters. In fact, Rodriguez has the 17th highest quality of opponents’ OPS in the league (minimum 50 IP). The Yankee who has faced the toughest opponents this year is CC Sabathia, who ranks 59th. So while Rodriguez’s performances might be undersold because of where he pitches, he’s still facing tougher hitters than any Yankee starter, despite facing the pitcher every ninth batter.

Given the Yankees’ goal of a $189 million payroll for 2014, it’s unlikely they pick up any pitcher who has a contract that will cost them that year. Then again, he does only net $11.5 million in 2014 ($13 mil salary minus $2.5 million buyout). Perhaps he would opt to test the market at age 36, hoping for a two-year deal that will boost his guaranteed earnings. But then again, it’s unlikely the Yankees would bank on that, especially with him moving to the tougher league.

Why can’t Hughes put away batters after getting ahead?

This pitch probably resulted in a homer. (Al Bello/Getty Images)

Big ups to Moshe Mandel for coming up with the foundation for this article.

With his four home runs surrendered yesterday, Phil Hughes sits behind only Jason Vargas for the MLB lead in home runs allowed. Of course, Vargas has pitched 24 more innings, so Hughes has the lead in home runs allowed per nine innings pitched (2.18). This wouldn’t be so surprising if it weren’t for Hughes’s other peripheral statistics.

Hughes has both a low walk rate and a relatively high strikeout rate. While he’s not fanning batters at a Strasburgian rate, he still ranks 7th out of 47 qualified AL starters in strikeout rate. At the same time he’s shown good control, ranking 14th lowest in walk rate. That’s good for a 3.85 K/BB ratio, which ranks fourth in the AL. How is someone dominant enough to strike out more than his share of hitters, while at the same time showing enough control to avoid giving them free passes, manage to allow so many home runs?

Losing while ahead

One result of Hughes’s control is that he often works ahead in the count. He has faced 341 hitters this year, of which 83 have gone to an 0-2 count. That’s 24.3 percent of all hitters he’s faced. The AL average is just 19.3 percent of all PA. Yet hitters have had a field day once they’re this far behind. The average AL hitter has a .166 BA and .250 SLG in PA when they’ve seen an 0-2 count. In PA when Hughes has gotten ahead 0-2 hitters have a .253 BA and .494 SLG. Even worse, when the count is 0-2 AL hitters have a .146 BA and .222 SLG. Against Hughes with an 0-2 count they have a .294 BA and — I’m not even kidding — a .618 SLG. When Hughes is ahead in the count, opponents have hit .236/.242/.394 against him. The average AL pitcher holds opponents to a .201/.210/.300 line while ahead.

Fastball heavy

Unsurprisingly, Hughes ranks near the top of the leader boards in fastball percentage. He’s used his for more than two-thirds of his overall pitches. That does not include his cutter usage. The names ahead of him are all known for the movement on their fastballs. Bartolo Colon has the two-seamer we loved last year. Justin Masterson, Rick Porcello, and Henderson Alvarez get ground balls due to the sinking action on their fastballs. Matt Moore does have a two-seamer. Yet Hughes throws a relatively straight four-seamer.

It is unsurprising, then, that Hughes has allowed 12 of his 19 home runs on the fastball. That’s 63 percent, which is slightly below his fastball usage rate, but given the sample size it’s close enough. At the same time, Hughes has used the fastball as a swing and miss weapon. Before yesterday’s game batters missed once every five swings. It’s clear that while seemingly straight, Hughes’s fastball can sneak up on a batter and cause him to swing and miss. It is easily his best pitch.

Cutting out what doesn’t work

After giving up many long balls early in the season, Hughes did make an adjustment. He had been throwing his cutter, but it wasn’t an effective weapon. He threw it 62 times, and three times batters took it out of the park. That looks even worse when we see that batters swung at it only 26 times. That’s more than one in 10 swings resulting in a home run. The cutter just wasn’t working.

Hughes threw the cutter 47 times in April, but only 15 in May. It’s pretty clear that he cut it out at some point during that month, because he hasn’t thrown it once in June. That happens to coincide with his string of very good starts, yesterday excluded. In fact, before yesterday he’d given up just one home run on his fastball in June, of 244 pitches and 130 swings. Unfortunately, he did surrender three homers on the fastball yesterday.

Trying something different

Yankees’ pro scouting manager Will Kuntz noted two changes in Hughes’s secondary arsenal, aside from scrapping the cutter. “He’s using his curveball as a first pitch,” says Kuntz. Second, Kuntz says that he changed his grip on his changeup recently — before a start against Kansas City, he estimates. “It’s a great pitch for him,” says Kuntz. “He’s getting more comfortable with it.”

Hughes’s adaptation to his fastball, curve, changeup arsenal might take some time. He had indeed worked on a changeup in spring training, and did try to work it into his arsenal. He threw it 12 percent of the time in April and May. He’s throwing it about half as frequently in June. He was at six percent coming into yesterday’s game, and threw the changeup just six of 83 pitches yesterday. Getting comfortable with it, it seems, is a process.

Hughes did ramp up his curveball usage from April, 12 percent, to May, 21 percent. Yet in June that had dropped to 16 percent going into yesterday’s game. In a way that makes sense. As Kuntz said, he’s using it more early in the count, setting up his fastball. We saw how frequently Hughes works ahead of hitters. If he’s using his fastball as his biggest attack weapon, it does seem that he’d be throwing it more frequently than before (when he was presumably trying to use his curve as a weapon to finish off hitters).

Yesterday, however, Hughes went curveball heavy, throwing it 31 times (37.3 percent). Six of the 19 batters he faced saw it as a first pitch. Nine times he threw it with an even count, and just four times he threw it when behind in the count. I’m honestly not sure what this amounts to, but it’s interesting that he increased his curveball usage in a start where his average fastball was stuck in the low 90s in the first few innings. He didn’t hit 94 until the fourth, and then only twice. It was mostly 91 to 92 on the day.

Still no explanation

While there is plenty of information here, it still doesn’t paint a clear picture of why Hughes’s results line up as they do. “Some guys are wild in the zone,” says Kuntz. “It’s a matter of command, usually. They’re supposed to be down and away.” So Hughes can keep it around the zone, but not necessarily where he wants it in the zone. When he hits, then, it’s a whiff. When he misses, he might not get the ball back.

Kuntz also spoke of Hughes’s bulldog mentality. We’ve heard this term used to describe many pitchers. RAB readers will remember that those who favored Joba Chamberlain pitching out of the pen often cited his bulldog mentality. What does that mean for Hughes, though? Does it mean that he attacks too hard when ahead in the count and is therefore more prone to mistakes? Does it mean that he’s better fit for the bullpen, where he can really unleash his fastball and need only one other pitch?

It’s difficult for experienced members of the Yankees’ organization to answer this question, let alone you or me. Hughes is, by statistical standards, turning in a unique season. Looking at all pitchers with at least 50 IP from 1901 to 2012, only three other pitchers have had a K/BB ratio of 3.5 or greater, with a HR/9 of 2.0 or greater. The other three aren’t exactly power pitchers, though. If we look at pitchers with a K/9 of more than 8.5 per nine and a BB/9 of lower than 2.5 per nine, Hughes stands alone. Yes, using a mere 50 IP qualifier, he is the only pitcher in modern history to feature his current statistical profile.

Maybe this is why he’ll continue to get chances. He clearly has good stuff. He’s shown signs of life at times. And no one can really explain what’s going on. Hughes is really in a world of his own right now.

Curtis Granderson’s Missing Steals

(REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

When the Yankees acquired Curtis Granderson from the Tigers two and a half years ago, they acquired one of only 18 players with at least 50 homers and 50 steals from 2007-2009. He was a true power-speed threat, and through his first two years in New York he lived up to the billing with 65 homers and 37 steals. Last year he became just the 11th player in history to hit 40 homers while stealing 25 bases in a single season. Granderson is still smacking dingers with the best of ’em in 2012 — fourth in the game with 21 homers — but his speed game has taken a step back.

Through 68 games this season, Granderson has stolen just three bases in six attempts. Two of those steals came in back-to-back games in Detroit earlier this month and the other came against the Mariners in mid-May. This dates back to last year as well; Granderson stole 19 bases in the team’s first 100 games of 2011 but just six in the final 62 contests. In his last 128 games played, Curtis has stolen just nine bases in 13 attempts. The table below lists his success rates (SB%) and his attempt rate (SBO%) since becoming a full-time player in 2006…

Year Age Tm SBO SB CS SB% SBO%
2006 25 DET 298 8 5 62% 4%
2007 26 DET 292 26 1 96% 9%
2008 27 DET 278 12 4 75% 6%
2009 28 DET 241 20 6 77% 11%
2010 29 NYY 154 12 2 86% 9%
2011 30 NYY 232 25 10 71% 16%
2012 31 NYY 90 3 3 50% 7%
9 Yrs 1653 107 32 77% 8%
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 6/21/2012.

Once he got his first full season under his belt, Granderson attempted a stolen base in at least 9% of his opportunities every season from 2007-2011 save for one. From 2009-2011, he ran in a whopping 12% of his his opportunities, but this year it’s down to just 7%. He isn’t running as much and his success rate has suffered, particularly in this year’s small sample.

So now the questions becomes: why isn’t Granderson running as often as he once did? We could come up with a million different reasons but we’ll never know which one(s) is correct. Maybe he just doesn’t want to wear himself out knowing he has to play center field everyday with Brett Gardner on the DL. Maybe he’s playing through a minor injury and doesn’t want to aggravate it. Maybe he just decided he’d rather focus on his power stroke and not worry about stealing bases as he gets into his early-30s. Like I said, a million possible explanations.

The good news is that Granderson is still taking the extra base — first to third on a single, etc. — in more than 50% of opportunities, which is well above the league average. It doesn’t appear to be an issue of declining speed, he just isn’t stealing many bases. It’s not a huge problem because base-running is one of the least impactful aspects of the game, but it is a big part of what Curtis Granderson has to offer. For the last 125 games or so, he just hasn’t been doing it.

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Braves win Homerun Derby, beat Yanks 10-5

For the first time since the losing two of three in Anaheim, the Yankees have lost a series. The Braves beat New York at their own game by clubbing homer after homer en route to a blowout win.

(Al Bello/Getty Images)

Homerun Hughes

Phil Hughes‘ homerun problem isn’t exactly a secret. His last start against the Nationals was the first time all year he did not allow a dinger in an outing, but he more than made up for it on Wednesday. Atlanta tagged him for a career-high four homers allowed in 4.1 innings, a two-run shot by Freddie Freeman and solo jacks by Jason Heyward, Martin Prado, and David Ross. It was crazy hot this afternoon and the ball was flying out of the park, a disaster combination for Phil.

The end result was six runs in those 4.1 innings, only the second time Hughes has allowed more than two runs in his last eight starts and more than four runs in his last eleven starts. He did manage to strike out five while walking zero, but that’s hardly any kind of consolation. Phil has pitched very well of late and fell off the wagon for a start, hopefully it’s nothing more than that.

Homerun Yankees

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

It wasn’t just the Braves that were teeing off, the Yankees hit four dingers of their own. Derek Jeter hit Tommy Hanson’s first pitch out of the yard for a solo blast, his fourth leadoff homer of the season. Doesn’t that seem like an awful lot? Four leadoff homers seems like a season’s worth. Eric Chavez clubbed a fifth inning solo blast off Hanson, then Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano went back-to-back off Atlanta’s starter to open the sixth and end his afternoon. They were all solo homers though, and as they say, those won’t kill you. Four usually does though. Usually.

Where’s Andruw? Part Two

For the second straight game, Raul Ibanez was left in to face the left-handed Jonny Venters with men on-base in the late innings of a close ballgame. He struck out to end the seventh on Tuesday night, then grounded into a double play on Wednesday afternoon. The Yankees were down two runs, the first three batters of the inning reached base, but Andruw Jones was nowhere to be found*. We’re not splitting atoms here, Ibanez is terrible against same-side pitchers and shouldn’t face them, especially in close games.

* Jones did eventually pinch-hit for Ibanez with one man on in the eighth, after the deficit had swelled from two runs to four. Annoying.

Blown Open

The Yankees were down just one as late as the eighth inning, but the Braves blew things open off the bullpen. Chavez booted a potential double play ball and not only allowed a run to score in that eighth inning, but it extended the rally. One batter later, Heyward hit his second homer of the game, a two-run shot to really blow things open. The usually reliable Cory Wade and Boone Logan really let things get out of hand that inning. The deficit grew from one-run to five and that was that.

You can have third base, we’ll take the 1996 and 1999 World Championships. (Al Bello/Getty)

Leftovers

The nine total homers are the most in New Stadium history — eight had been done three previous times and not since 2010 — and tied for the most in the history of any Yankee Stadium. That’s a long time. Hughes and Hanson became the 11th pair of opposing starters to each allow four homers in a game in baseball history. This was the first time the Yankees were involved. Again, that’s a long time. The Yankees hit four homers and lost for the first time since the third game of last season, another Hughes start.

Hughes, Wade, Logan, and Freddy Garcia all got smacked around pretty well, but Cody Eppley and Clay Rapada really held the Braves down in the middle inning. Eppley retired all three men he faced — one strikeout, one grounder, one fly ball — and Rapada struck out all four dudes he faced. One of them was even a righty, so hooray for that. He hasn’t allowed a hit since the last Rays series, a span of 20 batters faced. Bravo.

Every hitter in the starting lineup had a hit except for Ibanez and Jayson Nix while Jeter (homer and a walk), Cano (homer and a single), Chavez (homer and a walk), and Russell Martin (double and two walks) each reached base multiple times. I’m sure you were expecting a massive RISPFAIL number, but they were only 1-for-4. Lots of solo homers will do that.

Fun fact: this is the first time all the season the Yankees allowed double-digit runs. Bet you didn’t see that coming. They had allowed nine runs just twice, once in the massive Fenway Park comeback win and then once during that nightmare series in Anaheim. The Yankees have lost two in a row after winning ten straight and are still 20-6 in their last 26 games. I’ll take it.

Box score, WPA Graph & Standings

MLB.com has the box score and video highlights, FanGraphs the nerd score, ESPN the updated standings.


Source: FanGraphs

Up Next

The Yankees are off on Thursday then will head to Flushing for the final series of interleague play, a three-game set with the Mets. Left-handers Andy Pettitte and Jon Niese will start Friday evening. Check out RAB Tickets if you want to head to the game.

Cust and Branyan homer in Triple-A loss

Bernie Williams will manage the World Team during the Futures Game next month, the Yankees announced. That’ll be neat. George Brett will run the USA Team since the game is being played in Kansas City. The rosters will be announced tomorrow and I have to think someone from the OF Mason Williams, OF Tyler Austin, and C Gary Sanchez trio will represent the Yankees. Each organization gets at least one representative but no more than two. I’d go Austin and Sanchez given the seasons they’re having, but that’s just me.

Meanwhile, OF Jake Cave is unlikely to play this year due to his knee cap injury. If he does play, it probably won’t be until Instructional League after the season.

Triple-A Empire State (5-3 loss to Louisville) apparently they won’t be known as the Yankees much longer
CF Chris Dickerson: 0-4, 1 BB
2B Corban Joseph & LF Ronnie Mustelier: both 1-3, 1 BB — CoJo committed a fielding error … Mustelier scored a run
DH Jack Cust: 1-3, 1 R, 1 HR, 1 RBI, 1 BB, 1 K — already his 14th homer, which caught me off guard … hadn’t realized he’s hit that many
1B Russell Branyan: 1-3, 1 R, 1 HR, 2 RBI, 1 BB — eight dingers in 21 games
3B Brandon Laird & SS Doug Bernier: both 0-4 — Laird struck out twice, Bernier all four times … Bernier also committed a throwing error
RF Colin Curtis & C Gus Molina: both 0-3, 1 BB — Curtis struck out twice, Molina once
RHP Dellin Betances: 4.2 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 7 BB, 6 K, 2 WP, 4/3 GB/FB — 48 of 92 pitches were strikes (52.2%) … that’s a season-high in walks
RHP Chase Whitley: 2 IP, 3 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 2 BB, 0 K, 1 HB, 3/2 GB/FB — 24 of 35 pitches were strikes (68.6%)
LHP Justin Thomas: 0.1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 0 K, 2/0 GB/FB — eight of 14 pitches were strikes
RHP Ryota Igarashi: 1 IP, zeroes, 3/0 GB/FB — 16 pitches, a dozen strikes

[Read more…]

Report: Yasel Puig defects from Cuba

9:00pm: Kevin Goldstein provided a brief scouting report on Puig: “Physical, plus runner, avg bat, avg power, decent in CF, not a lock to stay there.”

11:30am: Via Jesse Sanchez, 21-year-old outfielder Yasel Puig has defected from Cuba and is in the process of establishing residency in Mexico. Listed at 6-foot-3 and 210 lbs., he is tentatively scheduled to work out for teams later this week. Puig’s agent is in the process of getting his client declared a free agent so he can sign prior to July 2nd, when he would become subject to the spending restrictions implemented by the new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

There isn’t much info out there about Puig, who Sanchez describes as “not as seasoned” as Yoenis Cespedes but with “more experience (at a high level)” as Jorge Soler. That doesn’t tell us anything meaningful, unfortunately. He hit 17 homers in Cuba’s top league two seasons ago but did not play last year because they caught him trying to defect and suspended him indefinitely. Here’s a highlight video edited to make Puig look like a superstar-in-waiting. No word on the Yankees’ level of interest or anything like that, all we know right now is that he successful escaped Cuba.