A Lesson In Trust: Hughes vs. Nova

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

There’s no question that the first few innings of Phil Hughes‘ outing last night were rocky. He put at least one man on base in each of the first four innings, averaging almost exactly 20 pitches per frame. He escaped a bases loaded jam in the fourth one inning after getting out of a first and second situation. The young righty clearly was having trouble throwing consistent, quality strikes, and after getting out of that fourth inning unscathed most thought that was the end of his night.

But no, Girardi sent Phil back out for the fifth and he responded with his strongest inning yet, retiring the Rays’ 3-4-5 hitters with a strikeout sandwiched around a pair of ground outs. With 97 pitches thrown and five innings in the bank, it seemed like a natural spot to summon someone from the bullpen. Again, Girardi fooled everyone by sending Hughes back out for the sixth, which ended up being his second consecutive 1-2-3 inning, this time on just eight pitches. Surely that was it after 105 pitches, right? Wrong, there was Hughes back out for the seventh. He threw six more pitches and allowed a single before recording an out to end his night. A case could be made that Girardi should have removed Phil two or three innings earlier, but he stuck with his 24-year-old righty.

Rewind to Monday. Rookie righthander Ivan Nova started the game for the Yanks, and he cruised right into the fifth inning on just 56 pitches, having allowed just a first inning single and a third inning walk along the way. That crucial fifth inning could not have gone any smoother, as Nova retired all three batters on just four pitches total. He was on autopilot, pounding the zone with fastballs and getting Tampa’s hitters to chase the curveball down and off the plate.

After the Yanks pushed a pair of runs across in the bottom of that fifth inning, Nova went back to work in the sixth and promptly allowed a leadoff single to Jason Bartlett. John Jaso followed that up with a five pitch walk, and then Ben Zobrist singled to load the bases with no outs and the Yanks up by four. Carl Crawford reached on a catcher’s interference, and after Evan Longoria plated a run on a double play to cut the lead to two, Girardi was out of the dugout to lift Nova after just 79 pitches.

What’s remarkable about both outings is how differently Girardi handled each pitcher. Hughes was left in until he had emptied the tank despite the stressful early innings while Nova wasn’t allowed to escape his own jam even though the Yanks were still up by two with two outs in the inning. Girardi surely had last week’s series in Tampa in mind, which included not only Nova’s fifth inning meltdown, but Dan Johnson’s go-ahead two run homer off Hughes after he sent him out for that proverbial “one more inning.” Even though both are relatively new to this big league starter thing, Girardi clearly gives Phil more rope right now.

Joel Sherman’s column today confirms what we already know, that Hughes is all but guaranteed a rotation spot in the postseason. Nova, despite what some other scribes want you to believe, is fighting for a spot on the playoff roster, nevermind a starting assignment. Oh sure, the bullpen situation certainly played a part in Girardi’s decisions the last two days, but this is nothing new. Nova’s been subjected to the quick hook all season (longest start: 91 pitches, only one other time over 79) while Hughes has been given a nice long leash (shortest start: 84 pitches, just nine under 100 pitches) all year long.  It’s appears to be a matter of getting what you can out of one guy while giving the other every opportunity to succeed and develop.

Trust is probably the wrong word to use in the title of this post, I think it’s more about development. Nova’s a fine pitcher and the Yankees seem to like him, but it’s undeniable that they adore Hughes and have gone to great lengths to help him reach his ceiling. In some cases that involves putting the big picture over a single game, something they have yet to come close to doing with Nova. The way they’ve handled both pitchers this season is pretty telling about what they think of each both right now, and down the road.

Rumor du Jour: Girardi’s unlikely replacements

As the Yanks sit upon the precipice of a playoff spot, it’s highly unlikely that Joe Girardi, despite a rough patch in early September, will be dismissed as the Yankee manager. The Yanks’ Front Office supports him, and the younger generation of Steinbrenners doesn’t seem so prone to rash personnel moves. Still, if Girardi himself chooses to take another job — say the opening in Chicago’s North Side — the Yanks will have to find a new manager. To that end, Jon Heyman, ever the rumormongerer, says that Bobby Valentine “likely would be one candidate to replace him in the Bronx.” Joe Torre’s name too has been bandied about by columnists looking for a narrative.

I say no way, no how on either candidate. Steve S. at TYU dispatches Torre while Rob Iracane at Walkoff walk seems to think that anyone advocating for Valentine’s return to the bench is delusional. The hand-wringing over Girardi’s contract is simply that. With the Yanks holding a secure playoff, the narrative of Girardi is one story to watch after the Word Series, but he’ll be back.

The subway just got a lot more attractive

If you’re riding the 42nd St. shuttle any time soon, be on the lookout for Yankees. As Ben writes on Second Avenue Sagas, MLB and TBS have started an ad campaign using not only advertising painted on the cars, but also video ads on the new 10 inch screens. Ben will have more on this in a bit, but definitely check out his SAS post for some neat pictures. Of note, there are apparently four players featured: Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, and Cliff Lee. Hmm…

Jeter makes noticeable changes at the plate

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

For most of the season Derek Jeter didn’t look like Derek Jeter at the plate. Sure, he appeared to have the same stance, but once the pitcher delivered the ball it seemed as though a different, much worse, hitter possessed him. He swung at almost everything, especially the first pitch of an at-bat, and when he put the ball in play it was mostly on the ground. It didn’t show much in the first month, as he produced a .380 wOBA. But in May the Captain’s flaws became exposed.

What’s odd about Jeter’s April and May is that it looks like the results should be reversed. In April Jeter walked in just three percent of his PA and hit the ball on the ground 71.3 percent of the time, yet he slugged .521 and had a .380 wOBA. In May he walked a bit more, 6.4 percent, and hit fewer balls on the ground, 63.1 percent, but is power dropped considerably and he slugged just .359. It looked like he might be recovering, but in June things got a bit worse.

Something must have changed after May, because Jeter’s BABIP plummeted. After a .325 BABIP in April and .337 in May, Jeter had a .268 BABIP in June and followed it up with .278 in both July and August. Watching Jeter’s swing it was clear that luck played only a minor role in this change. He was making weak contact with almost everything, grounding pitch after pitch to second and short. It not only led to him making more outs, but also making outs for others. After grounding into eight double plays in the season’s first three months, Jeter grounded into 11 in July and August.

In September things came to a head. Jeter went just 6 for 36 with two walks and two extra base hits in the month. His BABIP: .200. He was looking as poor as ever. During an extra innings game on September 10 in Texas Jeter went 1 for 7, and that seemed to be the breaking point. Joe Girardi gave him the next day off, during which he went to work with hitting instructor Kevin Long. The changes were subtle. Long had Jeter focus on striding straight forward rather than towards home plate. Try that at home; you’ll notice that you generate better bat speed when stepping straight forward. They also worked on the timing in Jeter’s front foot tap and his leg kick. But would these changes translate into results?

The effect was almost immediately noticeable. Almost every Yankee looked poor against Cliff Lee the next day, but Jeter managed to put together four superb plate appearances that included two walks and an RBI double. Since then he has at least one hit in every game and is overall 14 for 45 with five walks and four doubles (.311/.396/.400). It might sound like something you can dismiss with a small sample size disclaimer, but the changes are noticeable in Jeter’s approach. His swings look more authoritative, and he’s putting the ball in the air more often.

As you can see in his batted ball chart, ground balls are falling and line drives are rising. That’s the idea. Even fly balls seem to have a little uptick in the past few games. But even more important than the trajectory of the ball is that Jeter is hitting them hard. That’s a welcome change from his performance during the summer.

Is Derek Jeter cured? We’ve only seen him at work for a handful of games since Long’s intervention, but given the noticeably different approach and the results I think that Jeter has figured out what plagued him most of the season. The recovery couldn’t have come at a better time. The rest of the team picked him up for most of the season. Now it’s time for Jeter to shine in the postseason.

Two-out magic on Yanks’ side for once

"How the hell do we get these guys out?!" (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

We’ve all seen it and been frustrated by it before. A random Yankee pitcher is en route to having a nice clean inning by retiring the first two batters, but that third out turns into a chore. There’s a walk or a bloop hit, then another, then the run scoring double into the gap, and before you know the other team is threatening to break things open even though they had two outs and none on at one point in the inning. The Yanks seem to have been plagued by these two out rallies over the last few seasons, but last night they finally managed to turn the tables a little bit.

Nick Swisher opened the scoring with a solo homer in the very first inning, but of the eight runs he and his teammates pushed across, that was the only one to be scored with less than two outs. They scored four more runs in the inning when Jorge Posada singled one in with two outs, Lance Berkman doubled in a pair one batter later, and Granderson singled in another after that. Five runs in the inning, four with two outs. In fact, both Berkman and Granderson were in two strike counts when they got their hits.

With Swish on first in the seventh, Alex Rodriguez extended the inning with a two out single before Robbie Cano dunked the double into left to score both runners. Cano, like A-Rod, had two strikes on him at the time of the hit. The Yanks struck again the next inning when Brett Gardner and Derek Jeter hit back-to-back doubles after Berkman and Granderson grounded out to start the frame. Gardner was staring at a two strike count when he pulled the ball down the first base line. Tampa was oh so close to ending the inning during each of these rallies, but they just couldn’t get it done.

Scoring two out runs isn’t exactly a repeatable skill, but what it does is exemplify how deep and circular the Yankee lineup is. Well, the A-lineup anyway, and of course that’s what we’ll see come playoff time. Last night the Yanks had Berkman, Granderson, and Gardner batting 7-8-9 when they’d probably be batting 3-2-1 for most other teams. Berkman has a .443 OBP since August 8th and will retire will a resume that warrants Hall of Fame consideration. Granderson has hit more homers than anyone not named Troy Tulowitzki or Jose Bautista since reworking his swing in mid-August, and oh yeah, Brett Gardner has one of the seven best OBP’s in the AL this season at .388. That’s video game stuff at the bottom third of the order.

There are zero easy outs when the Yanks have their best starting nine in the game as Tampa learned on Tuesday. That allows them to prolong innings and have more chances at two outs rallies like the ones we saw last night. Two out runs aren’t critical to success, but they certainly don’t hurt, and as we know from watching the other team do it to the Yanks, there’s an element of demoralization to being unable to stop the bleeding with two outs. That’s what the Yankee lineup does when things are going right; it scores runs and demoralizes the opposition. Both traits were in full effect and on display last night.

Kevin Towers tabbed as D-Backs’ GM

As we guessed a few weeks ago, the Arizona Diamondbacks have tabbed current Yankees’ adviser Kevin Towers as their next GM. Towers was the San Diego Padres’ GM from 1995 to 2009 and will join a Diamondbacks franchise that suffered of late. Interestingly, the Yankees had denied Arizona permission to interview Damon Oppenheimer, one of the team’s key player development executives, for the job. The D-Backs plan keep current GM Jerry DiPoto on board in some capacity, but unfortunately, Towers won’t be able to undo the trade that sent Dan Haren to the Angels for a bag of baseballs and a “proven winner” with 16 losses this year.

Five-run first powers Yanks to second straight

It was an up and down night for Phil Hughes. The Yankees staked him to an early lead, and while he was shaky in a few innings he ultimately kept things in order. There were a few troubling walks, but in the end his line looked just fine. The offense did their jobs, knocking in the runners who reached scoring position. The result was an 8-3 win and a 2.5 game lead in the division.

Biggest Hit: Berkman keeps the rally going

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

While there was plenty of action in the following eight innings, most of the action took place in the first. Nick Swisher homered on a fastball that James Shields laid right over the heart of the plate. After Mark Teixeira walked and Alex Rodriguez singled on a ball that nearly got through the hole between third and short, James Shields seemed to recover by striking out Robinson Cano on five straight curveballs. But he fell behind Jorge Posada and got burned on a 3-1 fastball for the game’s second run.

That brought up Lance Berkman. After having his fastball knocked around in the inning Shields started with a curveball. He went back with the fastball 0-1, but it didn’t look like he intended to throw it for a strike. Two changeups, a called strike and a ball low, followed. Shields then mixed things up with a cutter, but it caught a bit too much of the plate. Berkman reached down and drove it over B.J. Upton’s head. It was deep enough to score Posada from first and give the Yankees a 4-0 lead. Curtis Granderson followed with a single of his own to open up a 5-run lead, but it was Berkman’s double that gave the Yanks their biggest advantage of the night.

Biggest Pitch: Hughes escapes unscathed

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

With a run in both the second and the third, the Rays had closed the lead by the fourth. By this point Michael Kay and John Flaherty couldn’t shut up about how the momentum of the game had shifted. The Rays only fed their narrative by loading the bases with two outs. Hughes would have to get past Ben Zobrist to get out of it.

Hughes delivered the first pitch, a cutter, with precision, hitting the low-outside corner. He then went back to the four-seamer, delivering it waist high on the outside edge. Zobrist rolled over it and bounced it to Teixeira, allowing Hughes to escape the inning without damage. The inning was mostly his own doing — he did walk two batters — but Hughes rose to the occasion when his team needed it the most.

Honorable Mention: Joba gets out of the eighth

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The fourth inning wasn’t the only time the Rays loaded the bases. Javier Vazquez relieved Hughes in the seventh and allowed an inherited runner to score. He then came out for the eighth and allowed two of the first three batters to reach. With the righties Upton and Jason Bartlett due up, Joe Girardi opted to have Joba Chamberlain finish off the inning.

Joba immediately got himself into trouble, allowing a single to Upton. That loaded the bases with just one out. Predictably, Joe Maddon pinch hit with Brad Hawpe, meaning Joba had to retire two straight lefties. He got ahead with a fastball away and was eventually up 1-2. After a slider in the dirt and two more fastballs, Joba faced a crucial 3-2 count. Most pitchers, I’m sure, would have gone to the fastball, but Joba threw a slider that probably would have hit the low-inside corner. It didn’t matter, though; Hawpe swung and hit only air.

Facing Jaso, Joba didn’t even bother with his secondary pitches. He just dealt fastballs away, eventually inducing a fly out to center. He then came out for the ninth and retired the Rays in order. This definitely ranked among Joba’s finest performances of the season.

Miscellany

Siddown, Hawpe (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The Yankees left six men on base, which isn’t all that bad considering they had 14 base runners. They were also 5 for 10 with runners in scoring position.

The only hitless starter was Teixeira, who missed a homer by just a tiny bit. He did put a few good swings on balls, if you’re looking for a silver lining

Hughes allowed just one homer, though it was his 20th of the season at Yankee Stadium. I think I heard a commentator say that the last pitcher to do that was Scott Sanderson. Memories.

Javy Vazquez didn’t allow a run, but he didn’t do himself any favors by allowing an inherited runner to score and then putting two on with none out in the next inning. Hopefully he gets more work down the stretch, because he’s destined for the bullpen in the playoffs.

The Yanks did miss a chance to get James Shields out of the game way early. But he settled down and gave the Rays 5.1 innings. Still, they needed five relievers to finish the game. That’s never good when there are two games remaining. Then again, the Yanks got away with it on Monday, so it might be no big deal.

It’s always a joy when half of the team’s hits go for extra bases.

Graph and box

Gotta love it when the line stays that high.

More at FanGraphs, and here’s the box score. Watching the highlights will also be fun.

Up Next

A.J. Burnett continues his road to recovery tomorrow night. Wade Davis takes the hill for the Rays.