Which Hughes will it be?

If you’re not into pessimism I suggest skipping this post.

The good news is that the Phil Hughes facing the Red Sox tonight is not the same pitcher who faced them in April. At that time Hughes had no zip on his fastball, no bite to his breaking ball, and no command of either. Through two innings he threw 47 pitches to 14 batters, allowing six runs on seven hits and two walks. That performance provided the Red Sox with their first win of the 2011 campaign. After one more horrific start Hughes hit the DL, and he’s been quite better since returning.

The bad news is that Hughes resembled his early season self in his last start. While he did pitch into the third, his results weren’t much better than his outing in Boston earlier this season: six runs on seven hits. His only saving graces were the five strikeouts and zero walks. Even still, he used 78 pitches to record eight outs. Even worse, he again failed to put batters away, generating strings of foul balls on two-strike pitches. That’s the Hughes the Yankees can’t afford to have on the mound tonight and for the rest of the season.

For a while it appeared that Hughes was turning a corner. While he failed to put away batters in his first four starts back from the DL, something changed when he faced Chicago in early August. He didn’t miss many bats — just 14 swings and misses out of 267 pitches thrown in three starts — but he also didn’t struggle to finish at-bats. He needed just 65 pitches to get through six innings in Chicago, and followed that up with 96 pitches in six innings against Tampa Bay. That’s not efficient, but it’s an improvement. Then against Minnesota it appeared he cared nothing for the strikeout, recording just two while allowing 22 of 27 batters to put the ball in play. The result was his best start of the season, 7.2 innings of one-run ball.

That strategy won’t play as well against the Red Sox, though. While Hughes can work through weaker lineups such as the White Sox and the Twins by pitching to contact, the Red Sox are a completely different beast. They lead the majors in average and BABIP. At the same time, if Hughes tries to miss bats again he can fall into an even worse trap. The Red Sox are still a patient and disciplined team that will foul away flat, borderline pitches while waiting for something to hit or else taking a walk. It leaves Hughes with little room to maneuver. Command or perish. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen much from him in terms of command this season.

In this way it’s hard to see Hughes succeeding against the Red Sox this evening. It’s certainly possible; we have seen him spot his fastball low and away at times, and his curveball isn’t always as bad as it was last week. At the same time, his start is of the utmost importance. The Yankees will use only five starters the next time through the rotation. If Hughes fails tonight then the Yankees have a no-win situation in the fifth spot. They’d have to rely on A.J. Burnett to turn around his season, which is about as likely as Hughes suddenly finding his command against the Red Sox tonight.

No one should count out a pitcher before a game starts, not even A.J. Burnett. But that doesn’t mean we can’t set reasonable expectations. With the way he’s pitched lately, it’s difficult to reasonably imagine Hughes faring well this evening, just as it’s difficult to imagine Burnett doing the same tomorrow. Their recent history suggests that they’re primed for a beating against one of the league’s most powerful offenses. It might matter little in the immediate future; the Yanks have a comfortable lead in the playoff race, after all. But in the long term it’s certainly an issue. While Hughes has succeeded at times this season, his skill set just doesn’t seem to play up against the Bostons and the Texases of the American League.

Joe Girardi & Restraint

Deceiving top picture is deceiving. (Elsa/Getty Images)

On the surface, a 5-2 win doesn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary. Three-run leads are pretty substantial, even against a great lineup like the one the Red Sox ran out there. Of course the game never felt like the three-run lead was all that significant, mostly because the Sox had runners on base pretty much all night. Ultimately, the relief quartet of Cory Wade, Boone Logan, Rafael Soriano, and Mariano Rivera got the final nine outs to preserve the lead, but it’s what Joe Girardi didn’t do that’s worth talking about.

After throwing 18 pitches on Sunday and 19 pitches on Saturday, David Robertson was unavailable out of the bullpen last night according to Girardi. Those pitch totals aren’t extreme by any means, so in all likelihood Robertson could have actually pitched without it being too big of a deal. He might not have been able to go more than an inning, but pitching three straight days isn’t exactly unheard of. Instead, Girardi showed some restraint and rested one of, if not the best setup reliever in all of baseball. He gave the ball to inferior pitchers against a great lineup in a relatively close game.

Now, it’s easy to back off a key reliever in a generic August game, when you’re facing some middling fringe contender in a game everyone will forget by the morning. It’s another thing to do it in a game like last night’s. Consider…

  1. It’s the Red Sox!
  2. The Yankees had won just two of twelve against Boston coming into the game.
  3. CC Sabathia hadn’t beaten the Sox all year and just gutting out 128 pitches in six innings.
  4. First place was kinda sorta on the line. It was either tie things up or fall two back in the loss column.
  5. It’s the Red Sox!

It wasn’t a must win game, but it was definitely a pretty big game considering how the season series has played out so far. Girardi could have easily handed the ball to Robertson in the eighth inning and I don’t think any of us would have had a problem with it. Instead, he took his foot off the gas and looked at the big picture, which is something he’s done during his entire tenure as Yankees’ manager. We can quibble about individual moves until we turn blue in the face, but Girardi’s overall bullpen management is clearly a strength, and games like last night are reason why Robertson will be fresh and (theoretically) more effective later in the season and potentially into the playoffs.

Sherman: Montero will be promoted tomorrow, not Banuelos or Betances

Via Joel Sherman, the Yankees will call up Jesus Montero when rosters expand tomorrow, but neither Manny Banuelos or Dellin Betances will be in the big leagues next month. They have enough concerns about their fastball command to leave them down, though they had entertained the idea of using both out of the bullpen. As for Montero, Sherman says he is “going to get opportunities to play and specifically hit.” There’s a chance he could hit his way onto the postseason roster as well, but that would require a Shane Spencer type of September from their top prospect. Either way … yay.

The Other Trade Deadline

Exactly a month ago, the Yankees stood pat at the trade deadline while other AL contenders improved their teams. The Tigers added Doug Fister, the Rangers added both Mike Adams and Koji Uehara, the Indians landed Ubaldo Jimenez, and the Red Sox brought in Mike Aviles and Erik Bedard. “I just feel like we’re a lot deeper [compared to the last few years],” said Brian Cashman shortly after the deadline. “I’m willing, by the position I’ve taken in the last three weeks, to rely on that [rather] than go out and pay an enormous price on something that I’m not certain what it’s going to provide.”

The Yankees were just two games back in the division 6.5 up for the wildcard at the time, so there was hardly any desperation. Phil Hughes, Bartolo Colon, and Rafael Soriano had all just come off the disabled list, and Alex Rodriguez would be joining them eventually. Even if they did need help (what team doesn’t?), the Yankees would still be able to swing a waiver trade in August. It was a trade deadline in name only really, but tonight is the real deal. As Joe explained last week, a player must be in the organization by 11:59pm ET tonight to be eligible for the postseason roster. That’s a firm deadline, there are no loopholes. If the Yankees want to bring in a player from outside the organization, they have to do it today if they plan on using the guy in the playoffs.

The good news is that the extra month of playing time has helped to further separate the contenders from the pretenders. The Twins and Cardinals can stop kidding themselves about a playoff run, maybe even the Giants too. Other clubs even further from contention are probably looking forward to seeing what some kids can do in September, and might have a spare part to … well, spare. Unfortunately, what the Yankees need just isn’t walking through the door today, and that’s a number two starter.

You can forget about Chris Carpenter, because he was claimed off waivers by multiple teams and pulled back earlier this month. Same deal with both Wandy Rodriguez with Edwin Jackson. Apparently the entire White Sox rotation went through waivers at various points and no deals were reached. They’re trying to fight their way back into the AL Central race anyhow (have won seven of their last ten and are five back now), so I doubt they’d be willing to move a John Danks or Jake Peavy within the next 13 hours or so. I suppose Rich Harden could still be in play, and we do know the Yankees have at least some interest. Still holding out hope for Andy Pettitte? He’d have to sign today to be eligible for the postseason, and that’s not going to happen.

The Yankees made a pair of minor moves this month, adding two sketchy left-handed relievers (Raul Valdes and Aaron Laffey) via waivers. That’s pretty much the best you can do without giving up anything of value, and I think we’re all aware that relievers are highly volatile and not even the best of the best are guaranteed to be effective over a month’s time. They really don’t have any needs beyond a number two starter and another decent lefty reliever, though perhaps they could look to add a bench piece given A-Rod‘s problematic thumb. Will that player be better than Eduardo Nunez and Eric Chavez? Doubtful, but the added depth is never a bad thing.

Barring something completely unforeseen today, the Yankees will have made exactly one trade during the 2011 season, and that’s getting Sergio Mitre back from the Brewers for cash. Hardly significant. They’re putting all their eggs in the rotation basket that’s surprised all season long, and it’ll be up to CC Sabathia, Freddy Garcia, Ivan Nova, and Bartolo Colon to get the Yankees to where they want to go. Oddly enough, that doesn’t sound all that crazy.

The difference between passivity and discipline

The Oakland A’s lead the American League in a non-trivial offensive category. They swing at the fewest pitches of any other team. That might not seem like a huge surprise; after all, Moneyball is loaded with anecdotes that convey the A’s stance on plate discipline. Yet they haven’t turned that discipline into results. Their 92 wRC+ ranks 11th in the AL, and their 8.3 percent walk rate ranks only fifth. The results raise the question of whether the A’s are actually disciplined. Could they actually be merely passive?

Unsurprisingly, the evidence points towards passivity. It’s not as though Oakland hitters lay off only the bad pitches and swing at the good ones. While they have swung at the fewest pitches outside the strike zone, just 25.6 percent, they also have swung at the second fewest percentage of pitches within the strike zone. At the same time, they’re fed more pitches inside the strike zone than any other team. It comes as even less of a surprise, then, that they have the highest percentage of looking strikes in the league. They simply do not swing the bat as frequently as other teams.

The Yankees have the second lowest swing rate in the league, but they’re not nearly as passive as the A’s. They swing at more pitches within the zone than the A’s, they draw more walks, and they see more pitches per plate appearance. At the same time, they see the fewer pitches in the zone than any other team in the AL. On one hand, then, the A’s see more strikes than anyone and they swing at the fewest pitches, while the Yankees see the fewest pitches in the zone and they swing at the second fewest pitches. It doesn’t take much more than that to illustrate the differences between discipline and passivity.

Here’s another difference between the Yankees and the A’s. The Yankees lead the league in 3-1 counts, having seen them in 11 percent of all plate appearances. The A’s have seen 3-1 counts in 9 percent of their PA, which is right around the league average. The Yankees also lead the league in 2-0 counts seen, while the A’s are 13th. What’s the point of taking so many pitches if you’re not eventually working yourself into a better count? It’s hard to do, though, when pitchers simply feed you more strikes. That means more looking strikes, which leads to worse hitters’ counts.

There is no one stat that defines plate discipline. All we can do is look at a number of stats that relate to the concept and try to grade teams. When looking at overall swing rate and out of zone swing rate, it might seem as though the A’s are one of the most disciplined teams in the league. But when we dig a bit deeper, we see that they simply don’t swing the bat. The Yankees, on the other hand, swing infrequently because they’re fed fewer strikes than any other team. They for the most part lay off pitches outside the zone, they work favorable hitters’ counts, and they take their walks. It’s something we’ve seen them do for decades now, but it will never get old.