ALCS Game Six: Yankees @ Rangers

(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

We’re all pretty familiar with the Rangers after five games, so there’s no need for a cheesy introduction. Phil Hughes needs to keep their lineup in check while his teammates put a hurting on Colby Lewis. Sounds easy, but it hardly ever is. There’s nothing more we can do than sit back and watch, and maybe pray a little. Just win and force a Game Seven. Worry about that then.

CC Sabathia is available in relief, and I suspect A.J. Burnett is as well if it comes down to it.  It’s do or die time (not literally), again. Here are the lineups…

Yankees
1. Derek Jeter, SS
2. Curtis Granderson, CF
3. Robbie Cano, 2B
4. Alex Rodriguez, 3B
5. Lance Berkman, 1B
6. Nick Swisher, RF
7. Jorge Posada, C
8. Marcus Thames, DH
9. Brett Gardner, LF

Phil Hughes (18-8, 4.19 ERA)

Rangers
1. Elvis Andrus, SS
2. Michael Young, 3B
3. Josh Hamilton, CF
4. Vlad Guerrero, DH
5. Nelson Cruz, RF
6. Ian Kinsler, 2B
7. David Murphy, LF
8. Bengie Molina, C
9. Mitch Moreland, 1B

Colby Lewis (12-13, 3.72 ERA)

First pitch is scheduled for 8:07pm ET and can be seen on TBS. Enjoy the game, go Yankees.

Photo of the day: 1987 ticket prices

Via the Sports Illustrated Vault on Twitter comes this gem of an image — which you can click to enlarge. It’s the Yankees’ season ticket sheet from 1987 when a full-season box seat cost $750 and the Friday night plan would set you back a full $110.50. These days, comparable seats will you set back $7000 each for 81 games.

Although it’s tempting to bemoan the sticker shock of today’s prices, I prefer to laugh at the promotional schedule. Sunday, April 19 was Transistor Radio Day at Yankee Stadium, and Miami Sound Machine performed a post-game concert on July 4. The Yankees that year drew 2,427,672 fans, good for the third highest attendance total in the American League, but the team finished in fourth place with an 89-73 mark.

Warning: Track Is Dangerous

(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Wednesday afternoon’s Game Five win gave Yankee fans a lot of reasons to smile, but a scary moment in the fourth inning had us all holding our breath. Ian Kinsler fouled off a CC Sabathia fastball, popping it up toward first base. Lance Berkman chased after the ball and overran it a bit, but when he went to slam on the brakes as he transitioned from grass to warning track, his feet came out from under him and he fell hard, flat on his back. In the unlikely event that you haven’t seen it yet, here’s video of the spill. Yeah, it’s rough.

The good news is that Berkman was pretty much okay; he knocked the wind out of himself but stayed in the game after changing into a pair of metal spikes. He didn’t even hit his head. Puma hit a deep sacrifice fly in the later innings and caught the final out of the game in foul territory, a similar spot to where he took the fall. Berkman said after the game that his entire back was sore, but he received treatment yesterday and is a go for Game Six tonight.

Berkman’s fall looked like another comedic flop to add to his defensive blooper reel, but it revealed a much bigger problem: the Yankee Stadium warning track is dangerous. One unnamed Yankee told Chad Jennings that it’s like running from grass onto a sheet of ice, and regular first baseman Mark Teixeira called it “basically concrete with sand on top.” The players have reportedly brought this up in the past, but it’s obviously not an easy fix. Certainly not something that can be addressed during the season, anyway.

It’s one thing to have complaints about the outfield dimensions and obstructed view seats in the New Stadium, but it’s quite another when the playing surface is an issue. That concerns the safety of the players, and in the Yankees’ case we’re talking about the safety of highly paid players. It took Berkman’s fall to bring the problem to our attention, but given the claims of past complaints, it’s something the team has been aware of for a while.

The warning track at the Old Stadium was made of red brick dust in the later years (based on what I’ve been able to find online, anyway), but the real concern is what’s under whatever’s on top. Some tracks are dirt, some rubber, but at some point there’s concrete under there. As long as there’s enough of a buffer on top it’s not an issue. Perhaps they need to chop out an inch or two of concrete at the New Stadium all around the warning track, but who knows. We have no idea about the construction of the actual track, we’re just going off Tex’s quote. Chopping out concrete may not be as easy as it sounds either, depending on what else is going on down there.

The important thing is that the Yankees make the warning track safer for their players this offseason, one way or the other. Players are investments, massive investments for this team, and they should do what’s best to protect them. In the grand scheme of things, making the warning track more fall- and slide-friendly is a no-brainer and not something to be ignored.

Kerry Wood’s journey from near retirement to the ALCS

Kerry Wood has been nothing short of a godsend for the Yankees since being acquired at the trade deadline. He’s chewed up high-leverage innings down the stretch and tossed up scoreless inning after scoreless inning, even if the process wasn’t always pretty. We all know about Wood’s lengthy injury history, one that includes 14 trips to the disabled list and no fewer than three arm surgeries, but did you know he was once hours from retirement in 2007? I sure didn’t, but Brian Costa covered that very topic today. I don’t want to ruin the surprise of how it all happened, so make sure you head over and check it out. Great stuff.

RAB Live Chat

For Hughes, cutter could be the difference

Let's not see this scene again tonight (Chris O'Meara/AP)

In his first two playoff starts Phil Hughes has realized markedly different results. Against Minnesota he shined, throwing seven innings of shutout ball. That left the team with high hopes for his Game 2 start against Texas, but it didn’t go as expected. It started small, with a cheapie run in the first, but it ballooned to seven earned runs before he recorded an out in the fifth. The Yankees cannot afford a repeat performance tonight.

If you take a look at Hughes’s pitch breakdowns from the Twins game and then the Rangers game, you might notice something obvious. When he dominated against Minnesota he threw just seven cutters. Against Texas not only did he throw over three times that many, he also saw disastrous results. Just look at the Linear Weights column. The Rangers absolutely murdered his cutter, twice as badly as they did his four-seamer. That suggest Hughes should cut down on his cutter usage, right?

PitchFX is great. It provides us with information that previously only teams had. Even then, teams had to watch every pitch, classify it, and plot it. There is certainly potential for error there. PitchFX leaves everything up to high-speed cameras, so there is a greater degree of precision. But it is still prone to error, especially when it comes to pitch classification. As it turns out, Hughes didn’t throw a ton of cutters. It’s his four-seamer that got destroyed.

When I first sat down to write this I planned to center it on the cutter usage between the two games, because it seems like an obviously important factor in tonight’s game. If Texas is killing his cutter, Hughes has no choice but to scale back its usage and try to mix it in with more cunning. But after looking at the first two pitches he threw to Elvis Andrus, both classified cutters, it’s clear that PitchFX made a few errors. The first pitch had 10 inches of vertical break and 4 inches of horizontal break; the second had 12 inches of vertical break and 3 inches of horizontal. Those are in line with Hughes’s four-seamer rather than his cutter. Scrolling down to Vladimir Guerrero, we see a cutter with 7 inches of vertical break and 6 inches of horizontal, and at 89 mph. That’s more like his cutter.

By my count Hughes threw just 11 cutters against the Rangers, and only one caused serious damage. That came in the fifth, with Nelson Cruz at the plate. Hughes started him with a cutter up and Cruz fouled it off. Then he missed with a curveball away. The next cutter was also up, but was a bit more inside. Cruz fouled that one off also. On the fourth pitch Hughes delivered a cutter to the exact same spot as the first one. It’s no wonder that Cruz laid into it. Additionally, Cruz had seen one cutter in each of his first two at-bats, and each time he fouled it off. It was only a matter of time.

The fourth pitch completely covers up the first one.

What appeared to be Texas’s two biggest hits off the cutter — David Murphy’s second-inning home run and Michael Young’s RBI double four batters later — were both fastballs. In fact, they had the same vertical and horizontal breaks, 11 and 4 inches. This fastball futility came as something of a surprise, considering Hughes used it to finish off each of his three first-inning strikeouts. But after that it appeared to lose some effectiveness. In the fourth he was lucky that Vlad hit a fastball right to Nick Swisher. In the fifth Ian Kinsler hit a fastball, the third of the at-bat, for a triple.

Hughes’s lack of fastball success as the game went along was no secret. It played a big role in Frankie Piliere’s breakdown of the game:

The big issue, however, was that Hughes was unable to locate those pitches. On top of that, the fastball command he had against the Twins was also gone. Working at 93-94 mph with his short arm action, he still had more than enough to miss bats early. But, as the game rolled along the Rangers made the adjustment Hughes had to know they’d eventually make. They began to sit on the fastball early in the count as it was more than evident that Hughes had nothing else to offer them.

Another sign of ineffectiveness of the four-seamer and cutter was the rate at which the Rangers fouled off the pitches. Of his 68 four-seamers and cutters the Rangers fouled off 22, 32.4 percent. This is a problem for two reasons. First, Hughes led the AL in percentage of strikes as foul balls, and by no slim margin. Of the 3,003 pitches he threw in the regular season, Hughes got a strike 1,982 times. Of those strikes, 674 were foul balls (34 percent). The next closest pitchers threw 31 percent of their strikes for fouls. Only 10 qualified starters even broke the 30 percent mark.

Second, the Rangers have been fouling off pitches, especially two-strike pitches, at a torrid rate in this series. This requires a thorough explanation, so I will point you to friend of RAB Larry Koestler at Yankeeist, who breaks down the Rangers’ foul ball tendencies, especially when they have two strikes. Try to keep your cool as you look at his chart and see Hughes’s results once he got two strikes on the hitter.

What precedes leads to a fairly obvious conclusion: Hughes cannot rely on his fastball to get through the Rangers lineup. That’s not to say he should put it in his back pocket; it is still his best pitch and he’s going to need it in order to succeed. But he’ll also need his other pitches so that the Rangers can’t just wait on a fastball. It won’t be easy; reading Piliere’s scouting review makes it clear why Hughes hasn’t been able to get over his curveball consistently. But tonight, in the biggest start of his four-year career, he’ll need it more than ever.

Obvious: Yanks and Girardi ready for a reunion

We didn’t bring it up all week, because it comes from a dubious source, but there were rumblings that Joe Girardi was on his way out regardless of results this postseason. But then the Cubs hired Mike Quade, which dulled those already questionable rumors. This morning SI’s Jon Heyman states the obvious:

The Yankees plan to bring back manager Joe Girardi at a raise, no matter what some fans may say about his reliance on his ever-present binder. He is well-liked by Yankees honchos Hal Steinbrenner, Randy Levine and Brian Cashman.

Even if Chicago had its managerial spot still open, it was questionable whether Girardi would seriously consider the job. He already has one World Championship under his belt, and his team is back in the ALCS this year. That’s a success by any standards — beyond, of course, the insane mindset that anything less than a World Series championship is unacceptable. Girardi has done well in his three seasons, and I can’t think of a single manager who I’d rather have guiding the team.

As a side note, the “ever-present binder” comment now makes me think of the recent Simpsons episode. When Lisa asks Mo about strategy, he replies, “The only thing I know about strategy is that whatever the manager does, it’s wrong. Unless it works, in which case he’s a button-pusher.” Or a binder-reader, as it were.