What Went Wrong: Phil Hughes

Over the next few weeks, we’re going to look back at what went right, what went wrong, and what went as expected during the 2011 campaign.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The 2010 season was something of a breakout for Phil Hughes. The right-hander stayed healthy all year and performed just a touch better than league average in terms of ERA (4.19), FIP (4.25), and xFIP (4.13) across 176.1 IP, and the Yankees counted on him to solidify a patchwork rotation coming out of Spring Training a few months ago. The problem was that his velocity had vanished in March, and it never did pick up as the team expected it would after a few starts.

Miguel Cabrera and the rest of the Tigers smacked Hughes around for five runs in four innings in his first start of the season, in what would eventually become the Yankees first loss of 2011. The Red Sox battered him for six runs in two innings five days later, and through two starts, Phil had generated just three swings and misses out of 137 pitches. He had walked four and struck out just one, and the fastball was sitting in the danger zone of 87-88 mph.

The Yankees finally pulled the plug after Hughes’ third start, in which the Orioles hung five runs on him in 4.1 IP. They put him on the disabled list with what was termed a “dead arm” after originally planning to send him to the minors, and they starting pumping him with anti-inflammatories. “After 30 pitches, there was nothing there,” said Hughes. “I felt like a reliever who had thrown four straight days. Something had to be done. My velocity’s just not there. My arm feels dead. This will able me to build arm strength and get this right.”

The plan was to put Hughes on a throwing program after a few days of rest, and things went well at first. He was ready to start a minor league rehab assignment about two weeks after his start against the Orioles, but the team cut short a bullpen session after just a dozen pitches and called it a “setback.” Hughes was sent for an MRI the next day, and after some concerns about low-level thoracic outlet syndrome, it was announced that he’d miss another six-to-eight weeks with shoulder inflammation that was bad enough to require a cortisone shot. While all that was going on, a report came out that Hughes showed up to camp out of shape, leading to speculation about how it may have contributed to his arm troubles.

(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

More rest and more rehab followed. The Yankees put their right-hander on a Spring Training-esque throwing program, which stretched him out over an extended period of time. A simulated inning soon followed, and then a few more after that. After throwing 49 pitches in one of those simulated games, Hughes was deemed ready for a minor league rehab assignment. He made a total of three rehab starts, striking out eight and holding his velocity deep into the game the final time out. Ready to return to the rotation, the team made the decision to demote Ivan Nova to Triple-A in favor of Hughes in early-July.

The first start back was okay at best; Phil allowed two runs in five innings against the Indians, striking out two and getting just a pair of swings and misses out of 87 pitches. He looked better in his next start (two runs in six innings against the Jays) eleven days later (with the All-Star break in between), then got completely shellacked by the punchless Athletics next time out (seven runs in 4.1 IP). Hughes’ velocity had returned to the 91-92 range, and he rattled off four straight quality starts after that (five runs in 25.2 IP), but Oakland again hit him around in late-August (six runs in 2.2 IP) and the Red Sox did the same a few days later (six runs in 5.2 IP).

Hughes started September with a pair of strong starts against the Orioles and Mariners (three runs in 12 IP), but back inflammation flared up and kept him out of action for two weeks (rain contributed to that a bit as well). The Yankees brought him back strictly as a reliever and kept him in that role through the postseason. In four relief outings at the end of September and in the ALDS, Phil did not allow a run in five innings (three hits, three walks, six strikeouts). As expected, his velocity jumped into the 94-95 range in relief, and he generated eleven swings and misses with 90 pitches.

All told, Hughes pitched to 5.79 ERA with a 4.58 FIP in 74.2 IP in 2011. Even if you disregard his first three starts, when he clearly wasn’t right, he still had a 4.48 ERA with a ~3.90 ERA in 64.1 post-DL innings. His strikeout and swing and miss rates dipped to 5.67 K/9 and 6.2%, respectively, well-below-average and down considerably from 2010. Was the decline the result of poor conditioning? Poor mechanics? The 80.1 IP jump from 2009 to 2010? All of the above? Something else all together? We all have our theories, but the only thing we know for sure is that Hughes heads into the 2012 season as a giant question mark.

Yankees ties to the World Series

(Photo via CBS Sports)

For the second consecutive year, the Yankees are not playing in the World Series this fall (oh what a horrible drought!), but that doesn’t mean they’re an afterthought. There are Yankees ties to both the Cardinals and Rangers, thanks in part due to the age of free agency and non-stop transactions. Texas knocking the New York out of the playoffs last year is another connection as well, but that’s not really the angle I was planning to take.

Two players on the Cardinals once suited up for the Yankees, and two current Yankees helped get the Rangers to the Fall Classic in consecutive years by virtue of their departures. Let’s dig in…

Lance Berkman

More than anything, Berkman is the reason why I’m pulling for the Cardinals in the World Series. A platoon DH for the Yankees late last year, Puma hit a respectable .255/.358/.349 in 123 regular season plate appearances (.298/.404/.417 in his final 99 PA) before emerging as the team’s third best hitter in the postseason (.313/.368/.688). He became far more important than expected in the ALCS thanks to Mark Teixeira‘s hamstring injury in Game Four.

One of the conditions of the trade that brought Berkman to New York was that the Yankees could not exercise his $15M option for 2011, which was perfectly fine because he had all the look of a declining and increasingly injury-prone player. Fat Elvis signed a one-year deal with the Cardinals, had a monster season (.402 wOBA) that won him Comeback Player of the Year honors, and will bat cleanup behind Albert Pujols in the Fall Classic. Go Puma go.

Mark Teixeira

There’s not a direct Yankees-Rangers relationship here, but there’s no doubt that current Yankee Mark Teixeira helped the Rangers get to where they are today. Less than a month after reportedly turning down an eight-year, $140M extension offer, Tex was traded by Texas to the Braves (along with Ron Mahay) for a five-player package that included starting shortstop Elvis Andrus, closer Neftali Feliz, and likely Game Four starter Matt Harrison. That’s some haul, the gold standard when it comes to trading elite hitters.

Alex Rodriguez

(Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

A-Rod‘s connection to the Rangers and their success is a bit more concrete than Teixeira’s, at least from the Yankees point of view. When the Yankees acquired Alex in exchange for Alfonso Soriano and Robinson Cano Joaquin Arias in 2004, Texas gained more than $112M worth of financial flexibility through the 2010 season. That money was redistributed in a multitude of ways; some of it went to Michael Young and his long-term deal, and some was invested in prospects via the draft and international free agency (Derek Holland, Mitch Moreland, Alexi Ogando). Who knows how they rest was spent. That money wouldn’t have been available to the team if the Yankees hadn’t taken A-Rod off the Rangers’ hands.

Octavio Dotel

There’s not much connection here, especially since Dotel has seemingly played for all 30 teams at one time or another, but the right-hander did appear in 14 games (10 IP, 18 H, 13 R, 11 BB, 7 K) for the 2006 Yankees. They signed him off the scrap heap following his Tommy John surgery, rehabbed him for the first half of the season, then stuck him in the bullpen for the stretch run. It didn’t work out. Five years later, Dotel is still slinging it at age 37, this time in middle relief for the Cardinals.

* * *

There are a few other very loose ties (Cards backup catcher Gerald Laird is Brandon’s brother), but those four up there cover most of it. Berkman is the most obvious connection, but I think it’s clear that the Tex and A-Rod stuff will have more impact in this World Series in the grand scheme of things.

Pro-scouting meetings begin in the Bronx

(AP Photo/John Marshall Mantel)

The Cardinals and Rangers will kick off the 2011 World Series on Wednesday night, but the Yankees will have already started planning out their offseason by then. The team’s annual pro-scouting meetings began at the home base in the Bronx on Monday, after Billy Eppler’s scouting department was given a week off following the club’s elimination from the ALDS. Advance scouting in the playoffs can be pretty intense, I imagine.

Brian Cashman spoke to Chad Jennings about the meetings on Monday afternoon, but he didn’t say much of anything. Typical Cashman-speak. “We assess ourselves,” said the GM when asked about what happens this week. “We assess our system. We assess the market that’s available to us. It’s all of it.” Despite reports of an imminent meeting with Hal Steinbrenner, Cashman said talks about a new contract might happen in the near future and might not be anything more than a phone call. As we’ve heard a number of times already, the two sides are expected to reach a deal without much of a problem.

There was a “no comment” on CC Sabathia and the status of his opt-out clause, and any talks about the futures of Eric Chavez, Andruw Jones, and Freddy Garcia have yet to take place. Obviously Bartolo Colon and Luis Ayala will come up at some point as well, but I’m pretty sure a decision has already been made about the future of Jorge Posada. At least on the team’s end of things.

The offseason started a little earlier than we all would have liked this fall, but that’s going to happen most years. The baseball season is a year-round thing these days, and the Yankees have already starting preparations for the upcoming offseason. The World Series will end in about ten days, maybe less, and Sabathia’s opt-out decision will come no more than three days after that. The hot stove’s coming in a hurry, folks.

Mustelier makes a brief return in the AzFL

AzFL Phoenix Desert Dogs (8-7 loss to Salt River) Saturday’s game
Rob Segedin, LF: 3 for 4, 1 R, 1 RBI – up to .324/.425/.441, but it’s an extreme offensive environment
Chase Whitley, RHP: 1.2 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 0 K, 1 HBP, 2-0 GB/FB, 1 E (pickoff) – 14 of 23 pitches were strikes (60.9%)
Preston Claiborne, RHP: 1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 0 K, 1 WP, 3-0 GB/FB – half of his 24 pitches were strikes … three walks and two strikeouts in four innings

AzFL Phoenix Desert Dogs (7-4 win over Scottsdale) Monday’s game … remember, they don’t play on Sundays
Ronnie Mustelier, 3B: 0 for 3, 2 K – first appearance since leaving a game with an apparent injury twelve days ago … he played five innings before being lifted, possibly by design
Corban Joseph, 2B: 1 for 3, 2 R, 1 HR, 1 RBI, 1 BB, 1 E (missed catch) – that’s his second homer in eight games out here after hitting just five in 131 games with Double-A Trenton

Open Thread: No Baseball

Jerry Jr. had a sad last night. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Man, nothing sucks more than a night without baseball. Game Seven of the NLCS was supposed to be played tonight, but the Cardinals had to go and ruin it by clinching the pennant yesterday. Now we’ve got no baseball for not one, but two days, a harsh little reminder of what lies ahead starting in about ten days. Oh baseball, don’t leave me.

Here is your open thread for the night. The Jets and Dolphins are the Monday Night Football Game (8:30pm ET on ESPN), and that’s pretty much it for local sports. Sigh. Talk about whatever you want here, anything goes.

Baseball America’s Draft Report Card

Baseball America posted some Draft Report Cards today (subs. req’d), including the Yankees. It’s not a report card in the sense that they hand out grades, instead they run through different categories like Best Pure Hitter (Dante Bichette Jr.), Best Fastball (Zach Arneson and Phil Wetherell), and Best Late-Round Pick (Dan Camarena).

Mark Montgomery, this year’s 11th rounder, is said to have the Best Secondary Pitch, “a slider that grades as major league plus already.” A college reliever from Longwood University in Virginia, Montgomery struck out 51 of the 124 batters he faced in his pro debut this summer (41.1%, a 16.2 K/9), and even whiffed five in one inning at one point. The Yankees have done a really nice job of turning double-digit picks into bullpen fodder in recent years, and Montgomery looks to be the next in line. He needs to jump to Double-A relatively soon though, you’re not going to learn anything about him against Single-A kids with that slider.

The CC Sabathia – Cliff Lee Connection

In 2011 the Yankees were supposed to have a dual-lefty tandem of CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee heading the rotation. Throughout the winter the Yankees were thought to be the frontrunners for Lee’s services, with Texas looming at all stages. No team topped the Yankees’ final seven-year offer. And yet Lee ended up signing with Philadelphia and leaving the Yankees with some big rotation questions both in 2011 and beyond. Reader Mike I. recently emailed to raise the issue:

Is right for me to assume that the CC contract issue could be completely different if the Yankees had signed Cliff Lee?

It is very right to assume that the Yankees would approach the Sabathia negotiations from a different angle if they already had a lefty ace on staff for the forseeable future. In fact, I’d go so far as to wonder whether the Yankees, at least in part, pursued Lee last winter so that they would have a bit more comfort in the 2011-2012 off-season following Sabathia’s inevitable opt-out. With Lee on staff the Yankees wouldn’t have such a glaring need atop the rotation and could back off if the bidding for Sabathia exceeded a certain level. Without Lee they might not have this luxury.

That’s not to say that the Yankees would have been better off in that situation. There’s a real argument that having Sabathia around, even if he gets a new six- or seven-year deal, is preferable to Lee. Even if we set our arbitrary start point to 2008 — the year that Lee broke out and won the AL Cy Young Award, and the year after Sabathia won the same award — Sabathia and Lee are similar pitchers. Lee has a slight advantage in ERA and a slightly larger one in FIP, while their xFIPs match up closely. Sabathia has thrown more innings, which helps close the gap. But even then we’re ignoring a significant portion of both careers.

Not only has Sabathia been more durable since 2008, but he’s been more durable throughout his career. He hasn’t missed any time, ever, with an arm injury, and hasn’t spent time on the DL since 2004. Sabathia also has a much longer track record of success. He broke into the bigs in 2001 at age 20 and has been at least serviceable in every year of his career. He hasn’t produced an ERA north of 4.12 since 2002, and hasn’t broken the 3.40 barrier since 2005 — that is, in terms of ERA and FIP, 2009 was his worst season in the last six years. This track record seems to make Sabathia a better long-term bet than Lee, even if Lee has caught up to Sabathia in terms of production. Even still, Sabathia is younger than Lee.

Yes, the situation this winter would have looked quite a bit different had the Yankees acquired Lee. At the same time, I’m not sure it’s a better situation. The Yankees had a seven-year offer out to Lee last December. At this point I’d rather have CC for the next seven years than Lee for the next six. So if the Yankees would have been more apt to walk away from Sabathia if they had signed Lee, then I’m of the opinion that missing Lee might be best in the long term.


Joel Sherman raised a similar Sabathia-Lee connection in his blog this morning. This is his second of two points he expects the Sabathia camp to make in negotiations:

The Yankees offered Cliff Lee seven years at $146 million last year after he had turned 32 and done nothing yet for the Yankees. Sabathia again is 31 and has done plenty for the Yankees, and why should he accept an offer that is one penny less than seven years at $146 million?

While the offer to Lee has some significance, it doesn’t really make a difference once Sabathia hits the open market. At that point his contract is not necessarily subject to past offers, but is subject to what the market will bear. Why should he accept an offer that is one penny less than 7/146? Because the market might not produce a contract at that level. This is one reason I think the Yankees land Sabathia at somewhere around the 5/125 contract that Lee got last winter. There just doesn’t seem to be a better offer awaiting him.