Hughes’s fastball bounces back against Rays, Jays

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

It wasn’t Phil Hughes‘s best start. After showing signs of fatigue his day ended with one out in the sixth inning. He needed 99 pitches to record those 16 outs, and the last few were pretty loud. Yet it was far from his worst start. He managed to keep the Blue Jays off base in most innings, and when he did allow runners he bore down and left them stranded. As Mike said in the recap, those efficiency issues are just going to take some time to work out.

At the end of July Hughes encountered some problems with his fastball. For most of the season the four-seamer had been his best weapon, but as he approached his previous high-water mark in innings pitched, it seemed to fade a bit. The velocity dip was minimal and unconcerning. What gave me pause was the vertical break on the baseball. The beauty of Hughes’s fastball is not only that he throws it 93, 94 mph regularly, but that it has around 10 inches of vertical break, making it what baseball people term sneaky fast. It gets right up on a hitter, making it appear faster than it really travels.

I’m happy to report that in his last two starts Hughes has not only been better, but his fastball appears to be back on track. Against Tampa Bay last Friday he had a good outing, six innings of quality work that were marred by one bad pitch to Matt Joyce. His fastball was back up in a major way, averaging over 93 mph and maxing out at 95. Best of all, it had 10.42 inches of vertical break, which helped him generate five swings and misses out of 35 total pitches. It appears his cutter came along for the ride, as it had a vertical break of 9.25 inches, way up from his average of 6.7 inches. The velocity was also way up, averaging 91.29 mph against a season average of 88.9.

Yesterday we saw more of the same from Phil. His fastball was right around his season average, and his vertical break was right there, too. He apparently knew it, too, as he threw it 63 out of 99 times, generating an astonishing 13 swings and misses. His cutter was back to normal, averaging almost 89 mph with 6.55 inches of vertical break, but his four-seamer made it a bit more effective. Hughes threw 10 of 16 for strikes, including three swings and misses.

The only downside, it seems, is that because the fastball was so good Hughes didn’t turn to his other pitches as frequently. Against the Rays last Friday he actually threw the cutter more times than the fastball, 39 to 35, and mixed in 30 curveballs. That’s a healthy ratio, as it keeps hitters guessing and can even make the four-seamer more effective. Yesterday he leaned on the fastball for 63 pitches, leading to just 17 curves and 16 cutters. This time he did throw three changeups, but they were all taken for balls. It worked, but it didn’t work as well as it could have.

This makes me wonder about the question of strategy vs. execution. Did Hughes throw more four-seamers yesterday because the scouting report said that his fastball could beat the Jays? As a team that swings out of their shoes at just about everything, that doesn’t sound right. But who knows, maybe Hughes’s fastball is the type that can beat a team like the Jays. As you can see in his strikezone plot, he got a ton of swings and misses up in the zone. But at the same time I wonder if it was a matter of his feeling better with the fastball, regardless of the Jays’ hitting style. Or, if it’s a combination of the two, at what point did he make the decision to stick with the four-seamer?

After a couple of disappointing outings Hughes has come back to pitch well in his last two starts. He’ll get an extra day off before his next start, which I’m sure is welcome. Fatigue is going to be an issue to watch at this point, since he’s getting up there in innings — at least compared to his previous workloads. While we saw signs of trouble in earlier starts, we’ve seen his fastball revert to form lately. If he can throw it later this month like he threw it yesterday against the Jays and Friday against the Rays, the Yankees should have little to worry about.

As 600 soars, a perfect A-Rod moment

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Once upon a time, Alex Rodriguez wanted nothing to do with the Yankees. Perhaps it was just a negotiating ploy; perhaps he had no desire to come to Derek Jeter‘s team and play another position. But that he wanted no point of the Yankees is what he said on November 3, 2000.

“I would like to sign with another team and help dethrone the Yankees — they’ve won too much already,” the then 25-year-old said as teams prepared to bid on him. “I like playing shortstop and I’m young. I want to play it until I’m 35, and then I’ll study the possibility of being moved.”

Well, as the saying goes, the best laid plans of A-Rod often go astray. Just three years later and to escape a $250 million contract, the Texas Rangers shipped the short stop to New York in a deal for Joaquin Arias and Alfonso Soriano. By the time he turned 29, A-Rod would no longer be a short stop, and he would be on those damned Yankees, playing for the team that’s won too much already and helping them win even more.

As far as all of that True Yankee™ hoodoo voodoo goes, A-Rod earned his stripes years ago on the day the Yanks acquired him. There is no rite of passage. Since arriving in the Bronx, he’s won two MVP awards, destroyed the Twins in the playoffs, destroyed the Angels in the playoffs and even found a way to knock in a few runs against the Phillies. As the Yankees won the World Series in 2009, he was grinning like a little boy. The overpaid and unclutch prima donna, as the media likes to label him, had finally captured that elusive ring. At 33, just two years younger than when he expected to be moved from short, A-Rod the third baseman was the king.

This year marks A-Rod’s seventh full year with the Yankees. He’s already far surpassed the number of games he played with the Rangers and topped his Seattle totals in early 2009. He’s hit 255 home runs as a Yankee, 99 more than he hit in three years with the Rangers and 66 more than he hit with the Mariners. He’s driving in 803 runs; he’s scored 726; and he’s within spitting distance of 1100 hits. Doesn’t it seem as though he just got here?

Meanwhile, as A-Rod’s career totals climb, his place amongst the team’s historical leader boards does as well. His 255th Yankee home run tied him with Jorge Posada for seventh all time among Yankees. Only Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra and Bernie Williams have hit more. His career Yankee slugging percentage is behind only Ruth, Gehrig and DiMaggio. Those are some historic names.

But the image many in New York — and especially in the media and especially at ESPN New York — have of A-Rod is one of a hired gun. He’s the mercenary brought in by Brian Cashman to stymie the Red Sox and act as the interloper. He’s the guy who isn’t Derek Jeter. He doesn’t have a pristine image as Jeter does. He isn’t a tried-and-true Yankee, drafted by the team out of high school. He doesn’t have five World Series rings and legions of swooning fans. He says the wrong thing at the wrong time and continues to put his foot into his mouth at seemingly every opportunity.

That isn’t the A-Rod I see though. I see someone blessed with extraordinary talent and a lot of money who doesn’t know how to fit in quite as well as some of his peers. I see a baseball player who pushes himself to be the best that he can be and gets frustrated when he isn’t playing up to his standards. I see a player who tries to deliver on every pitch but can’t hit a five-run home run when he wants to. He’s A-Rod; he’s a Yankee; he fits with the team. From now until the end, he’s with us, faults and all, good times and bad.

It’s also not the team I see either. A-Rod might be the highest paid player; Jeter might be the captain. But as the two play out their mid-30s, time is, inevitably, passing them by. The young guns — Nick Swisher, Robinson Cano, Mark Teixeira — are the big run producers who hit the flashy home runs. Still, as A-Rod has shown and as Jeter has shown, they’ll still come through when the team needs them. They’re not done yet with their great moments.

With all of the good A-Rod brings, though, definitely comes the bad. Thanks to an overzealous move by Hank Steinbrenner, the Yankees will be paying Rodriguez exorbitant amounts of money until he’s far too old. During his age 38 season in 2014, he’ll earn $25 million; during his age 39 season, he’ll take home $21 million; and from ages 40-41, the Yankees are on the hook for a total of $40 million plus the historic home run milestone incentives. That’s a lot of money for a guy hitting .264/.334/.473. and on pace for just 26 home runs, his lowest total since 1997. His hip has been a nagging issue for two years, and he has been showing signs of the inevitable decline. It happens to the greats.

But as he sits on 600, A-Rod’s baseball prowess should be admired. His 600th was a swing for the tape, that majestic arc, that no-doubter reminiscent of the two-run blast he shot off of Joe Nathan in Game 2 of the ALDS. It was vintage A-Rod with a long wait, a great payoff and one relieved baseball player at the end of it, just as it was at the end of the World Series, just as it always is with Alex Rodriguez.

A-Rod makes history as Yanks top Blue Jays

Losers of their last three games and four of their last five, the Yankees came to park on Wednesday with what felt like a 800 lb. gorilla on their backs. It was even worse for us fans because we couldn’t do anything about it, the players were the only ones capable of turning things around. Thankfully they did just that in this game, all thanks to a historic blast from one of the game’s all-time greats.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Biggest Hit: No. 600

It felt like an eternity, but in reality it was only a 12 day wait for Alex Rodriguez to become the seventh member of the 600 homerun club. Some felt that Alex’s pursuit of No. 600 was a drain on the team, basically sucking the life out of the club and driving them into this recent tailspin. It’s an excitable narrative for the mainstream media types, but it doesn’t matter now. All that talk can be put to rest and now we can all talk about just baseball.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The history shot came nice and early, in the 1st inning with Derek Jeter on base following a leadoff single. Jay’s starter Shaun Marcum challenged A-Rod right from the get go, pumping two mid-80’s fastballs inside for balls. Sitting 2-0, the best hitter’s count in the book, Marcum threw another 85 mph fastball to Alex (I’m not exaggerating, PitchFX picked it up at 85), but this one was away on the outer third. The Yanks’ third baseman was out in front of the pitch ever so slightly, be he’s so strong that he managed to hit the ball out anyway. It wasn’t a New Stadium cheapie either, it was a legit blast into Monument Park. Here’s the video if you want to re-live the magic again.

The gorilla was lifted off everyone’s back instantly, the Yankees had the lead, and Alex was in the history books yet again. I don’t know about you, but it was one of my favorite moments of the season so far. The waiting sucked though, don’t get me wrong.

Biggest Pitch: Encarnacion Goes Down Swinging

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Nursing a 3-1 lead in the 4th inning, the Yanks were in danger of blowing an early lead yet again. Toronto already pushed one run across when Lyle Overbay doubled to right-center, scoring Jose Bautista and pushing Adam Lind to third. Overbay stood at second representing the tying run when Edwin Encarnacion stepped in, one day after crushing a crushed a mammoth two run homer off Dustin Moseley.

Knowing that Encarnacion is a Grade-A hacker (he’s swung at over 30% of the pitches he’s seen out of the strike zone), Phil Hughes attacked his weakness and fed him pitches just off the plate. His first offering, an 89 mph cutter, just missed down and away for ball one, but the next cutter just caught the top of the zone for strike one. After another cutter down and away for a ball, Hughes challenged Encarnacion up and in, getting him to swing through a 93 mph fastball for strike two before doing the same one pitch later for strike three. The last pitch was about eye level, definitely not a strike.

The threat the was ended, and the one run Overbay drove in would be all Toronto got in this one.

Honorable Mention: Travis Snider’s Pop Up

An inning prior to EE’s strikeout, the Jays had runners on the corners with one out, so all they needed was a moderately deep fly ball to trim their deficit to one. Instead, Hughes got Travis Snider to pop a high fastball up on the infield for out number two. Seven pitches later Aaron Hill grounded out to third and the inning was over with the two run lead still intact.

Swing And A Miss

It’s no secret that Hughes hit a bit of a rough patch following his tremendous start, posting a 5.51 ERA with a .291/.333/.494 batting line against from mid-May through mid-July. He started to correct that last time out against Tampa, but one bad pitch to Matt Joyce cost him and the team a win. Thankfully his rebound continued today, even though Hughes wasn’t exactly efficient with his pitches.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Phil started the game off by retiring the first six men he faced, three via strikeouts, before running into the trouble you read about above in the 3rd and 4th innings. Those were his only hiccups, as he retired the side in order in the 5th and gave way to Boone Logan in the 6th after allowing a single and coaxing a fly out out of Vernon Wells.

Hughes threw a total of 99 pitches, not great for five and third innings of work, but being efficient is something that’s learned over time. Sixty of those 99 pitches were strikes, and 18 of those 60 strikes were on swings-and-misses. That’s a ridiculous total. For comparison’s sake, CC Sabathia pitched a game last year in which he generated 25 swings-and-misses, the most by any pitcher all season. Hughes definitely had the good stuff today, which is great to see as he approaches a career high workload.

Oh, You Mean Something Else Happened Besides No. 600?

Once again, great job by the bullpen. Logan, Joba Chamberlain, David Robertson, and Mariano Rivera combined to retire 11 of the 15 men they faced. The only blemishes were a seeing-eye single off Joba (Robbie Cano actually made a play on it, but the runner beat the throw), a D-Rob walk, and a hit batter each by Logan and Mo. They struck out three as a group, and threw a first pitch strike to all but one of those 15 batters. Great job by a relief corps that’s getting stronger and stronger as the season progresses.

Joba didn’t throw a fastball under 95 mph, and he topped out at 98 according to PitchFX. He’s slowly but surely regaining that lost velocity, a great, great sign.

It was turn back the clock day for Jeter, who went 4-for-4 with a pair of doubles (one down each line) and three runs scored. As much as we get on the Cap’n for his subpar season, we have to give him props for hitting .333/.377/.444 over his last 17 games. Let’s hope he keeps it up, it would be a huge help down the stretch.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Mark Teixeira went 2-for-3 with a double, driving in every run the team scored sans the two that came home on No. 600. Meanwhile, Jorge Posada was on the opposite end of the offensive spectrum, going 0-for-4 and seeing … wait for it … five total pitches. That’s not the Georgie we all know and love, but everyone has days like that.

The box score will show an 0-for-4 for Lance Berkman, but he saw 24 pitches on the day and squared up the final pitch in each of his last two at-bats. Both were hit right on the screws and ticketed for the rightfield corner, but Lyle Overbay had to go and get in the way. Hard contact is a good sign.

Curtis Granderson flared a single to left, just his seventh hit of the season to that side of the field. His 63 other hits either went to right (30) or center (33). I’m surprised more teams don’t play the shift on him.

With the Twins managing to eke out a win in extras against the Rays, the Yanks are once again tied for first in the AL East. Boston is six and a half back in third place.

WPA Graph & Box Score

Wait, you mean the green line is allowed to go on the Yankees’ side? ESPN has the box, FanGraphs all that other cool stuff.

Up Next

The Yankees are off tomorrow, and will come to the park Friday night ready to kick off a four game set against the Red Sox. That game will feature Javy Vazquez vs. Clay Buchholz. The Rays play tomorrow, so the Yanks could conceiveable drop out of first place by half-a-game through no fault of their own. Meh, what can you do.

Only the schedule can contain Montero & Laird

Triple-A Scranton had a scheduled off day.

Double-A Trenton (5-4 win over Reading)
Austin Krum, CF, Marcos Vechionacci, 1B & Dan Brewer, RF: all 1 for 4 – Krum doubled, scored a run, K’ed twice & threw a runner out at third … Vech doubled & K’ed twice … Brewer scored a run & threw runners out at both third and home
Justin Christian, LF: 4 for 5, 1 RBI
Corban Joseph, 2B & Damon Sublett, DH: both 0 for 3 – CoJo drove in two … Sublett drew a walk &  scored
Austin Romine, C: 0 for 4, 1 K
Matt Cusick, 3B: 2 for 4, 1 R, 1 HR, 1 RBI
Luis Nunez, SS: 0 for 2, 1 R, 1 RBI, 1 BB, 1 K
Lance Pendleton: 6.1 IP, 6 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 0 BB, 5 K, 5-7 GB/FB
Josh Schmidt: 0.2 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 0 K – last year: 1.22 GB/FB, 1.96 AVG against … this year: 1.25 & 1.98, respectively … clearly, he’s declining
Wilkin Arias: 0.2 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 0 K
Kevin Whelan: 1.1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 1 K, 1 WP, 0-3 GB/FB - shaky, but he closes it out

[Read more…]

Report: Yanks had a deal in place for Mike Lowell

Earlier this week we learned that the Yankees attempted to acquire Mike Lowell from the Red Sox as part of a three team trade with the Rangers, but now Buster Olney reports that the three clubs did in fact have a deal in place. The Yanks backed out because they didn’t like what they saw in Lowell’s medicals, unsurprising considering his recent hip trouble. There’s no word on the other players that would have been involved, but it’s safe to say it would have been fringy prospects, no one any team would miss.

I said on Monday that I wouldn’t be surprised in Lowell ends up in pinstripes at some point this month, but I’m going to retract that statement in the wake of Kevin Youkilis‘ thumb injury. Turns out the Red Sox might actually need him now.

Steiner reaches settlement in suit over stadium seats

In October, during the Yanks’ World Champion run, John Lefkus, a 22-year season-ticket holder and disgruntled purchaser of authentic Yankee Stadium memorabilia, filed a class action lawsuit against Steiner Sports. In his suit, he said that he paid $2000 for his season ticket seats only to receive a different set of Yankee Stadium chairs. He alleged deceptive acts and practices and false advertiser, among other charges, and requested both injunctive relief and compensatory damages.

This week, with little fanfare, the State Supreme Court announced a class settlement between Lefkus and Steiner Sports. As first reported yesterday by Ross at NYY Stadium Insider, the settlement covers those who purchased seats between May 1 and August 15, 2009, and those looking for a piece of the action must have retained their sales receipts.

Those in the affected class have two choices: Purchasers can return their seats for a full refund or receive one of two coupons — either one for $65 if the seats were a non-specific pair or one for $95 if the seats were a specific set from the old stadium. “In addition to this relief,” wrote the court, “Steiner has agreed to change its future advertising of Yankee Stadium Seat Pairs and to notify resellers of its advertising changes.”

The settlement, however, isn’t yet finalized. The court will hold a hearing on it on September 22 to determine if it is in the best interests of the class — and not just Lefkus, the named plaintiff. If the settlement is approved, those who wish to secure their part of the package will have until December 21 to do so. This settlement should close an ugly chapter in the recent history of both Steiner Sports and old Yankee Stadium.

After the jump, the claim form as well as a copy of the court’s notice of the proposed settlement. [Read more…]

Open Thread: Back to normal

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Just another day at the office, eh? Alex Rodriguez hit his 600th career homerun, the Yankees won their first game in weeks (and by weeks I mean since Saturday), and all is right in the world again. The Yanks can sit back and relax tomorrow during the off day, and go into this weekend’s series against the Red Sox with confidence and a clear mind. Couldn’t have asked for much more.

Here’s your open thread for the evening. YES is playing the encore of today’s game beginning at 7pm ET, so you watch A-Rod hit #600 again if you want. The Mets are in Atlanta playing the Braves, and you’ve also got the White Sox and Tigers on ESPN. You know what to do, so have at it.