Phil Hughes and the developing curveball

Hughes gears up for a curveball (AP Photo/Mike Carlson)

Part of becoming a major league starter is developing a full repertoire. That seemed to be the one thing holding back Phil Hughes in the past. When the Yankees drafted him in 2004 he seemed to have a formidable arsenal, featuring a fastball, slider, and changeup. Here’s what Baseball America said when they rated him the team’s No. 3 prospect, behind Eric Duncan and Robinson Cano, before the 2005 season:

His fastball also has late life up in the strike zone. Hughes changes a hitter’s sightline with a slider that at times has good bite and depth. He’s also shown good arm action on his changeup, and both his secondary offerings project as at least average pitches.

We certainly see the late life on that fastball, but we don’t see either of the other offerings. The changeup seemed to come and go in the minors and up to the majors. Its reemergence this year was said to be one of the reasons why the Yankees named Hughes the fifth starter, but we haven’t seen much of it to date. He’s thrown just 43 all season, accounting for a mere two percent of his pitches. The slider he has abandoned altogether, replacing it with a curveball. That started in 2005. Here’s what Baseball America said about the curve after that season.

His curve progressed significantly and is now an above-average pitch. … At times he throws his curve in the low 70s just to get it over, and he needs to throw it in the 78-80 mph range for it to be a plus pitch.

Apparently he used it with success in 2006. Baseball America wrote a glowing review of Hughes before the 2007 season, before which they ranked him the No. 4 overall prospect, and the No. 1 pitching prospect, in baseball.

Hughes’ greatest accomplishment as a pro has been to forsake his slider in favor of a knockout curveball, which is more of a strikeout pitch and produces less stress on his arm. It’s a true power breaking ball that sits in the low 80s with 1-to-7 break. Club officials call it the best in the system because Hughes can throw it for quality strikes or bury it out of the zone, and because he uses the same arm slot and release point he uses for his fastball.

It sounds like the curveball should be something we see more often from Hughes, but instead we’ve seen him rely on his fastballs, both the four-seamer and the cutter, for most of the season. He’s thrown those pitches a combined 76.4 percent of the time, while using the curveball with just 15.6 percent of his pitches. He’s thrown it a bit more lately, 17.9 percent since the beginning of June and 19.8 percent since the beginning of July. Yet we’ve seen batters swing and miss at it less often. In April and May they swung and missed 8.4 percent of the time. Since June 1 that is down to 5.9 percent. Since July 1 it is 5.5 percent.

Opposing hitters have fared well when Hughes throws the curve. According to FanGraphs’ Pitch Type Values, his curve rates as his worst pitch, 3.9 runs below average overall and 1.16 runs below average per 100 pitches. Since both of his fastball rate more than a run above average per 100 pitches, it’s no wonder that he’s been sticking with those. I suspect, however, that if he continues throwing these pitches while neglecting his curveball that we’ll see those fastball numbers decline. It’s hard for any pitcher, never mind one pitching in the AL East, to survive on just two fastballs. The curve is a necessary weapon.

This is just an observation, not a call to change this or that. I’m not a pitching coach so I don’t have all the relevant information. I also know that it’s difficult to develop a pitch on the fly, especially when your team needs you to go out there and put them in a position to win a game. In the long run curveball development is necessary. In the short run, he needs to do whatever is necessary to win the ballgame at hand. It’s a tough balance to strike, and while we’ve seen Hughes start to work in his curveball more we’ve also seen him realize worse results on it.

Bonus graphs

Using Joe Lefkowitz’s PitchFX tool, I created a few graphs with Hughes’s curveball. I’m not sure what we can glean from these, but they’re pretty damn neat in any case.

Pitches taken by lefties
Pitches taken by righties
Swinging out of the zone
Strikes called a ball
Balls called strikes

Yanks survive late surge, top Royals in opener

(AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

Early on in the broadcast of Thursday’s game, John Flaherty and Ken Singleton talked some about this game having the potential to be what they called a “trap game.” The basic idea was that after such a grueling two game set against the Rangers, it would have been easy for the Yanks to fall into a lull and get a little too comfortable against the lowly Royals. Thankfully that did not happen and they kept their foot on gas right through to the end, escaping with just their fifth win in their last eleven games.

Good Thing They Tacked Some On

This game had a weird feel to it. The Yanks never had a substantial lead yet it felt like they did at times. I dunno, I guess that goes back to the “trap game” business I was talking about above. Facing a bad team with your ace on the mound, I suppose it’s easy to feel pretty confidence about the outcome.

Anyway, it turned out that the Yanks would need all four of the runs they scored tonight. Curtis Granderson and his new setup drove in the first run with a solid single back up the middle in the 2nd, then new father Mark Teixeira plated another run the next inning with a sac fly. Austin Kearns poured it on with a solo homer the inning after that, and Alex Rodriguez tacked another one on in the 7th with a run scoring ground out. Pretty standard stuff here.

It was a very blah game offensively. The Yanks had at least one runner reach base in each of the first eight innings, and they went a rather unremarkable 1-for-9 with men in scoring position. Two of their four runs were scored on outs, and really they only had two hard hit balls all night – Kearns’ homer and Granderson’s double immediately following that.

The most important thing is that the team didn’t just go to sleep and think they had this game won in the 4th inning. They applied pressure in each inning and threatened to score, but right now the balls just aren’t falling in for hits. Luckily they’re good enough to still win games when that happens.

For the sake of being consistent, the biggest hit in the game according to WPA was Granderson’s single in the 2nd, though Kearns’ homer was a close second. Subjectively, man it’s a good thing A-Rod got that run home in the 7th.

CC on Cruise Control

(AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

When the Yankees gave CC Sabathia that enormous contract, they expected him to be The Man (capital letters, very important) in big games and in the playoffs. He’s absolutely met that expectation and then some, but there’s also a nice side benefit, and that’s games like this one. Even though they place second in baseball with a .275 team batting average, the Royals are one of the game’s weaker offenses because they don’t draw walks or hit for much power. Sabathia should chew right threw lineups like this, and that’s exactly what he did.

The big guy had the fastball working, topping out at a whopping 99.3 mph according to PitchFX, and from the looks of the data he eclipsed the 98 mph plateau about a half-dozen times. The Royals did collect ten hits off of him, but just two were hard hit (doubles by Alex Gordon and Wilson Betemit) and as we saw in the series a few week ago, Kansas City sure knows how to bloop the other team to death. Sabathia consistently worked out of trouble all night and never once appeared to be on the brink of a meltdown.

The final line with show three runs scored against CC, but two of those runners cross home plate when he was sitting in the dugout. He retired nine of ten in the middle innings while the Yanks were building their lead, and he exited with a pretty manageable pitch count of 110. He usually just starts to get warmed up around that mark. After two stressful games in Texas, Sabathia made this game feel a lot safer than it actually was. Solid work by the big man.

Leftovers

(AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

Mariano Rivera wasn’t available tonight after working in both games against the Rangers and in four of the last five overall, but Sabathia almost made that a moot point by recording the first 26 outs of the game. David Robertson made things a little interesting with two outs in the 9th, but ultimately came through for his first save of the season and the second of his career. Mo should be available tomorrow, and there’s enough left in the relief well that Robertson won’t be sorely missed should he get the night off.

Meanwhile, I don’t have any trouble with Joe Girardi yanking Sabathia when he did, but based on what I’ve read in the comments and on Twitter, some people were complaining about it. I guess people complain about every little thing, but you know what I mean. Two players had already left the game with heat related ailments, and here you have his monster of an investment a man on the mound with 110 pitches already to his credit in a meaningless August game against the freaking Royals. What’s wrong with lifting him there? I mean, sheesh, save some bullets for a game that actually means something. Let’s use our brains a little here. Frankly I was surprised Girardi even had CC start the inning.

(AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

One night after a four strikeout performance, Nick Swisher rebounded by going 3-for-4 with a walk before leaving the game with exhaustion. It was something like 106° on the field according to the broadcast, so it’s easy to understand Swish’s predicament when you include the last two games in Texas.

Congrats to Kearns on his first Yankee homer. One of these days Lance Berkman will go deep in pinstripes, I’m sure of it.

Derek Jeter picked up two hits and came around to score twice, and is now hitting .324 dating back to July 18th, a span of 19 games. Am I wrong in saying it’s about damn time?

Frankie Cervelli went 0-for-4 and saw just nine pitches total, but he did throw out a baserunner trying to steal that looks pretty important in retrospect.

The Rays were off on Thursday while the Red Sox lost on a Jonathan Papelbon blown save to the Blue Jays, so the Yanks’ lead over each in the AL East sits at two and six games, respectively.

WPA Graph & Box Score

After those heart attack games in Texas, this one was nice and easy. Here’s the box score, here’s the other stuff.

Up Next

Game two of this four game series will be played at the same time tomorrow. Dustin Moseley gets the ball against Kyle Davies. I’m sure everyone who bought tickets is thrilled with the matchup.

DeLeon’s walk-off shot give Staten Island a win

Jesus Montero was named the Triple-A International League Player of the Month, a completely deserved honor. Montero has simply killed the ball for weeks now. Melky Mesa, meanwhile, is your High-A Florida State League Player of the Week. That’s not as cool as being Player of the Month, but it ain’t too shabby.

Jose Ramirez was voted as having the Best Changeup in Baseball America’s Low-A Best Tools (sub. req’d). Also, make sure you check out Rebecca’s photos from Tuesday’s Short Season Staten Island game.

Triple-A Scranton was washed out. They’re make to this one up as part of a doubleheader on August 28th.

Double-A Trenton (5-3 loss to Altoona)
Justin Christian, CF & Dan Brewer, RF: both 2 for 4, 1 R – Christian doubled & stole a base … Brewer drove in a run & stole two bases
Corban Joseph, 2B: 0 for 3, 1 BB, 1 K, 1 E (fielding)
Austin Romine, DH & Rene Rivera, C: both 0 for 4 – Romine K’ed thrice, Rivera once
Marcos Vechionacci, 1B, Damon Sublett, LF, Justin Snyder, 3B & Luis Nunez, SS: all 1 for 4 – Vech drove in a run, scored another & K’ed three times … Sublett drove in a run & committed a fielding error in his first game in the field since coming back from the DL … Nunez doubled
Adam Warren: 5 IP, 4 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 2 BB, 5 K, 1 HB, 6-2 GB/FB – hasn’t been great in AA, but he’ll get there
Wilkin DeLaRosa: 1.2 IP, 2 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 3 BB, 3 K, 1-1 GB/FB – one of the walks was intentional … hopefully he goes for a full body scan soon, because his days on the 40-man roster with MLB caliber medical benefits are going to be coming to an end very soon
Josh Schmidt: 1.1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 1 K, 2-1 GB/FB

[Read more…]

Game 114: Welcome back, Tex

I feel sorry for that baseball. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Even though Marcus Thames did a more than admirable job filling as the three-hole hitter during the last two games, I think we’re all happy to have Mark Teixeira back with the team. The Yanks’ first baseman missed those games because his wife had the nerve to give birth during the season, but he returns just in time to face one of his favorite pitchers, Bruce Chen. Tex isn’t just 9-for-14 off Chen in his career, six of those nine hits have left the yard and two others have gone for doubles. That includes a 2-for-3 effort a few weeks ago. Welcome back Tex; now please, don’t ever leave us again.

The other big story of the night is Curtis Granderson‘s supposedly revamped swing. He downplayed the changes, though it still sounds like there some pretty significant adjustments made. The results probably won’t be immediate, but stranger things have happened. Here’s the lineup…

Jeter, SS
Swisher, RF
Teixeira, 1B
A-Rod, 3B
Cano, 2B
Thames, DH
Kearns, LF
Granderson, CF
Cervelli, C

And on the bump, it’s the big man, CC Sabathia.

Another game out in the midwest, so this one doesn’t start until a little after 8pm ET. Once the game starts, you can watch on YES. Enjoy.

Modell’s, Yanks team up for discount day-of-game tickets

Once upon a time, Yankee fan used to be able to walk up to the stadium and buy day-of-game tickets in reasonably priced areas of the season. Since the arrival of Alex Rodriguez, though, day-of-game ticket sales in the Bronx have all but dried up. Today, the Yankees and Modell’s announced that the two companies are teaming up to bring back that tradition but with a hitch.

Beginning this Monday, the Modell’s flagship store at 234 W. 42nd St. between 7th and 8th Avenues will sell a limited number of discounted day-of-game tickets. These seats will go on sale at noon for night games and 8 a.m. for day games and will be limited to four per person, per game. While the two companies did not say what seats will be available, the Mo Saver tickets will be offered at up to 50 percent off face value.

The Yankees have already sold 3.7 million tickets this year — or an average of approximately 46,000 per game — and this discount booth may be a great way for fans who are priced out of the secondary market to find good seats available for cheap. “This is a great opportunity and service that we are thrilled to offer to New York Yankees fans. Whether you are visiting and looking to take in a game at the world-famous Yankee Stadium or a New Yorker making last-minute plans on a game day, the new ticket booth is conveniently located at Modell’s Times Square to offer amazing deals on game tickets,” Mitchell Modell, CEO of the eponymously named store, said. “We expect the new service to be an instant hit with local fans and tourists alike.”

Link Brigade: Hughes, Gardner, Cliff Lee, Mo, Pitching

I’ve come across plenty of good stuff today, all worthy of at least a mention here. Hopefully these can get you through the rest of your working day.

Phil Hughes, then and now

Friend of RAB Jay Jaffe, in his new digs at Pinstriped Bible, takes a look at the difference between Phil Hughes‘s first 13 starts and his last eight. There are some pretty stark differences, especially in his strikeout and home run numbers. He also digs into some PitchFX data, a conversation that continued on Twitter later in the afternoon. Harry Pavlidis supplied some stats on his cutter. I’d click through the entire feed to see the other stuff he came up with.

The upshot: Hughes has allowed just one home run on his curveball all year.

The other side of the Gardner argument

Yesterday Ben wrote an article about Brett Gardner and what his slump means for the Yankees’ off-season. It’s always suspect when a player exceeds all expectations for a good portion of a season, so when Gardner slumped I understood the concern. At Pending Pinstripes, Greg Fertel takes a look at the argument from the other side, noting that as long as Brett turns around to average production from here on out he’ll serve as a quality outfielder next year, allowing the Yanks to spend potential Carl Crawford money elsewhere. Say, on a pitcher like…

The market for Cliff Lee

At TYU, Stephen R., an excellent mid-season addition to the site, exhaustively examines Lee’s possible landing points. To him it comes down to three primary contenders: the Yanks, the Dodgers, and the Rangers. Given the state of baseball and how each team is currently constructed, I like the Yanks’ chances in this one. It’s tough not to.

Jack Curry on Mariano Rivera

Perhaps the best off-season addition for the Yankees didn’t come on the field, but instead on their broadcast crew. Jack Curry has been wonderful in his new role. He even, from time to time, dusts off the writing chops he employed at the New York Times. This time he’s written about Mo and his ability to shake the pressure and do what he does.

Does pitching really win championships?

We know the old adage, and we’ve seen it at work plenty of times. But at ESPN (insider only, unfortunately), FanGraphs’ Jack Moore examines the past five years of playoff data and tries to determine if it actually holds true. Better pitching does give a team an advantage, but it might not be as great as you think. There are plenty of other factors that go into building a championship team.

Pettitte’s simulated start pushed back a day

According to the NY Post, Andy Pettitte will not throw his scheduled simulated game today. He was experiencing a tight hip flexor. The upshot: the start is moved back just one day. Presumably that would move back his rehab start in Trenton to Wednesday. But we’ll fill in those details as we get them.