Hughes getting back to basics for Sunday’s start

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

There has been something lacking from Phil Hughes‘s game lately. The focus for the past couple of years has been on his changeup, a perpetually in-development pitch, but the problem is greater than that. I’ll refer you back to the Baseball America Prospect Handbook 2007, which featured Hughes on the cover and rated him the Yankees No. 1 prospect (and, later, the No. 4 prospect in all of 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.

The last time we saw anything that resembled a knockout curve from Hughes was back in May, 2007, when he was working on a no-hitter against Texas. With two strikes on Mark Teixeira, Hughes reached back and tried to bury one of those curveballs, but he flubbed the landing. The ball sailed inside, and Hughes limped around the mound. He hasn’t been the same since.

One of the bigger changes Hughes implemented since then was a new grip on his curveball. Instead of the 1-to-7 power curve, he employed a knuckle grip, a la Mike Mussina and A.J. Burnett. It has worked from time to time, but overall it hasn’t been anything close to the knockout pitch that he displayed while mowing down the minors in 2006. In today’s New York Post, Mark Hale helps shed light on the issue.

Essentially, Hughes finally realized what everyone else had seen: the knuckle grip just wasn’t working. He tried to make it work, by speeding up his arm, but no matter what he did the pitch was average at best, and it although I’m not a scout I’m fairly certain that a good number would call it below average. He did throw it both for strikes and in the dirt, but in the zone it seemed a bit flat, and in the dirt it didn’t fool anyone — “It never looks like a strike,” Hughes said. And so, on Sunday he will likely re-implement the original grip. “It’s a lot more like a power curveball now,” said Hughes.

Another interesting change Hughes has worked on this week: changing his mechanics. We often hear about changes in mechanics, and most times it means nothing. But when it comes to his plant leg, eyebrows raise. That’s the hamstring he pulled on that night in Texas, the night he showed so much promise. Hughes acknowledges that the issues could stem from that incident, too. “I just felt like over the years, basically starting from my hamstring injury, I’ve kind of formed a couple of bad habits,” he said. That he’s consciously working to correct these bad habits is certainly encouraging.

This type of story is usually reserved for spring training, a time of hopes and dreams for the upcoming season. To see it in the middle of the season is somewhat odd, but inspiring at the same time. Essentially, Hughes is admitting that many of his issues stem from the injury that cost him most of the 2007 season. If he can get back to the pitcher he was before that, with both his mechanics and his curveball, he could yet turn into the pitcher who, according to Baseball America, had the “combination of stuff, feel and command to profile as a No. 1 starter.”

The Obligatory Ubaldo Jimenez Post

Lost amidst the hoopla of Derek Jeter and CC Sabathia this weekend was a report from Ken Rosenthal indicating that the Rockies have been receiving inquiries about the availability of ace right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez. They aren’t actively shopping Jimenez according to Rosenthal, but “if the Rockies get an offer that┬ámakes sense, they will give it serious consideration.” The Reds are already said to have interest, but no significant trade negotiations have taken place.

The Yankees have been looking for high-end pitching since the offseason, and Jimenez the kind of pitcher that usually doesn’t hit the trade market. He has his pluses and negatives like everyone else, so let’s recap…

The Pros

  • In terms of pure stuff, there are few (if any) better. Jimenez legitimately sits in the mid-90’s with two fastballs, a true four-seamer and a two-seamer that runs in on righties. He’ll throw a low-80’s slider to righties and a mid-80’s changeup to lefties, but batters on both sides will get his filthy high-80’s splitter. An upper-70’s curveball will show up every once in a while as well.
  • As you’d expect with that kind of stuff, Ubaldo puts up stellar strikeout (8.19 K/9 this year, 8.39 since the start of 2009) and ground ball (46.6% this year, 49.9% since the start of 2009) rates. He doesn’t have much of a platoon split at all, holding righties to a .220/.298/.323 batting line (3.50 FIP) and lefties to .227/.309/.341 (3.08 FIP) since the start of 2009.
  • Jimenez has been on the disabled list exactly once in his career, and that was this April for a cracked cuticle. Hardly a long-term concern. He’s on pace for his third consecutive 200+ IP season and his fourth consecutive 190+ IP season. Ubaldo has thrown the 15th most innings in baseball since the start of the 2008 season, and he’s that one DL trip away from being top 12. Dude eats innings.
  • The Rockies signed Jimenez to a long-term contract back in 2009. He’ll earn just $2.8M this season ($468,000 a month or so) and $4.2M next season before options for 2013 ($5.75M) and 2014 ($8M) come into play ($1M buyout of each). The 2014 option is voided if he’s traded though, so forget about that. Either way, Ubaldo will be paid a fraction of what he could have earned had he gone through the arbitration process.

The Cons

  • As good as his present stuff is, Jimenez’s fastball velocity is down noticeably after sitting in the upper-90’s over the last few seasons. His swing and miss rate sat between 8.9% and 9.6% from 2007 through 2010, but it’s just 7.5% this year.
  • The strikeouts and ground balls are great, but Ubaldo will hurt himself with ball four. His 3.19 uIBB/9 this year is down from 3.36 in 2009-2010 and 4.23 in 2007-2008, but it’s still nothing special.
  • Jimenez is very much like A.J. Burnett in that he’s hit or miss. One day he’ll look like the best pitcher on the planet, the next he’ll look completely average, and the next he’ll look like he belongs in Triple-A. His average Game Score since the start of 2009 is 57.5 but the standard deviation is 15.9, which is kinda nuts. That means his Game Scores (and thus the quality of his outings) vary a great deal. Burnett is at 50.4 and 17.7 during that time, respectively.
  • He’s done a fine job of staying healthy in the show, but Ubaldo did have some serious shoulder trouble in the minors (2004) and that is never fully behind you. Just ask Chien-Ming Wang. It’s also worth noting that he’s thrown his splitter way more this year (14.4%) than ever before, and that pitch supposedly takes a toll on the elbow over time.
  • Ubaldo has some postseason experience but not much. He allowed seven runs in 15 IP against the Phillies in the 2009 NLDS, though he did allow just four runs in 16 IP as a rookie during Colorado’s march to the 2007 World Series. His track record against AL competition in interleague play is average at best (4.08 ERA and a ~3.50 FIP in 79.1 IP). I don’t put too much stock in that stuff, but it’s worth noting.

One trade came to mind as a comparable almost immediately: Dan Haren from the A’s to the Diamondbacks. At the time of that deal, the 27-year-old Haren had two years and an option left on his contract (total value of $16.25M), and his big league career consisted of 3.97 FIP and 14.1 WAR in 781.1 IP. Right now the 27-year-old Jimenez has a year-and-a-half plus an option left on his deal ($11.12M), and his career consists of a 3.57 FIP and 19.6 fWAR in 832.1 IP. The difference between the two pitchers is consistency, or really the perception of it.

It’s a fair comparison, and it cost Arizona six (!!!) young players to acquire Haren and minor league reliever Connor Robertson (David’s brother, seriously). One of those six was an upper level stud prospect (Carlos Gonzalez), another was a lower level stud prospect (Brett Anderson), one was a rising but flawed lower level prospect (Chris Carter), two were mid-range prospects (Greg Smith and Aaron Cunningham), and the sixth was a young big leaguer struggling to find his way in the show (Dana Eveland). That’s quite a haul.

There are plenty of reasons to like Jimenez and plenty of reasons not to like him. The talent is so immense that it’s easy dream and see him becoming the best pitcher in baseball after a little talk with the organization’s pitching gurus. The risk is also obvious, especially when you consider that the AL East is no picnic. I’m guessing at it’ll take at least four young players to acquire Ubaldo, and two of them are going to have to be absolute studs. Remember, Colorado is not rebuilding, they’re ready to contend and will want players that can help very soon, not two years from now. It’s about cost and risk, how much of the former are the Yankees willing to pay and how much of the latter are they willing to assume. They’d be foolish not to at least inquire though. No harm in that.

Mets ship K-Rod to Brewers

Via MLBTR, the Mets have traded closer Francisco Rodriguez to the Brewers for two players to be named later. Nice of them to wait until after the All-Star Game to announce the deal. Anyway, K-Rod was on the Yankees’ radar as a potential trade target: He was reportedly open to a deal to the Bronx, and Ben made the case for him last month. That option is clearly off the table now. Fantasy managers should look at Bobby Parnell for saves as he is likely to become the next Mets’ closer.

National League secures home field advantage in World Series with All-Star Game win

(via Twitter user @waverider15)

The final score was 5-1 and I blame the AL West. The AL jumped out to a one-zip lead thanks to an Adrian Gonzalez solo homer, but the NL answered right back when eventual MVP Prince Fielder hit a three-run oppo bomb off C.J. Wilson. They tacked on another run at the expense of Jordan Walden, and another off Brandon League. When you look through the box score, it’s pretty obvious the AL just didn’t have the pitching to keep pace. I still blame the AL West though. Stupid useless division, thanks for nothing.

Four Yankees were at the game but only three played. Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano started the game but didn’t hit the ball out of the infield in two at-bats each. David Robertson pitched the second inning after Josh Beckett shut himself down with soreness in his knee during warm ups, striking out one (Matt Holliday) and allowing a single up the middle (Lance Berkman). He and Chris Perez were the only non-AL West pitchers to appear in the game for the good guys. Russell Martin did not play at all, which I’m pretty cool with, actually. Let him rest.

The best part of the game: Tyler Clippard getting the win. He’s been phenomenal since the Yankees traded him away, but anyone that watches him regularly will tell you about his penchant for vulturing wins. He does it so often that it’s officially referred to as “clipping” a win. This game was a perfect example. Clippard entered the game with men on first and second with two outs in the fourth, then gave up a single to Adrian Beltre. The only reason he got out of the inning was because the third base coach inexplicably sent Jose Bautista home*, where he was thrown out by a mile by Hunter Pence. One batter, one hit, win. Clipped.

Bruce Bochy used Philadelphia and Atlanta pitchers for six of the nine innings and one of his own pitchers for just two outs. That was Brian Wilson, who didn’t come into the game until the AL threatened in the bottom of the ninth. Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Ryan Vogelsong didn’t even leave the dugout. The Phillies and Braves will be right there with the Giants come the playoffs, and Bochy used his managerial perk to use their pitchers and spare his own. Anyway, it’s the NL’s second straight win and they now have home field advantage in the World Series. After a day off on Wednesday, the Yankees will be back at it against the Blue Jays on Thursday.

* Seriously, what the hell was that about? Pence had the ball before Bautista even got to third.

Two losses on a slow night

Low-A Charleston (9-3 loss to Greensboro)
Eduardo Sosa, CF, Ramon Flores, LF, Kyle Higashioka, DH, Kelvin DeLeon, RF & Jose Mojica, SS: all 1 for 4 – Sosa walked, scored two runs, and struck out twice .. Flores drove in a run and struck out twice … Higgy doubled … DeLeon threw a runner out at the plate … Mojica got caught stealing
Anderson Feliz, 2B: 1 for 5, , 1 R, 1 2B, 1 K
Kevin Mahoney, 1B & Gary Sanchez, C: both 2 for 4, 1 BB – Sanchez drove in two and struck out
Shane Greene, RHP: 4 IP, 11 H, 7 R, 7 ER, 2 BB 2 K, 1 WP, 3-2 GB/FB
Nathan Forer, RHP: 2 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 0 K, 3-1 GB/FB
Francisco Rondon, LHP: 2 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 3 K, 1-1 GB/FB

Rookie GCL Yanks (10-9 loss to GCL Pirates)
Claudio Custodio, SS: 2 for 4, 2 R, 1 BB, 1 K, 1 SB – that’s eleven steals in as many tries
Jose Rosario, 2B: 2 for 5, 2 R, 1 3B, 1 K
Tyler Austin, 1B & Dante Bichette Jr., 3B: 2 for 5, 1 R, 1 RBI, 1 K – Austin stole a base while Bichette got caught trying to do so … Austin is perfect in ten stole base attempts
Yeicock Calderon, RF: 1 for 5, 1 R, 3 K – threw a runner out at first
Ravel Santana, CF: 1 for 2, 1 R, 1 HR, 2 RBI – left the game after a fifth inning ground out
Ronnier Mustelier, CF: 0 for 2
Isaias Tejeda, C: 1 for 3, 1 2B, 1 RBI, 1 E (throwing) – left the game in the seventh for an unknown reason
Tyson Blaser, PH-C: 0 for 1
Jorge Alcantara, LF: 1 for 4, 1 R
Fu-Lin Kuo, DH: 0 for 3, 1 K, 1 HBP – left the game after getting hit by a pitch in the eighth
Gabe Encinas, RHP: 3 IP, 5 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 1 BB, 5 K, 2 WP, 0-3 GB/FB – 21-6 K/BB in 19.1 IP
Danny Martinez, LHP: 1 IP, 1 H, 2 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 2 K, 1-0 GB/FB
Zach Varce, RHP: 2 IP, 2 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 2 BB, 4 K, 1 WP, 1-1 GB/FB – rehab should be over pretty soon
Mariel Checo, RHP: 1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 1 K, 0-2 GB/FB
Cory Cowsert, RHP: 1 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 3 K
Corey Maines, RHP: 1 IP, zeroes, 2 K

Triple-A Scranton is off until Thursday for the All-Star break. The actual All-Star Game will be played tomorrow, and Adam Warren is the only Yankees farmhand that will be there. Jesus Montero, Jorge Vazquez, and Kevin Whelan were all picked for the game but withdrew due to injury.

Double-A Trenton is also off until Thursday for the All-Star break. The game will be played tomorrow, and four Yankees farmhands will participate: Austin Romine, Corban Joseph, Dellin Betances, and Manny Banuelos.

High-A Tampa and Short Season Staten Island had scheduled off days.

2011 All-Star Game Thread

Now it counts! Seriously, how dumb is it that this glorified exhibition will decide home field advantage in the World Series? I can’t wait for that fifth inning matchup between Aaron Crow and Hunter Pence to decide whether or not the Yankees get to play three or four games in the Bronx come late October, assuming they make it that far of course. Don’t want to jinx it.

That said, the All-Star Game isn’t boring, at least I don’t think so. I just hate that it impacts the World Series. It’s fun to see all the different players and a new pitcher every inning, usually I’m fumbling around MLB.tv to see these guys play, and for this one night they’re all playing in one stadium. That’s pretty cool. Here are your starting lineups…

American League
Curtis Granderson, CF
Asdrubal Cabrera, SS
Adrian Gonzalez, 1B
Jose Bautista, RF
Josh Hamilton, LF
Adrian Beltre, 3B
David Ortiz, DH
Robinson Cano, 2B
Alex Avila, C

Jered Weaver, RHP

National League
Rickie Weeks, 2B
Carlos Beltran, DH
Matt Kemp, CF
Prince Fielder, 1B
Brian McCann, C
Lance Berkman, RF
Matt Holliday, LF
Troy Tulowitzki, SS
Scott Rolen, 3B

Roy Halladay, RHP

The full rosters can be seen here. David Robertson and Russell Martin are the only other Yankees actually at the game and eligible to play after Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mariano Rivera, and CC Sabathia backed out. If needed, the two managers have confirmed that Jose Valverde and Brian Wilson will serve as closers, and Valverde apparently rehearsed a new jig should he close out the game. Seriously. Anyway, first pitch is scheduled for 8pm ET and can be seen on FOX. Talk about the game or anything else your heart desires here. Enjoy.