Game 85: Hughes Returns

(Photo Credit: Flickr user Anna Moony via Creative Commons license)

It’s been nearly three months since Phil Hughes started a game for the Yankees, but he makes his return from what was ultimately described as shoulder inflammation tonight against the Indians. He sandwiched two strong rehab outings around a so-so- one, but the results really don’t matter. His fastball was reportedly back and the brain trust decided Hughes at his present state was a better option than Ivan Nova. I’m just happy he’s back. Phil’s always been a personal fave, but I didn’t need to tell you that. Here’s the starting nine…

Derek Jeter, SS
Curtis Granderson, CF
Mark Teixeira, 1B
Alex Rodriguez, 3B
Robinson Cano, 2B
Nick Swisher, RF
Jorge Posada, DH
Russell Martin, C
Brett Gardner, LF

Phil Hughes, SP

First pitch is scheduled for a little after 7pm ET and can be seen on YES locally and ESPN nationally. Enjoy.

Notes: Mariano Rivera will get today off, but he told reporters that he will “definitely” be ready to go tomorrow … The Tribe activated Matt LaPorta from the disabled list today, but Asdrubal Cabrera is out of the lineup after rolling his ankle last night. Net gain for the Yankees.

Site News: We’re working on fixing some database bugs, so the site might be a little sketchy tonight, in that it might go down periodically. Just a heads up.

Yankees demote Pendleton, outright Carlyle, release Texeira

Via Bryan Hoch, the Yankees sent Pants Lendleton to Triple-A Scranton to make room on the 25-man active for Hughes. There’s still no word about the 40-man roster move though, they have to get Phil off the 60-day disabled list somehow. In other news, Buddy Carlyle has been outrighted to Triple-A Scranton. That means he cleared waivers and agreed to go to the minors after being designated for assignment last week.

Update: Kanekoa Texeira has been released to make room on the 40-man, according to Hoch. That was pretty predictable.

Innings innings innings (and it’s not just CC)

(Photo Credit: Flickr user Keith Allison via Creative Commons license)

Not to beat that old drum again, but it’s amazing how strong the Yankees’ starting rotation has been despite all the questions coming into the season. Their 3.63 ERA is fifth best in the American League and tenth best among all teams, and their 3.84 FIP is fifth and 13th best, respectively. If you prefer xFIP to adjust some of the homerun stuff, they’re second and tenth best, respectively. No matter how you slice it, the Yankees rotation has been one of the ten or so best in baseball during the first half of the season. I don’t think many of us saw that coming.

Aside from the overall performance, the other thing that really stands out is how deep the starters are pitching into games. It all starts with CC Sabathia obviously, who completed seven innings for the fifth straight start last night and 13th time in 19 starts this year. He hasn’t thrown fewer than five innings in a start since May 8th of last year, a stretch of 46 straight starts. Furthermore, that game was the game in Fenway when they called for the tarp with two outs in the bottom of the fifth, when Sabathia had two strikes on the hitter. He had to be lifted at just 85 pitches due to the lengthy delay, so it’s safe to say he would have finished the fifth in that game too. The last time he failed to complete five innings in a start because of something other than rain was his final start of 2009, when the Rays rocked him for nine runs in 2.2 IP.

Joe wrote about A.J. Burnett‘s performance in the late innings earlier today, mentioning that he’s completed at least five innings in all 18 starts this year. That’s noteworthy because he finished five innings only 21 times last year, so he’s definitely improved in that regard. Bartolo Colon has thrown at least six innings in nine of his 11 starts, with the two exceptions being the beating he took in Texas and a 5.1 IP start against the Angels. Freddy Garcia got rocked by the Red Sox a few starts ago, but otherwise he’s lasted at least five innings in his other 14 starts. Twelve times he’s completed six innings, six times he’s completed seven, including three times in his last four starts. Ivan Nova had gone at least five innings in all but five of his 16 starts before being demoted, and two of those five came in his first three starts of the season.

Overall, Yankees starters have thrown 526 IP on the season, the eighth most in the AL and 14th most in baseball. Every single team ahead of them has played at least 86 games while the Yankees are only at 84 because of the April rain outs. On a rate basis, it’s an average of 6.26 IP/start, the fifth best in the AL and sixth best in all of baseball. Already 60 times this year they’ve gotten at least six innings from their starter, more than seven out of every ten times. Compare that to 2009 and 2010 (table to the right), and you’ll see that they’re actually above the league average in percent of starts with at least six innings for the first time in the Sabathia-Burnett era.

The more innings the starters throw the better, because the back-end of the bullpen has been hit pretty hard with all kinds of injuries: short-term (Mariano Rivera‘s triceps), medium-term (Rafael Soriano‘s elbow), and long-term (Joba Chamberlain‘s elbow, Pedro Feliciano‘s shoulder). Whether or not Burnett can keep pitching deep into games or Garcia and Colon can hold up all year remains to be seen, but their early season impact on the pitching staff in terms of soaking up innings and sparing the bullpen is something that’s already done and in the bank.

When in doubt, pull A.J. out

There aren’t many positives to take from A.J. Burnett‘s 2011 season. If we’re grasping at straws we can say that it’s an improvement on his 2010 season, but that consolation goes only so far. Of the 112 qualified starters, he ranks 95th in FIP and 74th in ERA, and is striking out about a batter less than his career average. In fact, his strikeout rate is barely better than last year’s, while his walk and home run rates are just about the same. On Monday he incited a collective groan among the Yankee faithful when he blew the 2-0 lead that the Yankees had handed him in the top of the seventh. It felt like more of the same for Burnett.

One thing Burnett has actually done this year is avoid early exits. In all 18 of his starts he’s gone at least five innings. That might not seem like a big deal, but when the expected No. 2 has a year like Burnett’s 2010, we look in odd places to find positives. In those first five innings he has actually pitched fairly well. THere are a few innings that are worse than others — the 4th seems to be a problem for him, at least for the 18 innings this year — but overall he’s not all bad to start off a game. It’s when he gets into the later innings that things fall apart.

To be clear, most pitchers follow a similar trend as the innings progress. It’s the simple effect of the pitchers having seen them more often. But with Burnett it’s quite a standout. Five of the 15 homers he’s allowed this season have come in the sixth and seventh innings, and many of them have ruined otherwise winnable games. It truly starts to get bad as he faces hitters for the third time, when they’re hitting .292/.379/.508 against him. Such are the perils of being a two-pitch pitcher.

This isn’t to say that Burnett always needs to exit after five innings. There are some games where he’s going strong. For instance, he’s pitched into the eighth three times this year, going 1.2 innings and allowing just one hit and a walk. But it’s pretty clear, both in the stats and in our eyes, that he sometimes just falls apart after five or six. Given what we know about Burnett’s volatility and what we know about his failures once the lineup turns over a second time, there shouldn’t be any hesitation to pull him when he starts to show signs of vulnerability. In other words, the Kearns homer on Monday never should have happened, because he should have been out of the game after Duncan’s single. What followed was a movie we’ve seen too often.

It does seem that Burnett has made some improvements from his 2011 season, particularly at the beginning of games. He’s not getting shelled and handing it to the bullpen in the third, which is a dull but real positive. But it’s clear that he’s prone to lose it once hitters see him for a third time. There are times when he can get through those late innings, when his curveball has plenty of bite and he can locate his fastball. But when signs of trouble appear, Joe Girardi should waste no time in removing him from the game. We’ve seen it, and the stats bear it out. The Yankees are better served with a reliever than watching another late-inning Burnett implosion.

Sabathia’s Strikeout Surge

The decline in CC Sabathia‘s strikeout rate was noticeable earlier this year. His 6.63 K/9 through his first 16 starts was his lowest since 2003 and marked the third straight year of decline. That’s not to say Sabathia was struggling, he certainly wasn’t, but strikeouts are a pretty good indicator of future success and no team wants to see its ace trending in the wrong direction. Three starts and 33 whiffs in 22.2 IP later, suddenly CC’s strikeout rate sits at 7.70 K/9, better than last year’s rate and identical to his 2009 showing.

Where have all these strikeouts come from? I don’t think there’s one thing we can to point to, but we might as well start with his fastball. After sitting comfortably in the low-90’s (somewhere around 92-94) all season, Sabathia has averaged 95 mph over his last three starts, topping out at high as 97-98. Here’s the velocity plot with a very noticeable spike …

His last three starts have been played in two different parks, so that decreases the chances of a PitchFX glitch somewhat. Sabathia chalks the increased velocity up to the heat, saying after last night’s game that “I’ve been able to stay loose … That’s a big thing for me. In between innings trying to stay loose and make sure I can keep sweating, and I think that’s a big part of my velocity.” Dave Pinto mused that it might have to do with his offseason knee surgery and weight loss; maybe it just took him some time to get used to his new body and now he’s finding his groove. His pitch selection tells another story…

Sabathia’s been fastball-slider heavy these last three starts, which is not a total surprise when you consider that the other teams rolled out lineups with an usual amount of left-handed batters. Three of the nine opposing starters in each game were lefty bats, and three pinch-hitters also swung from that side of the plate. Usually Sabathia will see about 21% left-handed batters, but it’s been more than one-third over the last two weeks. That plays right to his strengths.

It’s also worth noting that two of those last three starts came against National League teams in Yankee Stadium, the Rockies and Brewers. Both teams strike out more than the average club, a little more than once for every five at-bats. Add in one strikeout prone (Jason Giambi) and one rookie (Mat Gamel) designated hitter, and that strikeout rate probably goes up a notch. The Indians are the fifth most strikeout happy team in baseball at 22.6%. At risk of jinxing it, I’m going to note that Sabathia will face the Rays on Sunday, the final game before the All-Star break. Tampa has the second most strikeouts against left-handed pitchers in the AL despite the third fewest plate appearances.

“Milwaukee is still my best,” said Sabathia after last night’s game, referring to the most dominant stretch of his career. “I don’t even know what happened. It was just one of those things … That was two and a half months. This has been three or four starts.” It has been just three starts, three very fun starts against teams that can reasonably be called contenders. Sabathia is known to go on some major runs in the second half of the season, and it looks like 2011’s streak is just beginning.