For Hughes, an outing most foul

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

As the first inning of last night’s game unfolded, one of the quirks of Phil Hughes‘ 2010 campaign came to the forefront. The Toronto Blue Jays’ hitters were fouling off pitch after pitch from the Yanks’ young right-hander, and the Jays’ offense simply wore down Hughes.

When Phil’s night ended rather abruptly with two outs in the fourth inning, he had thrown 102 pitches, and they weren’t half bad. The Pitch f/x gun — seemingly a few miles an hour too fast in Toronto — had him averaging 93 and touching 95 last night while he added in 25 curve balls and just a pair of change-ups. Of the 102 pitches he threw, he induced a whopping 19 swing-and-misses, but Blue Jays’ batters knocked out 25 foul balls. Out of the 66 strikes he threw, 39 percent of them were fouls, and Hughes was forced to make mistakes.

The real problem though came with two strikes. Despite the six strike outs, Hughes had problems putting the Blue Jays’ hitters away. Of the 26 foul balls, 13 of them came with two strikes, and 11 of those 13 came in the first two innings of the game. Fred Lewis’ at-bat to start the Toronto half of the first was indicative of Hughes’ problems. Lewis fouled off the first pitch, took the second for a ball and then fouled off the third. Ahead 1-2, Hughes couldn’t get Lewis, a Punch-and-Judy hitter who would, at worst, hit a double, out. Another ball, two fouls and a fourth ball — all fastballs — led to a leadoff walk, and Lewis would come around to score.

Similar sequences would repeat for the 3.2 innings of Hughes’ start. The first-inning Vernon Wells at-bat went foul, foul, foul, ball, foul, ball, triple. Vernon Wells may not be the hitter he once was, but show him enough low-to-mid 90s fastballs and he’ll tee off on it. The second-inning Aaron Hill at-bat, in which Hughes walked a guy with a .276 on-base percentage, went ball, foul, foul, foul, foul, ball, foul, ball, foul, foul, ball. It’s a little bit of a problem.

For Hughes, this foul ball epidemic has been a season-long concern. Prior to his start last night, his 34 percent foul ball strikes percentage — the number of foul balls divided the number of total strikes — was tops in the Majors and seven points above league average. At the same time, his strikes looking percentage sits at 24 percent, and he’s last out of all Major League starters to qualify for the ERA title.

The numbers are all well and good, but the trick lies in figuring out what they mean for Phil Hughes. First, it’s clear that he has a live fastball. It’s marked at 1.19 runs above average per 100 pitches. He can throw it for strikes, and he can blow it by hitters. But he also suffers at the bats of Major Leaguers who are particularly adept at making contact with fastballs. Where Hughes suffers and where the foul ball problem comes into play is with the deuce. His curve ball this year is rated at -1.75 runs below average per 100 pitches, and last night’s game did nothing to solve that problem. He can’t seem to throw the curve ball for strikes — hence the low called strike rate — and when it does land in the strike zone, it gets hit hard.

For the Yankees and for Hughes, 24 and rounding out his first season as a full-time big league starter, this strike problem is an envious one to have. In a nutshell, Phil Hughes is throwing too many strikes with his fastball, and he will have to develop better breaking pitches and a more reliable change-up. The need for an outpitch is a drum I’ve beaten many times this year, and last night’s outing showed us why. The Yankees have seemingly been stymied of late by pitchers with average-to-great change-ups, and if Phil Hughes can find consistency with his curveball and a slow pitch to match, his ability to get the fastball into the strike zone will do wonders for his long-term success.

Hughes exits early in 6-3 loss to Jays

At long last, the Yankees were able to come to the park on Wednesday and look forward to their first off-day in close to three weeks. They had gone 11-8 in the first 19 games of this 20 games in 20 days stretch, and their attempt to make it a dozen wins fell short when the offense was stymied by a lefthander that wouldn’t beat himself with walks or give in and throw fastballs in fastball counts. It’s never fun going into an off day with the bitter taste of defeat in your mouth, but that’s what the boys will have to do after this one.

(AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Frank Gunn)

Cy Cecil

It’s like clockwork. If the opposing starter features good offspeed stuff, the Yanks seem to be completely incapable of a) working the count, or b) putting together prolonged rallies. The only real damage they did in this game came when Marcus Thames (Mr. Thames to you) connected on a sinker that didn’t sink, sending it deep to left for a two run homer in the 4th. But that was it against Brett Cecil.

(AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Frank Gunn)

The 24-year-old southpaw faced the Yanks two prior times this season, and much like those two outings, he took the ball deep into the game and keep the Bombers off balance by mixing his pitches like a seasoned vet. Cecil’s 106 pitches were broken down into 47 four-seam fastballs, 24 sliders, 18 sinkers, 12 changeups, and five curveballs. He needed 16 pitches to navigate the 1st inning and then another 20 for the 2nd, but after that he settled in and clicked on the cruise control. A total of 54 pitches were thrown from the 3rd through 7th innings, and just three of the final 17 men he faced managed to reach base. The Yanks made just four outs in the air against him, with the other 19 coming either on strike three or a ground out.

Cecil has now made three starts against the Yanks this year, and his composite line is 22 IP, 16 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 9 BB, 15 K, 33 GB, 20 FB. That’s a 1.64 ERA and a 1.14 WHIP. Against everyone else, he’s posted a 4.21 ERA and a 1.25 WHIP. One of these days the Yanks will figure him out, but it certainly wasn’t happening Wednesday night.

Worst Start Of The Season

In a season full of strong outings and encouraging development, Phil Hughes had his worst start of 2010 in this one, giving up five runs and failing to complete five innings for the first time all year. His five walks tied a career high, and his numbers of pitches per inning went 27, 21, 26, and 28, and of course he only recorded two outs in the fourth. The velocity was fine (averaged 93.7, topped out at 95.9) and he struck out plenty of batters (six, including a whopping 19 swings and misses), but there’s more to life than just that.

(AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Frank Gunn)

The problem tonight was the same as it’s been basically all summer: Hughes had trouble putting batters away. He got two strikes on 18 of the 22 batters he faced, and yet a dozen of those batters still reached base. In fact, the first ten Jays that reached base all had two strikes on them. We bitch and moan about more curveballs (Hughes actually threw 25 tonight) and more changeups but the solution isn’t that simple, and we have to remember that this isn’t a problem unique to Phil. A ton of 24-year-old’s working on their first full season as a starter in the AL East go through this, and it’s something that should improve with time and experience.

The end result was Phil’s worst start of the season, which is actually pretty damn amazing since we’re now in late August. Hughes has now thrown 39 innings more than last year and 72.2 more than he did in 2008, so there’s a decent chance that fatigue is becoming a factor. I’m sure (hopeful) the team has a plan on place to give him a little bit of a breather in September, they’re going to need him to be effective right down to the bitter end.

Leftovers

I guess if there was a silver lining in this one, it was Javy Vazquez‘s work in relief. He threw 55 pitches across 4.1 inning, allowing just two hits (one an Aaron Hill solo homer) and a walk while striking out a pair. His velocity bumped 90 mph, but I’m not going to deem him cured after 13 outs in low leverage long relief work. The Jays made some loud outs against him, including at least two to the warning that I thought were out off the bat, so Javy’s still got plenty of work ahead of him.

You know, I didn’t even think the pitch that Vernon Wells hit for his homer was all that bad(right). PitchFX clocked it at 92.9 mph and it was up and well out of the zone, almost at Well’s eye-level, really. He just straight up muscled it out. Frustrating? Yes. Massive pitching and game calling fail? Nah. Dems the breaks.

Even though they combined to reach base just two times, Derek Jeter and Curtis Granderson managed to see 49 pitches between the two of them, which is exactly what you want to see from the top two hitters in your lineup. Jeter worked a ten pitch walk to put the tying run on base with two outs in the 9th, but Grandy made the final out of the game on a fly ball to deep center. Dems the breaks.

Mark Teixeira managed to make five outs on six total pitches in his first three trips to the plate, killing potential rallies by clanking into a pair of double plays. Again, dems the breaks.

Austin Kearns drew a pair of walks, Brett Gardner reached base three times, and even Eduardo Nunez got in on the action with a pair of single, so the bottom third of the order certainly isn’t to blame for the offensive ineptitude. In addition to the homer, Mr. Thames also singled and is now hitting .309/.401/.493 on the season. Love it.

Not sure I like the roof opening after the top of the first. Granderson knocked one about 400 ft to dead center as the second batter of the game; would it have gone out with the roof open? We’ll never know, but it seems kinda sketchy to do it mid-inning.

Are you ready for the mother of all nitpicks? Why did it take Kearns four (!!!) pitches to take second base on a defensive indifference with two outs in the 9th inning? You’ve got to go on the first pitch to eliminate that force at second as soon as possible. The other team isn’t even going to bother to try to throw you out in that spot.

If you’re curious about the biggest WPA swings in this game, they were Thames’ homers (+.103) and Tex’s GIDP with two on and one out in the 5th (-.092). Nothing crazy.

The Yankees are now just 5-7 against the Jays this season (2-4 in Toronto), and that absolutely has to improve down the stretch. They still have six more games to play against these guys. Thankfully the Rays got creamed by the Angels while the Red Sox split a doubleheader against the Mariners, so the Yanks remain tied with Tampa for the AL East crown while holding a five-and-a-half game lead on the Wild Card spot.

WPA Graph & Box Score

MLB.com has the box, FanGraphs the other stuff.

Up Next

For the first time since August 5th, the Yankees will enjoy a day off on Thursday. They’ll then head to the Windy City to take on the White Sox for three games, starting with A.J. Burnett vs. Freddy Garcia.

Marshall close to perfect in Charleston win

In today’s chat at Baseball America, Jim Callis said that the Yankees’ farm system “should” rank among the ten best in the game, and that it is indeed in better shape than Boston’s. Considering that BA ranked the Yanks’ system 22nd before the season, that’s some nice improvement. I guess that’s what happens when basically all of your top shelf prospects break out or return from injuries with flying colors.

Meanwhile, SILive.com posted a pair of articles on Cito Culver and Gary Sanchez, so make sure you check them out.

Triple-A Scranton (3-2 win over Rochester) even though he didn’t play in the game, Jesus Montero was seen working on pop-ups after the game
Kevin Russo, SS & Chad Moeller, C: both 0 for 3 – Russo drew a walk, stole a base, scored a run, K’ed & committed a fielding error … Moeller K’ed twice
Greg Golson, CF: 3 for 4, 1 R, 1 K – got picked off first
Juan Miranda, 1B & Chad Huffman, LF: both 1 for 4 – Miranda doubled, drove in a run, came around to score, K’ed twice & committed a fielding error
Jorge Vazquez, DH: 2 for 4, 1 RBI, 1 K
Brandon Laird, 3B: 0 for 4, 3 K – seven for his last 40 (.175) with 14 strikeouts … AAA has not been kind to him
Eric Bruntlett, 2B: 1 for 3, 2 K
David Phelps: 6 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 2 BB, 5 K, 4-8 GB/FB – 67 of 99 pitches were strikes … picked a runner off first … .199 AVG against in AA, but he’s at about .290 in AAA
Kevin Whelan: 2 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 2 K, 1-2 GB/FB – 17 of 23 pitches were strikes (73.9%) … he’s nasty when he throws strikes, which sadly isn’t too often
Jon Albaladejo: 1 IP, zeroes, 1 K, 1-1 GB/FB – eight of his 15 pitches were strikes … five more saves, and he’ll have the minor league single season record with 47

[Read more…]

Game 127: The light at the end of the tunnel

Alex approves. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Tonight’s game marks the end of the Yankees annual 20 games in 20 days stretch, a stretch that started when Frankie Cervelli and Javy Vazquez didn’t communicate properly and botched a routine pop up on the infield that lead to a big inning and eventually a loss to the Red Sox. Overall, the Yanks have gone 11-8 in the first 19 games of this stretch, not great but certainly not disappointing. A win tonight to make it a 12-8 ledger would be dandy.

Here’s the starting lineup, which originally featured Nick Swisher but now does not. He was scratched after batting practice because his leg is still sore from when he fouled a ball off it yesterday.

Jeter, SS
Granderson, CF
Teixeira, 1B
Cano, 2B
Thames, DH
Posada, C
Kearns, RF
Gardner, LF
Nunez, 3B

And on the bump, it’s St. Philip of Hughes.

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

NoMaas interviews Mark Newman

The crew over at NoMaas interviewed Yankees’ senior vice president of baseball operations Mark Newman, and they discussed all things farm system. They touched on the draft, the international market, and of course players already in the system like Jesus Montero, Dellin Betances, Manny Banuelos, all the usual suspects. Make sure you check it out, tons of great stuff in there.

Nick Johnson needs another wrist surgery

Via Jack Curry, long lost designated hitter Nick Johnson needs surgery on his already surgically repaired wrist. By my count, this will be his third procedure on the wrist in the last three seasons, and that doesn’t include a fracture that cost him the entire 2000 season in the minors. Poor guy, if he didn’t have bad luck with injuries, he’d have no luck at all.

Injury Updates: Derek Jeter, Damaso Marte

Updated (6:19 p.m.): Hitting just .276/.338/.390, Derek Jeter has struggled through 2010, and now we learn that he’s battling injuries as well. According to Yanks’ manager Joe Girardi, Jeter has been playing through some tendinitis in his left leg and that’s why Jeter rested on Monday. “His leg has been a little sore,” Girardi said tore porters. “It doesn’t really hurt him or bother him except to slow him down a little bit…He’s been dealing with it for a little bit, but we’ve managed it.” Jeter, never one to admit injury, parried with his manager. “I’m fine. I don’t even know what he’s talking about,” the Yanks’ captain said. A little spot of rest could do Jeter wonders.

In other injury news, Damaso Marte, out since July 7 with a sore shoulder, was supposed to throw a bullpen session yesterday but in the end, he did not. According to Joe Girardi, Marte’s shoulder is still sore, and although the clock is ticking on the season, the Yanks still expect him back before the end of the year. Since signing a three-year, $12-million deal with the Yanks prior to the 2009 season, Marte has spent significant time on the disabled list and has thrown just 31 mediocre innings in the majors. He struck out five in 2.2 innings of work against the Phillies in the World Series last year but has been supplanted as the team’s LOOGY by Boone Logan. His return would give the Yanks’ pen some left-handed depth for the stretch drive.