With Hughes, it’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t

Photo Credit: Seth Wenig, AP

As he fielded questions from Yankee fans on Monday evening during a talk at The Times Center, Yanks GM Brian Cashman spoke about doing his job in one of the loudest and most volatile media markets around. With two tabloids competing for readers and two sports talk radio stations on everyone’s dials, New York fans are fed constant outrage over their favorite teams’ decisions. Everything is scrutinized, and few in the media have faith in the process.

Cashman, though, knows that he has to tune out the noise to be able to do his job. “If you listen to the fans,” he said, “you’ll be sitting with them soon enough.” The same, he noted, applies to the media. If Brian Cashman and Randy Levine ran the Yankees as Mike Francesa and those columnists in The Post and The Daily News want him to, the team would be a train wreck of contradictions with a $300 million payroll and no farm system. Baseball requires an even keel.

Yet, the fans carry on and on. Last night, Phil Hughes had a bad outing. Against a poor offensive club, Hughes couldn’t escape the sixth and walked away with just his second loss of the season. He allowed 10 hits and two walks in 5.2 innings while surrendering six earned runs. After the game, he claimed to be too strong after 10 days off, and that set off the fan base.

They shrieked, “The Yankees don’t know what to do! Didn’t they learn from Joba? They can’t develop young pitchers! Just let him pitch! Off with their heads!” It was a typically expected response devoid of reason or context.

The Yankees have a plan. After last night’s start, Phil Hughes was on pace for 188 innings, and the team will not have him throw that many. Last year, they tried limiting Joba’s innings by having him throw stunted starts, and it clearly did not work. This year, they’re going to do what teams do with many pitchers and allow Hughes extra rest. They’ve done it with Andy Pettitte; they’ve done it with Javier Vazquez; they may even do it with A.J. Burnett. Hughes will get his rest, and that’s that.

Yet, the fans bemoan no matter what. If the Yanks had to shut Hughes down at the end of August, they would complain that the team is without one of their more effective starters for the stretch drive. If they give him rest now, they complain. Such is the nature of New Yorkers.

This approach — what I would call 20-20 managing — is nowhere more evident than in the bullpen as well. When Joe Girardi brings in a reliever and that reliever struggles, the 20-20 managers would have left in the starting pitcher. When the starting pitcher faces one batter too many and the game slips away, the 20-20 managers would have gone to a reliever. The 20-20 managers always push the right button and are never wrong.

But baseball doesn’t work like that. The Yanks know what they want to do with their young arm, and right now, that will involve keeping his rhythm regular and his innings under control. The real issue with Phil Hughes is that his last eight starts have been unspectacular. He’s 5-2 over that span but with a 5.33 ERA, and opponents are OPSing .798 against him. It is, though, only about innings to fans who think they know better.

The Yankees will always be scrutinized. They’ll always be second-guessed. Even when they win, someone will say they could have won faster or better or sooner. Damned if you do; damned if you don’t.

Exercising patience with Curtis Granderson

Photo credit: Ross D. Franklin/AP

It’s the type of play that, no matter how solidly you field your position, will incite anger in fans. On the whole Curtis Granderson has played a solid center field this season. He misplays some batted balls, but no outfielder gets them all. But to bobble the ball — twice — on a hit to shallow center when the runner on second, for some reason, doesn’t initially try to score, will incite a few Bronx Cheers. Granderson made up for it to some degree, picking up two hits off Cliff Lee, but for the most part the beginning of his Yankees tenure hasn’t gotten off to the start that anyone had hoped.

When the Yankees acquired Granderson in December they didn’t think they had traded for the player whose OBP sat at a meager .327 in 2009. Rather, they thought they were acquiring a player who, like Nick Swisher, was better than his poor previous season indicated. The problem did look fixable. Granderson hit the ball on the ground at a rate far below his career norms, leading to many outs in the air. A few of those fly balls cleared the fence, which somewhat mitigated his poor season, but in order to turn things around he’d have to rediscover the approach that made him one of the top center fielders in the AL in 2007 and 2008.

So far this season we’ve yet to see Granderson make any sort of transformation. His groundball rate, in fact, sits at the exact spot it did last year, 29.5 percent. For a player with speed, this doesn’t sound like an optimal rate. His line drive rate is up three points, but he hasn’t seen much benefit from it: his BABIP sits just five points above last year. His offensive stats are almost identical to last year, too. While his OBP and ISO sit a tick lower, offense is down league-wide. Granderson’s wRC+ sits at the same mark, 107, as it did last season. The Yankees, it would appear, did acquire the player who experienced a bad year in 2009.

The season is still young, though, especially for Granderson, who missed almost all of May with a strained groin. There is still plenty of time for him to turn it around. Yet at this point that seems like an overly optimistic stance. Maybe if Granderson were doing the things that made him successful in 2007 and 2008 it would be a different story. But given his batted ball and plate discipline data, plus the eyeball observation, it doesn’t seem like there has been much change. There’s a good chance that we’re stuck with the 2009 version of Granderson.

This isn’t to say that he’ll be like this for the duration of his contract. Kevin Long is a world-class hitting coach and I’m confident that consistent work with Granderson can bring positive results. I’m just more skeptical than ever that it will happen this year. At one point I was excited at his results after returning from the injury, but they’re returned to a disappointing level. He has hit for a ton more power, which is a huge plus, but he’s still at .247/.321/.485 since May 28. That’s not the Granderson the Yankees intended to acquire. That was the risk, though. I’ve been as optimistic as anyone about the guy, but at this point, nearly half way through the season and with little to no discernible change in his approach, I’m no longer so sure.

Why the Yanks can’t afford to lose Gardner

Brett Gardner was not in the lineup last night. He’d gone for x-rays after getting hit in the forearm on Sunday, but they came back negative. Gardner also reported feeling better, so this doesn’t seem too serious. The Yankees had better hope it’s not. Gardner has been a big part of the Yankees offense. At ESPN, Mark Simon and Katie Sharp break out the bullet points to illustrate exactly what Gardner has done for the team this year. It’s a good list, but they did miss one point: Gardner leads the AL in pitches seen per plate appearances with 4.55. Not bad for a guy who hits for no power.

M’s rough up Hughes, Yanks drop opener 7-4

Fresh of their dramatic come-from-behind win against the Dodgers on Sunday, the Yankees returned home Tuesday with a tough assignment on their hands in Cliff Lee. The Mariners’ offense is dreadfully bad, but you wouldn’t have been able to tell that by the picket fence they built on a well-rested Phil Hughes. Unsurprisingly Lee was too much to handle, and the Yanks suffered just their fourth loss of the month in a game not started by A.J. Burnett. Boston defeated the Rays, so they now lurk just one game back in the AL East.

"Oh hey, congrats on the two doubles." (Photo Credit: Seth Wenig, AP)

Too Much Cliff Lee

I don’t think many of us expected the Yanks the light up the scoreboard in this one, though I have to say that they made a surprising amount of hard contact of Lee. They had five balls lined right at people for outs, and of course Nick Swisher clubbed a pair of solo homers. But in the end, Lee was just too much for the Yankee batters. He threw 79 of his 115 pitches for strikes in his third straight complete game, retiring 12 of 13 from the 5th through 8th innings. You wouldn’t know it based on the relatively low number of swings-and-misses he generated (just four), but Lee kept the Yanks’ hitters off balance all night.

If you need to know the biggest out of the game, it was Chad Huffman’s double play ball in the 2nd inning. Score was tied at one, Yanks had runners at first and second with one out and a legit chance to hang some runs on Lee. Instead, we got a 5-4-3 double play and the end of the inning. Joe and I were talking the other night about how there has been a little too much tipping of the cap to the other pitcher this year, but tonight Lee deserves it. He beat the Yankees fair and square.

Fastballs & Cutters

Photo Credit: Seth Wenig, AP

I’m not going to get on Phil Hughes too much because this was his first start in ten days, but good grief, again with the 85% fastballs and cutters. It’s been 15 starts now, and it’s pretty obvious the league is catching on. When Rob Johnson, Rob frickin’ Johnson and his .274 wOBA whacks a pair of doubles off you, you don’t tip your cap to him. You say “what the hell did I do wrong?” and stop doing it. The guy saw 11 pitches in three at-bats against Hughes, and ten of them were fastballs. I mean, what more do you need? Was the Kevin Cash homer a few weeks ago not enough?

Yes, it was good to see Hughes get two swings-and-misses on changeups (both to Russell Branyan in separate at-bats), but so what. Until he starts mixing that pitch, or at least his curveball in more, he’ll keep getting hit around. Major league hitters will hit a fastball when they know it’s coming, and 85% of the time Hughes is giving it to them.

Miscellany

"Oh hi honey, yeah the game's going greTHWACK!!!"

The best part of the game? Watching the guy on his cellphone get hit square in the face with the ball on Johnson’s 5th inning ground rule double (above). You can’t not laugh at that. Make sure you click the image for a larger view.

I didn’t list it above like we usually do, but if you must know what the most damaging hit of the night was, it was Franklin Gutierrez’s solo homer with two outs in the 4th to stretch the Mariners’ lead to two.

"How YOU doin'?" (Photo Credit: Seth Wenig, AP)

Hooray for Curtis Granderson picking up two hits and a line drive out off Lee. Any time he does something productive against a lefty, especially a tough lefty, I plan on mentioning it in the recap. He’s reached base nine times in the last six games.

I really hope Joe Girardi‘s plan isn’t to play Jorge Posada the majority of the time at DH with Frankie Cervelli behind the plate going forward. Cervelli’s hitting .200/.288/.253 dating back to May 18th, and that doesn’t include Tuesday’s 0-for-3 effort. His defense really hasn’t been all that great either. I’d rather let CC Sabathia DH every day.

Chan Ho Park goes out and throws two perfect innings against the worst offense in the league, so naturally Girardi will run him out there for multiple innings in a similar situation in the future and get burned by it. So predictable.

And seriously, how big of a hypocrite is Joe West? Calls the Yankees and Red Sox “pathetic and embarrassing” because their games last so long, yet it takes the guy five seconds to signal balls and strikes behind the plate. What a joke.

WPA Graph & Box Score

At least The O’Neill Theory is in effect for tomorrow. Here’s the box score, here’s the nerd score.

Up Next

Things don’t get any easier for the Yanks tomorrow evening with Felix Hernandez taking the ball for Seattle. Javy Vazquez will oppose him and try to even this series up at one.

Culver, Sanchez lead GCL Yanks to big win

Keith Law posted his mid-season list of the top 25 prospects in the game today (sub. req’d), with Jesus Montero coming in at number six. Austin Romine was listed as one of three players that just missed the cut. Montero was number ten on KLaw’s list back in January, so even though it seems as though move up, he technically went backwards. Six of the nine players ahead of him on the original list have since graduated to the big leagues, and both Domonic Brown and Mike Trout jumped over him in this edition. Romine is the real big climber, he wasn’t even on the preseason list.

Meanwhile, KLaw says Yanks’ 12th rounder Dan Burawa was 93-96 with “big time sink” in his Cape Cod League outing tonight. And finally, four Yankee farmhands have been selected to the Double-A Eastern League All Star Game. Romine, Brandon Laird, Lance Pendleton, and David Phelps, so congrats to them.

Triple-A Scranton (7-1 loss to Pawtucket)
Justin Christian, LF, Jesus Montero, C, Jorge Vazquez, 3B & Rene Rivera, DH: all 1 for 4 – JoVa scored a run, Rivera drove one in
Reid Gorecki, CF: 0 for 2, 2 BB
Eduardo Nunez, SS: 0 for 4, 1 K
P.J. Pilittere, 1B: 1 for 2, 1 2B, 2 BB – 12 for his last 26 (.462)
Reegie Corona, 2B & Eric Bruntlett, RF: both 0 for 3 – Corona walked … Bruntlett K’ed twice
Tim Redding: 6 IP, 6 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 3 BB, 5 K, 1 HB, 5-3 GB/FB – 61 of his 100 pitches were strikes
Mark Melancon: 0.2 IP, 1 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 3 BB, 1 K, 1 WP, 1 HB, 1-0 GB/FB – just 14 of 36 pitches were strikes (39.9%) … what the hell?
Eric Wordekemper: 1.1 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 1 K, 2-0 GB/FB – 17 of his 22 pitches were strikes (77.3%)

[Read more…]

Game 76: Just wait him out

Photo Credit: Elaine Thompson, AP

The Yankees have faced plenty of truly great pitchers this season. Roy Halladay, Johan Santana, Jon Lester, James Shields, Justin Verlander, just to name a few. With all due respect, I’d take Cliff Lee over any of them right now.

Lee is no stranger to Yankees and vice versa. He beat them twice in the World Series last year and there’s the constant/free agent trade rumors, and it’s hard not to notice when a guy’s walked four batters in 11 starts and 86.2 IP, which Lee has done this year. If you go back to the trade that send him from Cleveland to Philadelphia, Lee has walked a total of 20 batters in 28 starts and 206.2 IP (playoffs included). A.J. Burnett walked 17 batters this month.

There will be not working of the count tonight, because if the Yankee batters try to get cute and take pitches, they’ll be down 0-2 in the count before they know it. If they see a fastball in the zone, they have to swing at it, plain and simple. The only thing they can do is wait Lee out and get to the bullpen while Phil Hughes tries to contain the league’s worst offense. Sounds easy, but it never is.

Here’s tonight’s lineup…

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

And on the mound, St. Phil.

First pitch is scheduled for 7:05pm ET, and this primo pitching matchup can be seen on My9. Enjoy the game.

The deep connections between Cliff Lee and CC

Photo credit: Elaine Thompson/AP

The Yankees’ scouts don’t have far to travel tonight. The team, you see, is facing off against a familiar foe and the lefty who currently is in demand across baseball. Cliff Lee will make his first start against the Yanks since the World Series, and while the Yankee offense will try to eke out some runs against a hurler who doesn’t give up many, the front office will be plotting Lee’s future. It is, whether he knows it or not, inextricably tied to CC Sabathia‘s.

With the Mariners at 31-44, 15 games behind the Rangers and going nowhere fast, it is a foregone conclusion that Cliff Lee will don his fourth uniform in two seasons before July is out. Seattle will look to recoup some of their investment while building for a future that still isn’t even on the horizon, and some team looking for an extra push — perhaps the Mets, perhaps the Twins — will land Lee in the biggest blockbuster of the 2010 trade deadline.

The Yankees won’t enter those sweepstakes. Speaking last night at a Times Talk, Brian Cashman said he’s focusing more on the bench and the bullpen. A.J. Burnett‘s recent struggles notwithstanding, they’re quite satisfied with their starting five, and according to Ken Rosenthal’s latest, the price tag could be Jesus Montero and a “solid pitching prospect.” (At the same time, Rosenthal thinks the Mets can land Lee for Josh Thole, Fernando Martinez and a pitcher of a lesser caliber. What?)

Instead, the Yanks will bid on Cliff Lee during the winter. It’s no secret that he’s their number one target, and as he showed while pitching in the World Series for the Phillies last year, he can thrive on the game’s biggest stage. A veteran of the AL, in 86.2 innings this year, Lee has a 2.39 ERA. He’s striking out just under 8 batters per 9 IP and has issued four — 4! — walks all season. Opponents have hit just three long balls off of the southpaw.

In a word, those numbers are sick, and they’re lining Lee up for a handsome payday. Lee turns 32 in August, and the contract he signs this winter will be his last big payday. Based upon the recent deals for A.J. Burnett, John Lackey and Cliff Lee, I believe he’ll get a five-year deal with an option year and an average annual salary of $20-22 million. The Yanks could be nearing a winter where they dole out another nine-figure deal for a left-handed ace.

I say the Yankees so confidently because they need Cliff Lee right now more than just about any other contender. The Red Sox have two hurlers locked into long-term, high-dollar deals. The Mets are on the verge of getting burned by Johan Santana. Few other teams can afford Lee’s price tag or do business that way.

But what, you may ask, of the Yanks’ starters? Their rotation is impressive today when all is going right, but the long-term outlook of the 2010 five is no sure thing. Javier Vazquez is a Type A free agent this winter, and the Yanks will offer him arbitration before letting him walk. Andy Pettitte, despite his stellar first half, has been grumbling about retiring. With those two out of the picture, the need for Lee is clear, and it only becomes clearer when we consider the rest of the rotation.

Beyond Pettitte and Vazquez, the Yanks have young Phil Hughes, A.J. Burnett and CC Sabathia. Hughes will stick around, but the futures for Burnett and Sabathia are hazy. We don’t know if we’re seeing Burnett decline or just suffer through a bad stretch of pitching. We must also consider Sabathia’s opt-out, and it is here that the two are inextricably linked.

If CC Sabathia exercises his opt-out clause following the 2011 season, the Yankees will need an ace to fill the void. By then, A.J. Burnett probably won’t be anything close to a potential number one, and even if Hughes continues his rise, the Yanks will need more pitchers — and a lefty — to fill the holes. With no better pitchers nearing free agency, Cliff Lee, then, is as close to a need as the Yankees have right now.

Even if CC doesn’t opt out, the Yankees will need to fill out their rotation. A.J. Burnett circa 2012 will be an adequate fourth starter, and maybe we’ll see an Andrew Brackman as the fifth starter. But a front three of Lee-Sabathia-Hughes is drool-worthy today. So in a few hours, we’ll see Cliff Lee start, and we just might be watching the future of the Yankees take the mound. Tonight, though, I’ll be rooting against him.