A young ace begins to emerge

AP Photo/Bill Kostroun

On a warm May night in Texas in 2007, those watching the Yankees and the Rangers square off saw the future for 17 outs. That night, 20-year-old Phil Hughes, making just his second Major League start, held the Texas offense hitless into the 7th until, on a curve ball, the right-hander overextended his leg and popped a hamstring. Hughes wouldn’t return to the big leagues until early August, and he scuffled a bit before hitting his stride in September.

As 2008 dawned, the Yankees had enough faith in Phil Hughes (and Ian Kennedy) that they entrusted him with a starting rotation spot right out of Spring Training. The youth experience that year was an utter disaster. Hughes, a power pitcher, was winless in his first six starts and had a 9.00 ERA to go with his 1:1 K:BB rate. A rib injury derailed his season, and again, Hughes didn’t return until September.

Last year, as we remember, was different. Hughes made a handful of starts in place of the injured Chien-Ming Wang, and he wasn’t lit up. He wasn’t great either, but he showed some flashes of being able to pitch and get outs at the Major League level. A disastrous start in Baltimore skewed his numbers, but the Yanks had enough confidence in what they saw that Hughes stayed in the pen after Wang was activated from the DL.

What happened in the bullpen was nothing short of a revelation. As a reliever, he threw 51.1 innings with a 1.40 ERA and a K/9 IP of 11.4. He got major league hitters out with a vengeance and grew confident as he did. Although we briefly feared that the Yanks would keep Hughes in the bullpen, those fears were assuaged as early as February when the team all but handed Hughes the fifth starter job for 2010.

Lost in the brouhaha over Jim Joyce’s blown call and Armando Galarraga’s 28-out perfect game was Phil Hughes’ domination of the Orioles. He threw 7 innings, gave up 6 hits and 1 earned run on a walk and seven strike outs. On the season, he is 7-1 with a 2.54 ERA. His peripherals are equally as impressive. He’s struck out 64 in 63.2 innings while surrendering just 20 walks and allowing only 4 home runs. Opponents are hitting just .203/.266/.299, and Hughes is making his case for early-season ace.

Phil has found success this year through an aggressive pitching style and the ability to both locate his fastball and have it move. He’s throwing far more cutters this year than he ever has, and overall, his 78 percent fastball rate dwarfs his career norm of 61. He’s establishing the zone and attacking it with his precision while using his devastating curveball as a weapon and an out pitch. It has truly been a pleasure of the early going to see Hughes excel.

There are, of course, some things to watch going forward. At last night’s game, I turned to my sister in the sixth and said that the third time through the order would be key for Hughes. He faltered a bit and had his worst inning of the game when the top of the Orioles’ lineup took their third cuts against him. As the season progresses and teams see Hughes again, he’ll have to adjust. So far, despite a lot of Grapefruit League focus, he hasn’t flashed much of the change-up, and to truly master a lineup, he’ll need that new look.

Yet, Hughes has been an illustration in patience and youth for the Yankees this year. Just a two years after the non-trade for Johan Santana, Hughes has shown why the Yanks didn’t want to pull that trigger, and he’s an ace, young and emerging. He’ll take his lumps later this year and bump up against an innings limit, but if this is the future of Yankee pitching, sign me up.

Yanks pile it on, crush Orioles 9-1

Though the Yanks walloped the Orioles in a thoroughly enjoyable fashion last night, the game was overshadowed a bit by other events around baseball. Ken Griffey Jr., hero to a generation of kids and a centerpiece to baseball card collections everywhere, announced his retirement. The announcement was past due, but for Griff we give a pass. Then there was the perfect game in Detroit that ended imperfectly. Armando Galarraga had it, Jim Joyce blew it, and, well, there’s no reason to rehash that whole situation here.

The swing defined the player | Photo credit: Osamu Honda/AP

Biggest Hit: Granderson puts them on the board

Sure, AP, deprive me a shot of Granderson's double | Photo credit: Frank Franklin II/AP

In a one-sided game, the first runs rule. That’s the case in this game, as the biggest WPA swing came in the second inning. Robinson Cano led off with a single, and then Jorge Posada, in his first at-bat back from the disabled list, worked a quick five-pitch walk, setting up an excellent situation for Curtis Granderson. Orioles starter Brad Bergesen went with the fastball exclusively, and left the fourth one right over the plate. Granderson hit it so hard and so definitively out of any fielder’s range that Posada scored all the way from first.

With Posada back and playing often, chances are Granderson will have to get used to hitting seventh. It’s like Robinson Cano hitting eighth on previous Yankee teams. On any other team he’d be hitting in a much more prominent spot, but with the Yankees’ lineup composition it’s one of the few areas he fits. He went 3 for 4 last night.

Honorable mention goes to Nick Swisher, whose double later in the inning gave the Yankees all they’d need. Bergesen tried to slip a slider by him, but it was right over the heart of the plate and Swish just tore into it. If he weren’t hitting so well then Granderson could very well be hitting second. But he is, and he’s a welcome addition to the top of the lineup.

Biggest Pitch: All of Hughes’s

The only pic of Hughes is a crappy one | Photo credit: Frank Franklin II/AP

Q: What was there not to like about Hughes’s start?

A: Very little.

Once again, Phil Hughes had the gas working last night. He threw 68 four-seamers and generated five swings and misses. He threw 101 total pitches, 72 of which were strikes. That’s quite the high strike total. Yet, despite that, he broke the Yankees’ three-game starter walkless streak. Burnett, Pettitte, and Vazquez avoided walking hitters in their starts, and with a strike to ball ratio like Hughes he figured to continue it. But no, he walked Luke Scott in the sixth, his only shaky inning.

If that’s the worst of the start, you know it’s another great one. Hughes struck out seven, five swinging. Even on the strikeouts looking he looked good. In the first he thew Nick Markakis an 0-2 curve that dropped right into the zone, and in the fifth he struck out Adam Jones on six fastballs, the last of which did look a bit off the plate, but it got the job done.

Another good sign: by my count there were only eight two-strike fouls. Part of Hughes’s problem in the starts against the Red Sox and Mets was the inordinate number of foul balls. That made him work deeper at-bats, and eventually meant an early exit. He has adjusted during the past two starts, going with his curveball a bit more often. He has also stuck with the four-seamer, almost daring hitters with it, rather than throwing a barrage of cutters, as he did against the Sox and Mets.

Another offensive slaughter

Prettiest lefty swing since Griffey | Photo credit: Frank Franklin II/AP

There weren’t many remarkable storylines in this one. It was domination from the beginning. The domination itself, in fact, was probably the most interesting part of the game, other than Hughes’s performance. The Yankees racked up 15 hits, four of which went for extra bases. Robinson Cano hit his 12th home run, Nick Swisher continued his hot hitting with a 3 for 5 effort, and Curtis Granderson continued to make Joe Girardi‘s decision to hit him seventh a difficult one.

Another high points: Jeter drew a walk to leadoff the game for what had to be the first time this season. Posada was the only other Yankee to walk. Granderson got another hit off a lefty. With a 2 for 3 night Gardner got the ol’ batting average back over .300. In more revealing stats, Swisher creeps closer to a 1.000 OPS.

Oddities

Just because there’s little else to say about the game:

Miguel Tejada tried to score from first, in the eighth, with none out, his team down 8-1.

Marcus Thames entered as a defensive replacement. Bask in those words, because you’ll probably never see them again.

Totally boring chart and box score

The green line means the Orioles suck.

You can get your regular box score at the .com and the green lines and acronyms you don’t understand at FanGraphs.

Next Up

Oh hey, day game. CC Sabathia vs. Kevin Millwood at 1 in the Bronx.

Heathcott’s season debut overshadows dominant night by starters

David Adams is getting closer to a return, and when he does it’ll make Trenton’s lineup stupid good. You mind many better in minor league baseball.

Triple-A Scranton (4-0 loss to Durham)
Greg Golson, CF: 1 for 4, 1 2B, 1 K
Reegie Corona, 2B, Colin Curtis, DH, Rene Rivera, C & Matt Cusick, 3B: all 1 for 3 – Corona drew a walk … Curtis doubled & walked … Rivera K’ed
Eduardo Nunez, SS, Jon Weber, RF & David Winfree, 1B: all 0 for 4, 1 K – Nunez committed a fielding error
Chad Huffman, LF: 0 for 3, 1 K
Dustin Moseley: 6 IP, 8 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 2 BB, 3 K, 10-4 GB/FB – 61 of 103 pitches were strikes (59.2%) … picked a runner off first
Zack Segovia: 2 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 1 K, 3-2 GB/FB – 23 of 36 pitches were strikes (63.9%)
Royce Ring: 1 IP, zeroes, 1 K, 2-0 GB/FB – 11 of 15 pitches were strikes (73.3%)

[Read more…]

Game 53: A battle of former teammates

Tonight’s starting pitcher matchup features two former teammates, though they didn’t play together in the minors and certainly not the majors. Nope, Phil Hughes and Brad Bergesen were teammates at Foothill High School in Santa Ana, California some six years ago. Both graduated in 2004, and went on to be drafted by AL East teams, with the Yankees taking Hughes 23rd overall and the Orioles taking Bergesen 109th overall.

Hughes rocketed up the ladder, but Bergesen’s ascent was a bit more deliberate. It wasn’t until he reached Double-A at age-22 that he really made a name for himself, but here he is two years later starting in Yankee Stadium. If you want to read the article about Hughes from the picture above, click here.

Here’s the lineup, which features the very welcome return of a certain catcher…

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

And on the mound, St. Phil.

It’s a gorgeous day in New York, so this one will begun on time and under the sun at 7:05pm ET. The game will be broadcast on YES

Under Armour to sponsor Stadium Slugfest

When Yuri Foreman and Miguel Cotto take centerstage at Yankee Stadium this Saturday evening for the highly anticipated Stadium Slugest, Under Armour’s presence will dominate the ring. As CNBC’s Darren Rovell reported this afternoon, the sports apparel company has signed on to sponsor the title bout. The company will get signage throughout the ring and will air a commercial on the stadium’s giant jumbotron.

“We liked the opportunity of being part of the first fight in new Yankee Stadium and being live on HBO,” the company’s senior VP of brand Steve Battista said to Rovell. “We’re also focused on our current campaign of combine training and boxers go through a level of combine training that is levels above anything else.”

In other fight news, Todd DuBoef, president of Top Rank, the company promoting the fight, said that sales have been going “very well.” The stadium will be configured to seat 30,000 on Saturday night, and the coverage of games on YES has been inundated with ads for the bout.

Jorge returns to the lineup

Photo credit: Peter Morgan/AP

On May 19th, we heard the bad news. Jorge Posada might miss three to four weeks with a fracture in his foot. That wouldn’t sound good for any player, and it stung extra hard for a catcher in his late 30s. Three to four weeks? Might as well take the long on that one.

Yet Posada was determined to get back early. “I don’t need no four to six weeks,” he said before taking batting practice over the weekend. It was strange in the first place to hear about Posada not only taking batting practice, but also running sprints on the field so soon after the injury. Not even two weeks later, just a few days after removing the boot that protected his foot, he wanted back in the lineup.

Yesterday was a long shot. Clearly, if Posada wanted to return early he’d have to slide into the DH slot. The foot injury isn’t so much a concern for his hitting, or even his running. The big concern lies in his ability to squat for more than an hour a night. With the lefty Matusz going last night, Marcus Thames would undoubtedly serve as the DH. But tonight, with the righty Brad Bergesen on the mound, Thames will sit. Posada, it turns out, will get his first swings in just over two weeks.

Just over two weeks. It’s pretty crazy when you think about it. It’s not that Jorge’s a slow healer. We know he works back from injuries pretty quickly. Hell, he hadn’t even hit the disabled list until his shoulder pain became unbearable in 2008. But a foot fracture sounds serious. It certainly sounds like something that would take more than two weeks to heal. Yet here’s Jorge, back after spending just 16 days on the DL. One more than the minimum.

The Yanks will have to make a corresponding move, but don’t expect them to DFA Chad Moeller. As The Journal News reports, Posada himself expects the Yankees to carry three catchers for a bit. This makes sense. Jorge hasn’t done any catching since the injury, and he likely won’t do any for quite another few days, maybe even a week. Again, the concern is with his ability to squat and put pressure on the foot for an entire game. The goal with this move is to get his bat back into the lineup. For the next week, it appears he’ll serve as an upgrade to Juan Miranda, who is almost certainly en route to Scranton.

With the minor injuries he’s sustained this season, it feels like Jorge has been gone longer than two weeks. At the same time, it feels like he hasn’t been gone long at all. Two weeks for a foot fracture? Seems like nothing. In any case, it will be a joy to see him back in the lineup, hitting sixth. Whether it feels like he’s been gone for a while or he’s just left, it’s always a plus to get a boost from his bat.

Debating Andy the All Star starter

Photo credit: Andy King/AP

At 7-1 and sporting a nifty 2.48 ERA through 10 starts, Andy Pettitte is off to the best start of his career. As the Midsummer Classic fast approaches, talk is swirling that Pettitte should get Joe Girardi‘s call as the American League starter. In fact, Times national baseball writer Tyler Kepner made that very argument yesterday.

With the AL aces struggling, who would be a better choice than the 38-year-old lefty? After all, says Kepner, “no one can match Pettitte’s combination of record and ERA,” those two stalwarts of basic pitching stats. So let us ponder the question of Pettitte and the All Star Game.

There is absolutely no denying Pettitte’s value to the Yanks and his great 10 starts. Seven of his ten outings have been quality starts, and although his K/9 IP has dipped to 5.6 from a career norm of 6.6, his BB/9 IP has sunk to 2.5, and he’s allowed fewer than one home run every nine innings. By keeping free runners off base and allowing fewer home runs than he had last year at this point, Pettitte has seen his numbers improve markedly.

He is not, however, the best starter on the Yankees from a value standpoint. That honor belongs to Phil Hughes, tonight’s starter. The 24-year-old, 6-1 with a 2.70 ERA, has Pettitte beat in the three true outcomes categories. He’s striking out 9.1 per nine innings and has allowed 0.6 home runs per nine. His walk rate at 3.0/9 IP is slightly than Andy’s, but he has posted a 1.5 pitching WAR to Pettite’s 1.2. Hughes’ 3.63 xFIP tops Pettitte’s 4.12 mark by no small margin.

Yet, there’s something about Pettitte that makes him the front-runner for the symbolic mid-July start, and I believe that edge reaches to the essence of the All Star Game. Baseball’s showcase is nothing more than a glorified exhibition game/popularity contest (that counts for something but probably shouldn’t), and Pettitte is quite likely making a final pass through the Junior Circuit. In his career, Pettitte has swung from underrated to overrated and back again, but his career numbers are hard to deny. He’s 236-136 with a 3.87 ERA (and an ERA+ of 117). He has five World Series rings to his name, and on the verge of securing his 200th Yankee win, he’s a fan favorite in the Bronx. If anything, he deserves the honor.

Not everyone, though, agrees with that perception of Pettitte. As one of the many Yankees named in the Mitchell Report, he doesn’t carry a clean record, and as Will Carroll noted in his Under the Knife column yesterday at Baseball Prospectus, Pettitte, an admitted hGH user, has escaped much scrutiny and criticism over both his drug use and subsequent comments. We’ve watched people who have done worse, though, outshine the field in the All Star Game and the Home Run Derby over the past 15 years, and if the fans and players want to see the Andy Pettitte Good Bye Tour hit Anaheim for the All Star Game, it should.

As pitchers go this year, Andy Pettitte has thrown up some very impressive counting stats for a 38-year-old lefty who has clearly lost a few miles per hour on the fastball. He’s emerged as a smarter and better pitcher this year, and he’s now leading a very solid pitching staff in wins and ERA. He might not be atop those lists come July, but if Joe Girardi handed him the ball for the All Star Game start, few should complain all that much.