Via Jon Heyman, the Yankees have no plans to restart contract extension talks with Russell Martin during the season. The 29-year-old backstop has a very OBP-heavy .310 wOBA in the early going and will become a free agent nest winter. The two sides discussed a multi-year contract before agreeing to put talks on hold before the season. The Yankees really like Martin for his glovework behind the plate and his clubhouse skills, but the Yadier Molina contract really upped the price of catching. Austin Romine’s persistent back problems make the club’s catching future pretty murky, so this will definitely be a situation to monitor.
Tonight Phil Hughes takes the mound in a pretty big start during a pretty big season for him. We all know the story, so there’s no need to rehash. He’s probably not in immediate danger of losing his rotation spot; the Yankees will likely wait for Andy Pettitte and Michael Pineda to make any non-injury changes. But he’s already dug himself a hole, and if he doesn’t start climbing out of it tonight it might be too late. The hole might be too deep by the time Pettitte and Pineda are ready.
If we can take one thing away from Hughes’s first two starts it’s that his four-seam fastball is in peak form. He’s thrown it nearly 60 percent of the time, which shows you how much he relies on it. The results have been there in a way, as he’s getting swings and misses more than a quarter of the time when the batter swings. He’s also inducing some poor contact, getting a pop-up 30 percent of the time when hitters put the ball in play. It’s when he turns away from his fastball that he runs into heaps of trouble.
When he turned pro, Hughes featured a slider that Baseball America said had “good bite and depth.” The projected it to be at least average. In 2005, however, the Yankees had him scrap that slider for a curveball. That seems odd, to take away an effective and projectable pitch. But that turned out as well as possible. In an oft-quoted line, Baseball America said before the 2007 season: “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.” Yet in recent years that curveball has faded considerably.
In recent years Hughes actually dumped the 1-to-7 breaking ball for a knuckle curve, a la A.J. Burnett and Mike Mussina. Last year, during his struggles, he switched back to the straight grip on the curve. It hasn’t helped him much. Part of the problem is that he’s rarely throwing the pitch. He’s thrown just 33 curveballs this year, compared to 32 cutters, 28 changeups, and 142 four-seamers. But what’s most striking about the curveball is its complete ineffectiveness to date.
For starters, hitters are rarely swinging at old Uncle Charlie. Of the 33 times he’s thrown it, they’ve swung 12 times and taken 21 — 11 balls and 10 strikes. Of those 12 swings he’s generated zero misses. That is, every time he’s gone to bury a curveball in the dirt, the hitter has laid off. Even worse, the Pitch F/X data has recorded four line drives out of seven balls put in play. We’re dealing with a sample of only 18 hitters, but it sure seems as though those 18 hitters saw Hughes’s curve very well.
The changeup hasn’t been that effective for Hughes, either. He’s thrown more of them, as shown above, which is a good start. But he has little control of it, as 15 of the 28 times he’s thrown it the batter has taken it for a ball. He has generated four swings and misses, however, so he does stand some chance of getting guys to chase it. While it’s tough to make the comparison, since he’s thrown the fastball five times more often than the changeup, his swing and miss percentage is roughly the same with both pitches. Of course, the fastball has been called for a ball roughly half as frequently as the changeup.
It’s understandable why Hughes has gone to his four-seamer so often. He can overpower hitters with it, as he throws it high in the zone with late life. But he can’t continue throwing it almost 60 percent of the time and expect to succeed in the rotation. He’s going to have to get that curveball going if he wants to stand a chance. The changeup will have to come along as well. If not, Hughes could find himself in the bullpen for good, at least in pinstripes, come early May. That’s usually where they send guys who rely on just one or two good pitches.
Over the last three days I spend way too much time looking at Mark Teixeira’s declining offensive production — part one, part two, and part three. To save you the headache of readhing, here’s a quick recap of the findings…
- Teixeira is still a monster as a right-handed hitter. Nothing’s changed from that side of the plate in recent years.
- Teixeira’s walk, strikeout, and homerun power rates as a left-handed batter have not declined at all. His batting average and BABIP have steadily dropped, however.
- The shift is a problem given Teixeira’s new pull-happy ways, but he’s also added an uppercut to his swing that has resulted in more fly balls. Fly balls turn into outs more than any other type of batted ball, hence the BABIP and average decline.
That uppercut swing was on full display last night, as Tex flew out to relatively deep right field to end the game. He’s a notoriously slow starter, we knew this before he ever played a game in pinstripes, but this was probably the one year he could have used a strong start to help silence all the critics. He has come around a bit of late, with three straight two-hit games and nine hits in his last 25 at-bats. Strangely enough, Tex has yet to hit a homer in 2012, and that includes Spring Training. I know people are going to freak out about that, but I have a hard time taking it seriously after a dozen regular season games.
Teixeira acknowledged the problems with his swing late last year and has reportedly worked to correct them with hitting coach Kevin Long, but it’s still far too early to know if the adjustments are working. He’s only had 35 plate appearances as a left-handed batter so far, and in only 25 of the 35 did he actually put the ball in play (five walks, four strikeouts, one hit-by-pitch). Here’s his spray chart as a lefty…
He’s hit two balls pretty deep to left field — one came in last night’s game — but we’re still weeks away from being able to say anything definitive about an adjustment to his left-handed swing. This is all just window dressing at the moment.
I think the most important we have to realize is that the old Teixeira, the MVP-caliber hitter from 2005-2009, is probably never coming back even if Long’s fixes manage to stick. Tex just turned 32 a week ago and is leaving his prime years, so some semblance of decline is inevitable. Similarity scores hardly qualify as analysis, but Baseball-Reference says the most similar player to Tex through age 31 is Carlos Delgado. Delgado was one of the best hitters of his generation, but his production started to drop off at age 32. It’s the baseball circle of life.
The best case scenario probably calls for the adjustments to halt any further decline, at least temporarily. You can’t control age, but Teixeira can control his swing and perhaps break some of the bad habits he’s developed over the last two seasons or so. Remember, he wasn’t a bad hitter last season by any means, but his performance has fallen below his expected level of production. I think I know how this is going to turn out, but I’m going to ask the question anyway…
The Yankees will wrap up their disappointing four-game set against the Twins tonight, ending the first homestand of the young season. They’ve been alternating wins and losses for nearly a full week now, but a win tonight would be a nice little confidence-booster — for the fans, not necessarily the team — before heading out on a nine-game stretch that is going to be as difficult as any they face this summer..
Following tonight’s game, the Yankees will head up to Boston for a three-game set against the Red Sox. They’re going to wear 1912 throwback uniforms for the first time ever tomorrow afternoon as part of the Fenway Park 100th anniversary celebration, which is pretty neat. Sunday’s series-finale is — of course — the ESPN Sunday Night game, and right after that the Yankees have to fly to Texas for a three game set with the Rangers starting Monday. Once they’re done with Texas, they’ll take Thursday off and fly back home for a three-game weekend series against the Tigers.
I know the Red Sox are struggling and Bobby Valentine is doing his best to make the Fenway faithful miss Terry Francona, but they’re still a very dangerous team. The Rangers have been baseball’s best club in the early going, which isn’t at all surprising after winning two consecutive AL pennants. The Tigers are just bludgeoning teams to death with the best three-four lineup combo since David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez circa 2004-2007. Other than a nine-game swing against the Angels, Tigers, and Rays in late-May/early-June and another nine-gamer against the Rays, Red Sox, and Angels wrapped around the All-Star break, this looks to be the toughest stretch of the schedule.
Aside from three starts — Ivan Nova against the Orioles, Hiroki Kuroda against the Angels, CC Sabathia against the Twins — the starting rotation has both underperformed expectations and saddled the bullpen with a heavy workload this month. That’s why right-hander Cody Eppley was recalled following Brett Gardner’s injury last night, not another outfielder. The Red Sox, Rangers, and Tigers are three of the five highest-scoring offenses in the league right now, so these games could end up further exposing the pitching staff at worst or getting everyone back on track and on an extended run of strong play at best.
The Yankees lost to the Twins for the second time in three days last night, and after the game we learned that Brett Gardner has been placed on the 15-day DL with a bone bruise and a strain in his right elbow. He apparently suffered the injury when he landed awkwardly while making a sliding catch on Tuesday. Gardner may only be the number nine hitter and play the least important defensive position, but he’s an big part of the Yankees and not just because he’s hitting a stout .321/.424/.393 in the early going.
In the super-short-term, the injury means the Yankees will use a 13-man pitching staff — right-hander Cody Eppley was recalled from Triple-A to take Gardner’s spot — and rely on the trio of Andruw Jones, Raul Ibanez, and Eduardo Nunez to fill-in in left field. The Yankees’ bullpen has already thrown 40.2 IP this season — fourth most in the AL — because the starting pitching has been pretty unspectacular and also because they did play some extra innings last week. Eppley figures to help lighten the load this weekend in Boston and early next week in Texas, even if he is only a righty specialist.
There are a number of ways the Yankees could work this offensively with the short bench. If Ibanez or (preferably) Jones plays left, the other can DH. The seldom-used Eric Chavez could also DH, or he could play first/third while Alex Rodriguez/Mark Teixeira gets a day at DH with Ibanez or Jones or Nunez in left. That part of replacing Gardner won’t be a big problem. The bigger issue is that the Yankees now lack a backup center fielder, with the job falling on Nick Swisher’s shoulders by default. Jones may have been the greatest defensive outfielder in history once upon a time, but he’s an emergency-only option in center right now.
“We’re going to have to sit him down for a while and we’ll try to get him back after 15 days,” said Girardi after last night’s game, making it sound like Gardner could be out longer than the requisite two weeks and one day.
The 13-man pitching staff can’t go on forever, and if Gardner is going to need more than two weeks, the Yankees are going to have to call up an extra outfielder. Chris Dickerson is currently on the Triple-A disabled list, leaving Dewayne Wise and Colin Curtis as the two obvious call-up candidates. Both guys would have to be added to the 40-man roster but that’s not an issue; both Joba Chamberlain and Cesar Cabral could be placed on the 60-day DL. Wise would have to clear waivers to go back to the minors though, Curtis would not. Both would likely be non-factors offensively, but at least Wise is a stellar gloveman and a true center fielder. He’s probably the best fit if Gardner missed extended time.
The easiest thing to do would be to keep Eppley on the roster for the next week or so, giving the Yankees some extra bullpen depth while they play nine straight against the Red Sox, Rangers, and Tigers. Once they’re through that stretch, they can re-evaluate Gardner and determine if they need to make a change to add an outfielder. If not, they might just stick with the expanded pitching staff for the entirety of his DL stint. It’s not ideal, but the Yankees have the right bench pieces to pull it off.
Bartolo Colon pulled a Hiroki Kuroda last night, shutting out the much-hyped Angels over eight innings. More impressively, he threw 38 consecutive strikes from the fifth through eighth innings. Thirty-eight! Here’s video if you don’t believe me. Colon had no problem pounding the zone with the Yankees last year, but sheesh, this is excessive. Bartday was my favorite day of the week in the first half last season, and now the Oakland faithful get to enjoy the fun.
The Twins came into this four-game set with just two wins on the season, and they’ve managed to double that total with one game to spare in the series. Yeah, this one isn’t going according to plan. To make matters worse, Brett Gardner was placed on the DL after the game with a bone bruise and a strain in his right elbow.
A Bad Start
I wrote this two days ago, but there’s nothing yuckier than giving up first inning runs at home. You’re playing catch-up before you even come to the plate and it’s just frustrating. The Yankees were down a run two batters into the game, two runs three batters into the game, and four runs five batters in the game. Justin Morneau capped the first inning rally off with a two-run homer to deep right, continuing his dominance of the Yankees. Like Carlos Pena, they’ll get around to developing a decent scouting report on him one of these days.
Hiroki Kuroda was simply catching too much of the plate, especially with his offspeed pitches. Morneau’s homer was a first pitch fastball, but most of the other hits came off breaking pitches that spun but didn’t break. He was fortunate to get out of that first inning down four, but Minnesota tacked on another run in the third when Sean freakin’ Burroughs grounded a 30-hopper through the left side. That one was frustrating, it wasn’t well hit at all. Hiroki retired the next six men he faced before Morneau took him deep again — on a hanging breaking ball — in the fifth, ending his night.
A Nice Recovery … But Not Enough
On the bright side, the Yankees fought right back and managed to plate three runs in the bottom of the first. Jason Marquis was making his first start of the season after spending time away from the team to be with his daughter after her bicycle accident, and the rust showed. Six of the first seven men the Yankees sent to the plate reached base, and the inning went single, walk, fly out, double (run scores), single (two runs score), single, then walk before Eric Chavez grounded into a double play to end the rally. He hit the ball harder than Nick Swisher and Raul Ibanez, who slapped ground ball singles through the infield. Chavez just hit it right at the second baseman. It happens.
The Yankees kept it close thanks to Robinson Cano’s third inning solo homer, but they squandered rallies in the fourth and seventh innings. They’ve done that a few times this year — score runs early then fail to tack on any more — and it’s incredibly frustrating. The Yankees have scored the second most runs in the league, but it sure doesn’t feel that way. At some point the pitching has to hold up its end of the bargain.
I don’t get the whole pinch-hitting thing. Eduardo Nunez pinch-hit for Chavez down two runs with a man on base in the sixth … and then Alex Rodriguez pinch-hit for Russell Martin to lead off the ninth down two. Does not compute. I assume Joe Girardi didn’t want A-Rod to play the field on his day off, but good grief, it makes no sense. At least pinch-hit Alex for Chavez then use Nunez in the field or something.
Derek Jeter continues to be the Yankees’ best player, going 3-for-5 with a solo homer to raise his season batting line to .389/.404/.685. He’s hit four homers in a dozen games this year. It took him 79 games to hit four homers last season. Mark Teixeira (two singles), Ibanez (two singles), and Cano (double and homer) each had two hits as well. You’re never going to believe this, but the Yankees went 2-for-8 with runners in scoring position as a team. That’s better than 1-for-12 or 2-for-16 or some of the other ungodly rates they were putting up a few weeks ago, I guess.
Andruw Jones is arguably the greatest defensive outfielder in baseball history, but he totally lollygagged it on Alexi Casilla’s double in the top of the eighth. He was probably going to be safe at second anyway, but good grief man, show some effort. Physical errors are part of the game and are forgivable, but mental errors and laziness like that is inexcusable.
Not sure if you saw it or if I’m imagining things, but someone threw something — looked like a blue cup — at Clete Thomas as he caught Teixeira’s fly ball to end the game. Not cool people, not cool.
Box Score, WPA Graph & Standings
The finale of this four game set will be played Thursday night, when Phil Hughes gets the start against
Nick Blackburn Anthony Swarzak. It would be nice if Hughes pitched not terribly. RAB Tickets can help get you in the door.