What Went Wrong: Rafael Soriano

(AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Having a budget surplus is a good thing, except when some of the higher-ups have an itchy trigger finger. After losing out on Cliff Lee and pretty much all significant free agents last winter, the Yankees took an unnecessary plunge into the open market. On January 13th, they agreed to sign former Rays closer Rafael Soriano to a three-year contract worth $35M (surrendering their first round pick to Tampa in the process), and as an added bonus, he was given the ability to opt-out of the contract after each of the first two seasons. The deal was ownership-driven, specifically by Randy Levine.

Soriano was coming off two straight dominant seasons (2.66 FIP in 138 IP), but he had never stayed healthy for three consecutive years in his career. The plan was to make him Mariano Rivera‘s well-paid setup man (the contract is the sixth largest ever given to a reliever in terms of average annual value), forcing David Robertson and Joba Chamberlain into the sixth and seventh innings, moves that were somehow going to make the rotation stronger. The bullpen had been improved, but at an unfavorable cost.

The new setup guy went through Spring Training without a hitch, which is good news. Soriano opened the season with a 1-2-3 inning against the Tigers on Opening Day, but little did we know that it would be nearly four month before he had another clean inning. He pitched again in the team’s fourth game of the season, shrugging off concerns about a lack of velocity. The entered the game with a four-run lead the next day, but allowed the Twins to tie it thanks to three walks and a hit in two-thirds of an inning. Soriano did not speak to reporters after the game, compounding the problem. After hearing from team officials and agent Scott Boras, he apologized the next day.

Soriano went through April by putting men on base and occasionally allowing runs, finishing the month with more walks (eight) than strikeouts (seven) and a 7.15 ERA in 11.1 IP. After allowing just a dozen earned runs for the Rays in 2010, he had already allowed nine in his first month as a Yankee. He also missed a few games with a sore back. Soriano opened May with three straight scoreless outings, but ten days into the month he had to go for a precautionary MRI on his balky right elbow.

The MRI showed nothing more than inflammation, and two days later he was back on the mound. After walking two in a scoreless inning against the Red Sox, Soriano was again shelved due to the elbow, and this time he was expected to miss a week. A bullpen session had to be cut short a few days later, forcing the Yankees to put their setup guy on the DL on May 17th. Another throwing session had to be cut short a week later, and this time it prompted a visit to Dr. James Andrews. Andrews diagnosed the injury as an inflamed elbow ligament, the same one he’d replaced in Soriano’s elbow via Tommy John surgery in 2004. He was expected to miss at least six weeks.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Soriano’s rehab went fine, right on schedule, and he faced hitters for the first time on July 13th. He started a minor league rehab assignment on July 18th, then was officially activated off the disabled list on July 29th. During his absence, a span of 67 team games, Joba went down with an elbow injury of his own while Robertson emerged as a dominant, All-Star caliber setup man, the kind of pitcher the Yankees thought they were getting with Soriano.

After a few appearances to get back into the swing of things, Soriano took over seventh inning duties while Robertson continued to pitch the eighth. He retired the first 15 men he faced after coming off the DL, then finished the season on a nice little roll with just two notable hiccups: an extra-innings three run homer to Coco Crisp on August 24th, and another three-run homer to Matt Joyce to turn a one-run lead into a two-run deficit on September 27th, his final appearance of the regular season. He allowed just one baserunner in 4.1 IP during the ALDS, but unfortunately that one baserunner was a go-ahead solo homer to Delmon Young in the seventh inning of Game Three.

All told, Soriano threw 39.1 IP during his first season as a Yankee, pitching to a 4.12 ERA and a 3.97 FIP. For comparison’s sake, scrap heap pick-up Cory Wade threw 39.2 IP with a 2.04 ERA and a 3.76 FIP for the Yankees in 2011. Soriano’s strikeout rate (8.24 K/9) was identical to what he did in Tampa last season, but his walk (4.12 BB/9) and homerun (0.92 HR/9) rates were considerably worse, nearly double his 2010 rates. His calling card of being unable to stay healthy for three consecutive season remained intact as well.

Soriano will not be exercising his opt-out clause before tonight’s midnight deadline, meaning he will return to the Yankees bullpen in 2012. He figures to again handle the seventh inning since Robertson is entrenched in the eighth, making him an $11M middle reliever. That’s $11M the Yankees could have put towards starting pitching this winter. The bullpen is better with him, there’s no doubt about it, but staying on the field has been a struggle for Soriano throughout his career, and 2011 was no different.

Can Phil Hughes be saved?

(Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

Last week at TYA I wrote about the plight of Phil Hughes, recapping the right-hander’s many ups and downs (though mostly downs) since debuting in the Major Leagues on April 26, 2007. I’d hazard a guess that many in Yankeeland have just about reached their limit with Hughes, and it seems the general consensus is that the Yankees would be lucky if their formerly prized righty developed into a reliable number three starter. I don’t necessarily disagree, although that’s a pretty big fall from grace for a pitcher who was near-universally regarded as a future number-one starter (if you’re in the mood to weep, have a look at our own Mike Axisa’s prospect profile of Hughes in the pre-RAB days), as he rocketed his way through the Yankees’ minor league system.

Given that last week’s piece was primarily prose-driven and fairly unencumbered by statistics, I wanted to take a deeper dive into the numbers to see whether there was anything noteworthy that might signal that perhaps Hughes hasn’t reached his peak yet.

For the purposes of this post, I’ve divided Hughes’ career into 11 segments dating back to the beginning of the 2008 season (I’d have gone further, except ’08 is the first season we have PITCHf/x data for): (1) his messy April 2008 as a starter; (2) his brief reappearance in September of that season; (3) his stint as a starter in 2009; (4) his stint as a reliever in 2009; (5) his stint as a reliever in the 2009 postseason; (6) the first 12 starts of his dominant first half in 2010; (7) his considerably uglier second-half of 2010; (8) his three starts in the 2010 postseason; (9) his three terrible starts at the beginning of 2011; (10) his improved second-half as a starter in 2011; and (11) his final four appearances of 2011 as a reliever.

I’m also taking a look at the three main pitches Hughes has thrown the most over his career: the four-seamer, curveball and cutter. Though Hughes has offered a changeup periodically throughout the years, it’s never been a successful pitch by any metric. PITCHf/x also has Hughes as having thrown a number of sliders in 2008 and 2009, although the Yankees rather famously asked Hughes to scrap his slider (ready for more weeping? Per the aforelinked Axisa piece, “Hughes’ slider reportedly puts his other pitches to shame; it’s a power pitch that breaks hard and late and induces plenty of swings and misses, however the Yankees made Hughes keep it in his pocket in an attempt to develop his other pitches”), and while he’s shown flashes of some sort of slider here and there — this 2008 piece from The Hardball Times refers to it as more of a “slurve,” while it most recently turned up again this past spring, as something of a cutter-slider hybrid — there’s not enough of a sample to do any meaningful analysis.

A handful of two-seamers also showed up during my research, though I’m not sure it’s accurate to say “Phil Hughes has a two-seamer,” given that people with far more advanced understanding of PITCHf/x than I have noted that technically there doesn’t appear to be a tremendous difference between his four- and two-seam fastballs, not to mention the fact that if he does have one, he hasn’t thrown it with any consistency since last season (according to PITCHf/x he only threw one two-seamer this year).

Additionally, given what we know about the limitations of PITCHf/x, there are likely some classification issues as it is, but I can only go on the data we have available to us.

Four-Seamer

The following table (all data in this post courtesy of TexasLeaguers.com) shows the evolution of Hughes’ four-seam fastball over the 11 delineated periods. The light blue highlights denote Hughes’ relief stints, while the yellow highlights signal when Hughes was better than league average in a given category.

Hughes’ four-seamer has always been his best pitch, but as we saw back in April when the velocity’s not there he may as well be throwing batting practice. The most effective it’s ever been as a starter — and this is certainly open to debate — is during his lost second half of 2010. During that time his four-seamer was averaging 93mph, he recorded a career-high (as a starter) 9.6% Whiff%, got hitters to foul it off 25% of the time (down from 30% during his superior first half) and put it in play less than 18% of the time, marking the last time he was below league-average in the latter category as a starter.

Though he was still missing one mph off his heater in the second half of 2011, the pitch was actually still pretty good, netting a slightly above-average Whiff% and ultimately clocking in at a fairly robust 0.57 wFB/C, which would have made it one of the most effective in the AL had he enough innings to qualify.

Curveball

The only breaking pitch presently in Hughes’ arsenal is his curveball, which again, at varying points in his career, was expected to be a major weapon. For even more weeping, here’s a Baseball America quote circa 2006 from a piece by our own Joe Pawlikowski written in August of last year (emphasis mine):

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. It’s a true power breaking ball that sits in the low 80s with 1-to-7 break. Club officials call it the best in the system because Hughes can throw it for quality strikes or bury it out of the zone, and because he uses the same arm slot and release point he uses for his fastball.”

Sob sob sob. I’m pretty sure none of those superlatives accurately describe Hughes’ present-day curveball.

Since becoming a full-time starter at the outset of the 2010 season, he’s never thrown it for strikes at above a league-average rate. Though this may partially be by design, it also hadn’t generated an above-average percentage of swings until this past season. It’s also never been an above-average swing-and-miss pitch for any significant stretch of time as a starting pitcher, which is a major problem when you’re a Major League pitcher in need of a good breaking ball.

That said, second-half-2011 Hughes did seem to show some promise with what appeared to be yet another variation on his curveball. The pitch still has a ways to go, but he appeared to be getting a good deal more comfortable in deploying the curve when getting ahead of hitters with two strikes.

Cutter

And here’s a look at Hughes’ cutter:

Hughes didn’t start throwing the cutter until 2009 and had great success with it in relief that season. The pitched peaked for Hughes as a starter in 2010, and then seemingly out of nowhere the cutter became useless in 2011. This development may have been the most baffling of all for Hughes during this past season. While much of the cutter’s decline can likely be tied to his overall decrease in velocity, I’m not sure I’ve seen an explanation as to why he was able to regain roughly three of the missing four mph on his four-seamer, while only two of the missing four mph on his cutter came back. As such, Hughes was ostensibly a two-pitch pitcher during the second-half of 2011, although in one sense that makes his relative success — though Hughes posted a 4.55 ERA over 11 second-half starts, he actually pitched pretty well if you take away his two random disaster outings against Oakland, with an ERA of 3.13 over 54 2/3 innings — perhaps a bit more heartening.

Conclusion

Phil Hughes clearly still has plenty of work to do if he has any hopes of representing a top-of-the-rotation solution for the Yankees — or any team in MLB for that matter — although I do think some of the data we’ve looked at today provides a glimmer of hope. I’m definitely curious to see what a Phil Hughes who’s hopefully back at 92-93mph with his fastball can do with a still-developing-but-hopefully-finally-usable curveball, and the most important piece of the development puzzle for Hughes is that expectations have been lowered dramatically — think Ivan Nova heading into last season.

At this point no one’s expecting anything better than a #4, and probably more like a #5 starter-type performance out of Hughes, but I think he could surprise a lot of people next season. Another reason I’m somewhat bullish on Hughes for next year is that though his rate stats were basically uniformly down in 2011, if you look at the daily graphs his numbers were almost universally trending in the right direction across nearly all 10 categories following his return to the rotation in early July. It may not be much, but it’s a start.

The tools and ability are there, which should enable him to exceed even the lowest expectations, but it’ll require an enhanced focus, commitment to his craft and also a professional to help him harness his natural talent. I realize that all sounds like a bunch of intangible crap, particularly after spending an entire post focused on the numbers, but I can only encourage #65 to “throw harder” and “develop a non-fastball out pitch so that you don’t lead the world in foul balls,” so many times before I go hoarse. He knows he needs to do these things, and it’s incumbent upon him to effect the changes that can turn his career around. If I’m Phil Hughes I would not only be intent on completely rededicating myself this winter, but I’d also be banging down Larry Rothschild‘s door for as many one-on-one tutorials as possible, as 2012 may represent the last opportunity the soon-to-be 26-year-old will have to show he can hack it as a front-line starter in the Majors.

Fan Confidence Poll: October 31st, 2011

2011 Record: 97-65 (855 RS, 657 RA, 102-60 pythag. record), won AL East, lost to Tigers in ALDS

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The bigger, badder RAB

Today at 11:30 you’ll see something new on RAB. It’s a byline that you might find familiar, just not around these parts. In the next week or so you’ll notice a few more of these new bylines popping up. River Ave. Blues is expanding, and we’re excited to announce a pair of new writers, plus a new twist on a current one.

The first one you’ll see is Larry Koestler. Mike, Ben, and I have known Larry for a long, long time. You might have known him from Yankeeist and then The Yankee Analysts. We like his work all the way back in his Save Phil Hughes days — he even did a guest post for us a while ago. Now he’s part of the RAB team, and will bring his consistently well-researched articles to us on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays — and perhaps more if he has the itch. If you’re not doing so already, make sure to follow Larry on Twitter: @Larry_Koestler.

Next on the list is Larry’s partner in crime, TYA co-founder Moshe Mandel. We’ve followed Moshe from his days at the The Yankee U through TYA. In fact, he succeeded Ben and I on the now-defunct MVN Yankees blog, The Bronx Block. (In our day it was Off The Facade.) If you follow Moshe’s Twitter account — @MosheRAB — you might know that he’s a recent Harvard Law grad and is on his way to a fancy schmantz job in January. Because of that he’ll post a bit less frequently: Tuesdays and Sundays. He’s on vacation this week, though, so you’ll have to wait until next week for his debut.

With new contributors on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday, we thought one final contributor for Thursdays made sense. Turns out the perfect candidate for the job was right under our noses. You might know Stephen Rhoads from his weekend posts. Now he’s sliding into Thursdays so we can more prominently feature his work. He actually got a head start this week, so his regular spot is already in place. You can find him on Twitter at @sprotster.

Please, folks, give a warm welcome to the new guys. Their voices will add variety to the RAB experience, expanding discussions and providing different angles on the subjects we cover every day.

Now that we have a more robust weekday staff, we decided to install some sense of order. With just Mike, Ben, and me previously on weekdays there wasn’t much need for a hierarchy. We all founded the site and we all took care of business. But with six contributors during the week we need a figurehead. It is with great pleasure that I introduce River Ave. Blues’s first Editor-In-Chief, Mike Axisa. He’s really grabbed the reigns of RAB in 2011, and now he’s the big boss.

While this announcement represents a significant change at RAB, we clearly believe that it will create a more enjoyable experience. Larry, Moshe, and Stephen all have distinct voices that will add variety to the site that we just couldn’t achieve with the three of us. It also takes a little of the load off Mike and me, though most notably Mike. That frees us up to take care of other RAB projects, which we also know you’ll enjoy. There are some exciting times ahead for all of us. We’re thankful that you’ve all come along for the ride.

Snowy Sunday Open Thread

Man, the first baseball-less Sunday since like, February. The snowstorm just makes it worse too, it’s like a cold slap in the face reminder that summer is over and baseball is four months away, and that’s just Spring Training. Anyway, the late football game is the Cowboys at the Eagles (8:20pm ET on NBC), and none of the local hockey teams are in action. You can talk about that or anything else your heart desires right here.

Discussion Topic: What do you miss most about the Old Yankee Stadium?

Sabathia plans to opt out of contract; Yankees have made offer

Via Jon Heyman and David Waldstein, CC Sabathia plans to opt out of the final four years and $92M of his contract before Monday’s midnight deadline. The Yankees have made their ace left-hander a new contract offer, but he plans on at least looking around to see what the market has to offer. We heard last week that the team was okay with a five- or six-year deal, but not anything more than that. All we do now is wait.

Mailbag: How about Mike Aviles?

Today’s weekend mailbag question pertains to a potential replacement for Eric Chavez if he doesn’t rejoin the Yankees in 2012. Remember to use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to send in your questions throughout the week.

J-Bone asks: Mike Aviles is listed as a non-tender candidate on MLBTR. In the event that Eric Chavez retires or signs elsewhere, what do you think of Aviles as a replacement?

Good question, J-Bone. Let’s take a look.

As a point of comparison, in 2011, an effective (albeit fragile) Eric Chavez provided the Yankees with some solid bench depth. When he was able to keep himself on the field, he routinely flashed slick defensive ability. The veteran third basemen also produced decent production with the bat (especially early on in the season). Over 175 total plate appearances, he batted .263/.320/.356 (.294 wOBA). His efforts were valued at a 0.6 fWAR, all for the reasonable cost of $1.5M.

In 2011, Mike Aviles had a productive season as well as he spent time with both the Royals and the Red Sox. In 309 total plate appearances, Aviles’ provided a respectable .255/.289/.409 triple slash (.307 wOBA) with seven homeruns. Although Aviles did manage a handful of long balls last season, he’s definitely not known for showing consistent power (career .151 ISO). To Aviles’ credit though, he made decent contact (14 K%) although he rarely drew the walk (4.2 BB%).

Aviles has only been in the league since 2008 so he still has several more years of arbitration eligibility; his $0.64M earned last season would also be a mere drop in the bucket for the Yankees.

Personally, I’m fairly impartial on this one. Bench players generally have noticeable flaws in their game and Aviles is no different; he is what he is. He’ll occasionally get wood on the ball and he’ll provide serviceable defense at third. With too much exposure, he’ll likely be a detriment to the team overall. Is he better than a guy like Pena? Probably. Is he better than some of the other potential depth options on the market? Meh.

Basically, if the Yankees decide to roll the dice on Aviles, I’d be fine with it given his price and skill set. That said, if they passed him over for another option, I wouldn’t lose sleep either. In any event, I’m guessing the Yankees 2012 campaign probably won’t hinge on a backup infielder one way or another.