Are lost games worth the gamble on Hughes?

(Kathy Willens/AP)

The questions were coming at some point or another. I’m sure when Joe Girardi sat down for his post-game news conference he was wondering who would be the first to ask. “Joe, what are you going to do about Phil Hughes?” As we’ve seen countless times before, Girardi basically said that he didn’t know at the moment. I don’t know why he can’t just say, “That’s an important decision, guys, and it’s not one I’m prepared to make or comment on immediately after the game.” It would get the point across concretely: the Yankees do face an important decision about Phil Hughes’s immediate future.

While Hughes’s velocity did not return — his four-seamer averaged around 89 mph and topped out at just under 91 — he did appear to control it a bit better. It wasn’t great control, but definitely an improvement. He threw 46 of them, 32 for strikes and two for swinging strikes. The only time he really got hurt on it was when Cesar Izturis slapped one, and when he didn’t run it inside enough on Nick Markakis. Hughes’s curveball also broke more sharply than in his previous starts. He threw that 11 times for eight strikes and two swinging strikes. It graded out as his best pitch, per the linear weights scores on Brooks Baseball, despite its relatively infrequent use. The changeup, too, worked, at least in terms of results, as he threw it six times, five for strikes, and didn’t really get beat.

The issue, as we’ve seen in his previous two starts, was the cutter. In the two instances he got beat the worst, the Markakis homer and the Luke Scott double, he attempted to throw a cutter, but, as he said after the game, it kinda just spun and didn’t move. That is, it looked like a fat, straight, 85 mph fastball. Thankfully, Hughes threw it just seven times, so he knows that it’s not his best option. But it appears that it probably shouldn’t be an option at all at this point.

When deciding what to do with Hughes, the Yankees have to answer a number of questions. The first, and most important, is whether they think, with a strong degree of certainty, that continuing to pitch at the major league level is the absolute best way for Hughes to recover. If they aren’t reasonably certain that it’s the course of action that will lead to the best result, they have to strongly consider removing him from the rotation. Not every game will go like last night. Many times, maybe even most times, the Yanks will fall short in that comeback attempt. An ineffective Hughes is putting them in deep holes, and if he continues pitching this way it will lead to many more losses. That’s not something that any contending team can afford.

There are questions affixed to this, too. Last night the cutter was the big, and perhaps only, problem. Can Hughes get through an order two or three times with just his four-seamer, curveball, and changeup? Can he get his cutter working without throwing it live to hitters? If the Yankees think the answer is yes, or could be yes, I can see them sticking with him. If not, that’s another sign that he needs to work on his issues elsewhere.

My biggest concern is that Hughes is simply overworking himself. Last season he shouldered an unprecedented workload. I’m not sure what he did in the off-season, but if he kept his normal training regimen, he might be overtrained at this point. It would go a long way in explaining the dip in velocity. If this is the case — and at this point it’s nothing more than a pet theory — the only way he’s going to regain that strength is by backing off a bit. That means a trip to extended spring training where he can take it easy and then build himself back up. That’s kind of a dramatic measure, but if he’s overtrained it might be the only thing that gets him back on course this season.

If that’s not the case, I’m not sure what the Yankees can do. It’s clear that he’s better off junking the cutter for right now, since it has gotten battered around in his first three starts. Does that leave him with an arsenal adequate enough to get through major league lineups? I’m not convinced, since I haven’t seen it. But I think the Yankees will be curious enough to give it a shot, at least one more time through. Maybe if he’s forced into a situation where he needs to break off over a dozen curveballs and changeups in a game he can get those pitches working.

Chances are the Yankees won’t take rash action here. Hughes is an important part of the organization, and this has only been three starts. They might skip him for a few days, but that’s the most I can see them doing this time around. If he gets battered again next time, then they might have to do something. I just fear that overtraining is an issue here, since the only way to recover is to rest. That creates more holes in an already rough rotation.

Yankees rally back for walk-off win against O’s

I think the best way to recap this game is chronologically, so let’s do that…

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Phil’s Best Start Of The Season (Sadly)

After getting completely shellacked in first two outings, Phil Hughes was … um … better on Thursday. Better in the sense that getting punched inĀ  side of the head is better than getting hit in the face with a sledgehammer. He came out of gate throwing harder than he had in his first two starts, but … well just look …

The 90+ mph fastballs lasted about one inning. And it’s not just the velocity either; Phil’s control is just awful, he’s leaving everything right out over the plate and is paying for it. The end result was five runs on seven hits in four-and-a-third innings, but that doesn’t count the two great catches made by Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher on balls hit right to the wall. Sadly, that was his best start of the season. I don’t know what the Yankees are going to do from here, but leaving Hughes is the rotation is as close to a non-option as it gets right now. He’s just not right.

The Unsung Heroes

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

By the time Joe Girardi took the ball from Hughes, the Yankees were already down five-zip and things looked pretty bleak. Jake Arrieta, who seems to have New York’s’ number for whatever reason, was putting up zero after zero, and five runs is a lot for any team to rally back from. Bartolo Colon waddled out to the mound in relief of Hughes and starting throwing grenades, as has been his forte this year. He fired three shutout innings, recording seven of his nine outs on the ground or via strike three.

Colon’s teammates managed to push across four runs across in the meantime, making it a game. Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano created the first run with a pair of back-to-back doubles in the fifth, then Mark Teixeira and A-Rod teamed up for a run-scoring single and sac fly in the sixth. Russell Martin plated the fourth run with an RBI ground out in the seventh. Joba Chamberlain took the ball from Colon with men on the corners and one out in the eighth, then almost immediately uncorked a wild pitch to the backstop. Martin relayed the ball to Joba at the plate, who applied the tag to Felix Pie for the second out. Watching it live, it looked like Pie was clearly safe, but replay showed otherwise. Joba practically stepped on the guy and blocked the plate. Great play, great call. The inning came to an end after Mark Reynolds looked at strike three, a 96 mph piece of cheese down-and-away.

After the early deficit, Colon and Joba stepped up and did exactly what they were asked to do: keep the Orioles right where they were and let the Yankees claw their way back into it. Mock them for their food loving ways if you must, but those two deserve a round of applause for their work in this game.

The Ninth Inning

It’s been an all or nothing kind of year for Jorge Posada. He came into the game with just six hits, but four of them were homers. His first three at-bats on Thursday resulted in every kind of out imaginable: first a ground out, then a fly out, then a strikeout. Leading off the ninth inning with his team down by one, Jorge jumped all over Kevin Gregg’s first pitch of the night, hitting it out to right-center field for his seventh hit and fifth homer of 2011. Just like that, Hughes was off the hook and the comeback was complete. Unfortunately, the rest of the inning was full of dumb.

Granderson followed Posada’s homer with a double off the wall, his second of the game, putting the winning run in scoring position with no outs. This is when things got wacky. Martin squared around for a sacrifice bunt, but he ended up spotting Gregg two strikes before striking out. Whether he was told to bunt or did it on his own, we don’t know, but good grief. He’s one of the team’s hottest hitters and you’ve already got a fast runner in scoring position. Swing the damn bat. After that, both Eric Chavez and Andruw Jones sat on the bench while Brett Gardner struck out for the third time in the game, the second out of the inning. Derek Jeter graciously grounded out to short on the first pitch to end the inning and kill the rally. The bunt attempt was bad enough, but not pinch-hitting for Gardner is pretty inexcusable in my book. The Yankees have a quality bench now, use it Joe.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Nick Swisher, Rally Killer

One of the many struggling Yankees coming into this game was Swisher, who was just two for his last 17 when Hughes threw out the first pitch. He flew out to end the second inning, then grounded out to short for the first out in the fourth inning with Cano on second. Thirty or so feet to the right, and it would have at least been a productive out, but instead they got nothing. Swish led off the seventh with a walk, eventually coming around to score on Martin’s ground out. An inning later he was at the plate with the tying and go-ahead runs on second and first with two outs, but he ended the inning and the rally with a ground out.

A 2-for-20 stretch is ugly, but Swisher had a shot to redeem himself in the tenth. Tex led the frame off with a walk, and a few pitches later he was standing on third after an A-Rod double down the left field line. Cano lined out to short, but Swisher’s margin for error was still pretty big. All he had to do was not strike out and not hit the ball on the infield. Mike Gonzalez started him off with a slider down and out of the zone, but the second slider hung up a little. Swish whacked it out to Nick Markakis is right, bringing Teixeira home for the game-winning run on a walk-off sac fly. An off-line throw certainly helped. There are two ways to end a rally, and Nick experienced both ends of the spectrum tonight.

Leftovers

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Seriously, how locked in is A-Rod right now? He went 3-for-3 with a pair of doubles and a walk tonight, putting his season batting line at .412/.512/.882. He was already leading baseball in wOBA (.531) when the game began, and that only went up thanks to this game. Not bad, not bad at all.

Just to close the book on the bullpen: Colon, Joba, and Mariano Rivera combined for 5.2 scoreless innings, allowing four hits and a walk while striking out five and getting the same number of ground balls. And the cool part is that if the game continued on, Girardi still had Rafael Soriano and David Robertson at his disposal.

I don’t know about you, but my patience with Gardner is wearing mighty thin. He went hitless in five at-bats tonight, striking out three times. He’s getting on base in just 22.7% of his plate appearances, which simply isn’t good enough for a leadoff guy. I’m not saying he shouldn’t lead off or anything like that, but holy crap is he frustrating right now. Hopefully Girardi gives him and not Granderson the day off against the lefty starter on Friday.

Small thing I noticed: Martin keeps his bare hand out in front of his body when he’s catching. Dude, you gotta hide that thing behind the leg! A foul tip could do some serious damage to those digits, and that’s the last thing the Yankees need.

The Yanks had been alternating wins and losses for almost two weeks now, but thankfully that’s over. The last (and only other) time they won consecutive games this year were games one and two against the Tigers. It’s way too early to be scoreboard watching and what not, but I might as well mention that the Yankees are now in sole possession of first place in the AL East, one game better than the O’s.

WPA Graph & Box Score

Now that is a WPA graph my friends; at one point the Orioles had a 91.4% chance of winning. The biggest hit of the game was (by far) Posada’s ninth inning homer at +.404 WPA. A-Rod’s tenth inning double was second at +.204, Swish’s sac fly was fourth at +.146. The biggest out(s) would be the double play Mariano Rivera coaxed out of Derrek Lee in the tenth (+.198). MLB.com has the box score and video highlights, FanGraphs everything else.

Up Next

Revenge for the ALCS (or something like that)! The Texas Rangers come to town Friday night for the three-game weekend series. Ivan Nova gets the ball against Matt Harrison and his scorching hot start. Interested in going to the series opener? Check out RAB Tickets.

JoVa homers two more times in SWB win

In case you missed it earlier, Dellin Betances will miss a start because of a blister. He’s not alone though, Manny Banuelos has also been placed on the DL with a blister issue. They’ve been replaced on the roster by Brian Anderson and Damon Sublett, and Kevin Millwood will start for Double-A Trenton over the weekend. Gary Sanchez is also hurt and on the disabled list, but the nature and severity of his injury is unclear. Hopefully it’s nothing serious, remember he dealt with some wrist issues last season. Nick McCoy took his spot on the roster.

The Yankees signed Cuban right-hander Reinier Casanova to a minor league deal. I don’t know anything about the guy other than what the B-R Bullpen says, so your guess is as good as mine. Oh, and Banuelos took some pitchers next to some farm equipment for The Sporting News. So hooray for that.

Update: The Yankees also signed outfielder Jason Place. He was Boston’s first round pick (27th overall) in 2006, one of those super-upside long-shot high school picks. He didn’t pan out (.234/.315/.390 career hitter) and they released him in Spring Training.

Triple-A Scranton (6-2 win over Buffalo)
Greg Golson, CF & Brandon Laird, 1B: both 0 for 4, 1 K – Laird is 4-for-30 now (.133)
Ramiro Pena, 2B: 0 for 3, 1 BB, 1 K
Jordan Parraz, LF: 2 for 4, 1 R, 1 RBI, 1 K
Jorge Vazquez, 3B: 2 for 4, 2 R, 2 HR, 3 RBI, 1 K – nine for his last 18 (.500) with four jacks
Justin Maxwell, DH: 2 for 4, 2 K, 1 SB – got picked off second
Dan Brewer, RF: 1 for 3, 1 R, 1 BB, 1 K, 1 SB
Jose Gil, C: 1 for 4, 1 R, 1 PB
Doug Bernier, SS: 2 for 3, 1 R, 1 3B, 2 RBI
Amaury Sanit, RHP: 3 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 5 K, 1 WP, 1 HB – 36 of 62 pitches were strikes (58.1%) … emergency starter since Hector Noesi is in the Bronx
Josh Schmidt, RHP: 2 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 3 K, 2-0 GB/FB – 18 of 35 pitches were strikes (51.4%)
Buddy Carlyle, RHP: 2 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 5 K, 1-0 GB/FB – 21 of 32 pitches were strikes (65.6%)
Eric Wordekemper, RHP: 2 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 1 K, 3-2 GB/FB – 21 of 34 pitches were strikes (61.8%)

[Read more…]

Game 11: Show me something, Phil

In addition to being fabulous, Martin's nails help the pitcher see the sign. (via Martin's Twitter acct)

Phil Hughes‘ first two starts this season haven’t been good. In fact, they’ve been awful. He has the highest ERA (16.50) in baseball at the moment (min. two starts), and frankly he’s looked more like a career minor leaguer than a Major League caliber pitcher. He’s done work between starts to help try to find the missing velocity, but blah blah blah, the bottom line is he has to give the Yankees a chance to win tonight. If he can’t, then the next step might be a trip to the (phantom?) disabled list or the minor leagues. Here’s the lineup that will back him up…

Brett Gardner, LF
Derek Jeter, SS
Mark Teixeira, 1B
Alex Rodriguez, 3B
Robinson Cano, 2B
Nick Swisher, RF
Jorge Posada, DH
Curtis Granderson, CF
Russell Martin, C

Phil Hughes, SP

The YES Network will carry this game starting at 7:05pm ET. Enjoy the game.

Report: MLB looking to expand instant replay

During the pivotal game 2 of the Yanks’ and Twins’ 2009 American League Division Series, Joe Mauer lofted a ball down the left field line. It bounced fair in front of Melky Cabrera and bounded into the stands. The umpire though called it a foul ball, and the Yanks went onto win that game in 11 innings. If ever there were an appropriate time for instant replay, that play was it.

Today, we learn that baseball is considering expanding instant replay. Per the Associated Press, video review could be expanded in 2012 to “include trapped balls and fair-or-foul rulings down the lines.” MLB umps would not review safe or not calls, and strikes and balls would remain under the purview of the home plate umpire. Outside of a nostalgic appeal for history, there’s no reason not to do that. Getting these calls right takes minimal effort, and should take paramount importance in the scheme of a nine-inning game often decided by a matter of inches.

Graphically charting the Yanks’ rotation

Courtesy of Craig Robinson/Flip Flop Fly Ball

Earlier this week, Craig Robinson at Flip Flop Fly Ball posted a chart of the Mariners’ 2010 rotation, and I fell in love. The Flip Flop Fly Ball artist broke out the months of baseball schedule into five-calendar-day rows, and he used color coding to show when each pitcher had the ball. He also produced a similar chart for the 1971 Orioles’ four-man rotation.

In one sense, the idea behind the chart is simple: If a team maximizes its best pitchers, their color should show up once per row. So if the 2010 Mariners wanted to get the most of Felix Hernandez and, in the early going, Cliff Lee, the light blue and dark purple would appear every week.

Click to enlarge.

I asked Craig to do the same for the Yankees last year, and he produced the chart excerpted above. You can view the entire thing by clicking on the image at right. I find this chart to be mesmerizing, and from it, we can draw a guarded conclusions. Had the Yankees stuck with a strict rest schedule for CC Sabathia, they could have coaxed three additional starts out of their ace last year. Because of off days and the desire to keep every other pitcher on target, CC “missed” his starts during the five days beginning May 24, August 2 and October 1.

Of course, that raises another question: Should the Yankees disrupt their other pitchers to make sure their ace gets as many innings as possible? On the one hand, I’m tempted to say yes. After all, Sabathia is that much better than the other Yankee hurlers, and he’s a workhorse. He can shoulder the innings, and he’s happy to take the ball. The AL East last year came down to one game, and it’s not a stretch to say that an additional three Sabathia starts could have given the Yanks the division crown.

On the other hand, these players need their rest. Sabathia could have made a total of 37 starts last year, but in today’s age of pitch counts and innings caps, that is probably an excessive number. If the Yankees want him fresh for the playoffs, they’re willing to give him a few extra days as the schedule dictates. That’s just the way the game is played.

Anyway, I found this chart to be a wonderful way to understand the way the pitching rotation shakes down over the course of the year. After Opening Day and before the playoffs, labeling pitchers based on their spots in the rotation is largely meaningless. When you’re done pouring over this one, check out Craig’s site. His infographics will soon be available as a book, and I’m looking forward to getting my hands on that one.

Feliciano has torn shoulder capsule

Update (4/14/11, 3:51pm): Via Ben Shpigel, Feliciano has a torn shoulder capsule and is deciding whether or not he wants to try to rehab it or have season-ending surgery. Those of you with good memories will remember that Chien-Ming Wang had the exact same injury in 2009, and of course he still hasn’t come back. Ken Davidoff says Feliciano is heading to see Dr. Andrews for a second opinion next week, but there’s only so many ways you can say “yep, it’s shredded.”

Original Post (4/13/11, 10:23pm): Via Ben Shpigel, Joe Girardi said after tonight’s game that the MRI on Pedro Feliciano’s shoulder was not good, simply calling it a “damaged shoulder.” It sounds like surgery is a possibility, which would presumably end his season before it even had a chance to began. Hopefully that’s not the case, but they have to brace for the worst. If only someone had warned them about the dangers of signing an over-worked, 30-something reliever to a multi-year deal. Maybe they’ll finally take the hint.