Anticipating Andy Pettitte’s return

When Andy Pettitte went down with a groin injury that cost him two months of his 2010 campaign, I guessed the injury would spur him into pitching again next year. At 11-3 and with a 3.17 ERA, he can clearly still dominate American League hitters, and he strikes me as the type of player who wants to finish strong. So as part of the Yanks’ ode to Brett Favre but without the self-serving headlines or unnecessary drama, the “will he or won’t he?” debate over Andy Pettitte has already begun. In Jon Heyman’s latest, the Sports Illustrated scribe puts Pettitte’s return at 50/50. “I hope” he returns, Jorge Posada said. “He had a pretty good year. He’s still, for me, one of the best big-game pitchers.”

Earlier in the weekend, Ken Davidoff added his take on the topic: Pettitte says Roger Clemens’ legal troubles and his own role in the the government’s case will, in his words, have “absolutely nothing” to do with the decision to return to baseball. If Pettitte, who turns 39 next June, does return in 2011, it will more likely than not be his last season. “I know I’m not going to be playing at age 40. I know that,” he said to Davidoff. “So there’s just things I know I promised myself that I wouldn’t let happen. And those things would happen if I kept playing.”

Phil Hughes and the ALDS rotation

We've come a long way, Phil. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

It wouldn’t be hard to make a case that last night’s start was the biggest of Phil Hughes‘ young career. The Yankees had lost four in a row and the whispers of a Metsian choke were getting louder heading into the season’s final week. Whether it was panic or not, Brian Cashman, Joe Girardi, and the rest of the coaching staff placed enough importance on the game to alter their pitching plans and give the ball to Hughes rather than Dustin Moseley in a nationally televised game that could potentially guarantee them no worse than a tie of the Wild Card. It was the first time since last November that a Yankee game had that electricity, that playoff kind of atmosphere, and Hughes certainly delivered.

On the heels of a six inning, three hit, one run outing against the Red Sox on Sunday, the overall season performance is more than fine for a 24-year-old kid in the AL East. Hughes has made 29 starts (and one one-inning relief appearance) and pitched to near-perfectly aligned 4.21 ERA, 4.30 FIP, 4.38 xFIP, and 4.30 tRA. To paraphrase Denny Green, he is who we thought he is. The plan to monitor his workload has gone rather smoothly, and Phil has finished very strong: .191/.286/.338 in his last three starts, taking the ball into the seventh inning each time. It’s not a question of if the righty has earned a spot in the playoff rotation, but where exactly he slots in.

Obviously CC Sabathia will start Game One of the ALDS, regardless of opponent and location, and whatever the team does to line him up for that start is beyond the scope of this post. Everything after Sabathia is a bit up in the air, at least to us outsiders, and chances are it’ll depend at least a little bit on the matchups. If the Yankees win the division, they’ll start the ALDS at home against the Rangers, but if they settle for the Wild Card (a far more likely scenario) they’ll start the postseason against the Twins in Target Field.

As we already know, Hughes’ bugaboo this season has been the longball, especially at home. He’s allowed 20 of his 25 homers in the Bronx, and opponents had tagged him for a .325 wOBA at home compared to .280 on the road. That’s the difference between this year’s versions of Jason Kubel and Jason Kendall, for some perspective. Assuming the Yanks take the Wild Card and face the Twins (again, the far more likely scenario), the series opens in Target Field, a park that has suppressed homers to 60.9% of the league average in its first year of existence. In the frigid cold of October in Minnesota, chances are the long ball will be at even more of a premium.

(AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Those homer suppressing tendencies play right into the Yankees’ hands with Hughes, and it helps neutralize his biggest weakness. With CC starting Game One, starting Hughes in Game Two against the Twins gives the Yanks the best potential rotation setup in the five game series. Not only does it help with his homer problem, but it also pushes Andy Pettitte back to Game Three in Yankee Stadium. That will help keep Minny’s lefthanded power somewhat in check, which is especially important with the short porch in right. That would also take Jim Thome (.477 wOBA vs. RHP, .335 vs. LHP) out of the equation for at least the first few innings of Game Three, something that can’t hurt in a homer friendly park. And just looking at the scenarios, if the Yanks are up 2-0, they have Andy going to close things out. If they series is tied at one, Andy’s there to help them take the lead. If they’re down 0-2, there’s Andy to stop the bleeding.

Of course there’s a significant drawback here. Given the ALDS schedule, Sabathia can start Game Four on three day’s rest, then whoever starts Game Two can start Game Five on five day’s rest. That puts Hughes, after a full season and the largest workload of his career, on the mound with the season on the line. Anyone with a brain between their ears would be more comfortable with giving the ball to Pettitte in that situation regardless of matchups, stadium, etc. However, I suppose if things go according to plan in Games Two and Three, that deciding fifth game won’t be necessary.

Those fourth and fifth games can’t be a concern right now, the goal is too put the team in the best position to win during the first three games, the only ones guaranteed to be played. Hughes has pitched well enough down the stretch to earn a postseason rotation spot, and if they end up playing the Twins as the Wild Card, it’s stands to reason that throwing Phil in Game Two and Pettitte in Game Three takes the most advantage of their skill sets and puts the team in the best position to win. Now, obviously things would change if they jumped ahead of the Rays and somehow won the division, but that’s a road we’ll cross if it happens. For now, yeah, I think St. Phil has to get the ball for that second game in Minnesota.

The Alex Rodriguez Appreciation Thread

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Alex Rodriguez has been a lot of things in his time with the Yankees. He’s been a hero, a goat, unclutch, a stat-padder, a PED cheat, injured, the guy that’s dating Madonna, the MVP (twice), and a World Champion, but above all, he’s been a monster player on the field at all times. Even in 2010, statistically the worst full season of career, Alex has managed a .274/.345/.516 (.368 wOBA) batting line, which is a career year for most players. A 13th consecutive season of 30 or more homeruns seemed impossible just a week ago, but a recent binge that produced four homers in eight at-bats has him right on the doorstep.

Yes, there’s still seven years and $184M left on his contract and chances are the back-end of that will be ugly, but right now Alex is giving the Yankees everything they’ve asked of him. His very presence in the batter’s box changes the game and more often than not his swing does as well. Last night’s seventh inning two-run, opposite field homer against the wind to give the Yanks their first lead in four games was his latest masterpiece. Back in May he singlehandedly put an end to a four loss in five day stretch with a late inning grand slam against the Twins. Last season’s postseason heroics are the stuff of legend, and that’s the kind of groove Alex is in right now.

Since returning from the disabled list and an injured calf, A-Rod has hit .333/.415/.710 with eight homers in 19 games, and if you go back to before the DL stint, he’s hit 13 homers in his last 29 starts. That his pushed him past for the 4.0 fWAR threshold (it’s 4.1, to be exact) yet again, the 15th consecutive season he’s been no worse than a four-win player. Those 15 seasons represent almost the entirety of Alex’s career, which started in earnest with his age-20 season in 1996. It still feels like he just got here, but he’s played 232 more games as a Yankee than as a Mariner.

At one point the Yanks’ record without A-Rod in the lineup this season was something like 13-0 or 13-1, but no one in their right mind thinks the team is seriously better off without him. That win-loss record is a fluke, a perfect example of the randomness of baseball. The drop off from Alex to his replacement, whether it be Ramiro Pena or Cody Ransom or Miguel Cairo, has always been enormous and noticeable on the field. After the embarrassment of the PED revelations and the hip injury last year, any semblance of ego or selfishness is gone, and A-Rod been 100% focused on the team since. New Yorkers love giving people shots at redemption, and he’s done a rather marveous job of redeeming himself since last spring.

Robinson Cano has been the Yanks’ best player this season, but A-Rod has been the team’s greatest player since the moment he first put on the uniform in 2004. Even at 35-years-old, he’s a force at the plate and far-and-away the guy every Yankee fan wants to see at the plate in a big spot. How times have changed. It seems foolish to laud a player when he figures to be around for so many more years, but Alex is no ordinary player. He’s an all-time great Yankee, and deserves to be recognized as such.

Mo’s troubles come down to command

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

It usually only happens once a year. At some point, usually early in the season, Mariano Rivera will struggle for about a week. A few years ago it led to column after column wondering if this was the end of his superhuman run. Baseball writers have since learned, though, and we no longer see anything like that. We just accept that Mo will have a bad week and move on.

This year we’ve seen something a bit different. Mo experienced his annual rough week in May when he walked in a run and then served up a grand slam against the Twins, allowed two runs against Boston, and then had a shaky time saving a close game against the Mets. Before those three appearances he hadn’t allowed a run all season. He didn’t allow another run in his next 16 appearances. In other words, it looked like any other year. But since September 11 we’ve seen something quite different.

On September 10 the Yankees and Rangers were deadlocked at five heading into extra innings. Wanting to take the first game of a three-game set in Arlington, Joe Girardi went to Mo for the 10th. Even after the Yankees failed to score in their half of the 11th, Girardi went back to Mo. The appearance didn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary. Mo allowed one hit and struck out two in those two frames. But he cannot go three innings and the Yankees lost when Nelson Cruz homered off Chad Gaudin.

The next day the Yankees found themselves in a position to take the second game of the series. Up 6-5 heading into the bottom of the ninth, Girardi again turned to Mo. A few years ago that wouldn’t have raised a single eyebrow. But this year Mo is 40 going on 41, and he had just thrown two innings the previous day. He had used only 23 pitches to retire those six Rangers, so perhaps he was good for a rebound. It was not to be. The Rangers rallied for two runs in the bottom of the ninth while Mo recorded only one out. It was the first time in 2010 that he’d come into the game with a lead and allowed the walk-off hit.

Since then Mo has not at all been Mo. In the 5.2 innings since his two-inning appearance he has allowed six runs on nine hits and two walks, though the two walks did come during that game in Texas. Most strikingly, though, he has struck out just one batter. While he has saved three games in that span, he hasn’t looked particularly dominant in any of them. This certainly raises questions about how effective he will be in the playoffs.

The problem stems from his command. For a decade and a half we’ve seen Mo throw pitches right to the catcher’s glove. It’s part of the reason why he’s able to survive with just the cutter and the occasional fastball. This year we’ve seen more of the same. While it’s not the best measure of command, per se, Mo had thrown 67 percent of his pitches for strikes through September 10, which is right around where he’s been for most of his career. I’m not sure we can precisely measure command, but if Mo’s balls in play tendencies are any indicator then he’s doing just fine. Opponents are hitting fewer line drives and more weak fly balls, as evidenced by his meager 3.6 percent HR/FB ratio. He has also induced a swinging strike with 8.3 percent of his pitches, which is actually an increase over last year.

In his last six appearances Mo has thrown just 61 percent of his pitches for strikes, though most of that is due to the blown save in Texas, when he threw just nine of 21 pithes for strikes. That leaves a 65 percent strike rate in the following five appearances, but they haven’t all been good strikes. The 23 batter he has faced have a .300 BABIP, while Mo’s season mark is .235 and his career mark is .274. Maybe some of that is luck evening out, but most likely it’s Mo not having perfect command and serving up hittable pitches.

Given the way Mo has pitched since the two-inning appearance in Texas, it’s easy to point to that as the cause of his struggles. I used to launch into the correlation ? causation line here, but that itself is oversimplified. Maybe the strain of pitching an inning, sitting down, and then pitching another inning has affected Mo. It’s certainly possible, though I do think there is a better explanation. As Ben said last night, it’s been a long season and Mo is 40 going on 41. But in that way, I guess, it can be both. Maybe Mo’s body is no longer up to the task of pitching, then sitting down, then going out to pitch again. He did, after all, look quite fine when he retired his one batter in the eighth last night.

The good news is that Mo can get a breather this week. The Yanks are all but assured a playoff spot, so Girardi can cycle through his other, less effective relievers while he waits for the starting pitching and offense to deliver a win, or the White Sox to play the part of eliminator. I’d bank on no more than one more appearance for Mo, and that will be a tune-up. That’s nothing but good news for the Yanks, who will need their closer to again be superhuman in the playoffs.

Quick note: If Phil Cuzzi had an accurate notion of the strike zone we might not even be having this conversation right now. I’m not exactly blaming the ump; Mo still has to make his pitches. But if Bill Hall strikes out we’re looking at a completely different game, one that the Yanks might have won 2-1. Jon Papelbon, too, criticized Cuzzi, but his point was ultimately moot. If Cuzzi had given Papelbon those calls, well, he still wouldn’t have given him those calls because Pap wouldn’t have pitched in the first place. But this is just an end note, not something I think we should spend any real time discussing. Umps suck. We know this.

Fan Confidence Poll: September 27th, 2010

Record Last Week: 3-4 (36 RS, 46 RA)
Season Record: 93-63 (828 RS, 657 RA, 96-60 Pythag. record), 0.5 games back
Schedule This Week: @ Blue Jays (three games, Mon. to Weds.), Thurs. OFF, @ Red Sox (three games, Fri. to Sun.)

Top stories from last week:

Please take a second to answer the poll below and give us an idea of how confident you are in the team. You can view the Fan Confidence Graph anytime via the nav bar above, or by clicking here. Thanks in advance for voting.

{democracy:115}

Yanks win back-and-forth affair in walk-off fashion, reduce magic number to Juan

Biggest game of the year? I think it’s fair to say that Sunday’s ulcer inducing contest between the Yankees and Red Sox was the most important game of New York’s season. The Yanks had lost four in a row and needed to silence the doubters who questioned their ability to hang onto a playoff spot, especially since they didn’t have the benefit of another home game left on the schedule. After some intense play, the Yanks prevailed and got the win they so desperately needed.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The Biggest Hit Walk Of The Year

Terry Francona seemed to almost pity the Yanks after the first nine innings of this one, turning to the shockingly ineffective Hideki Okajima in the bottom of the tenth inning instead of relief ace Dan Bard, who was warming up just two innings earlier. Yeah, two lefties were due up, but with your season effectively on the line, you have to go to your best arm in that spot. He didn’t, and he paid for it.

Curtis Granderson led the inning off with a single, then he moved to third on a Brett Gardner bunt that resulted in a Victor Martinez throwing error. You can’t even call it an error really, the throw hit either Gardner or Marco Scutaro at first and deflected into foul territory. I honestly couldn’t care about the specifics, I was glad the winning run was on third with no outs. Derek Jeter was intentionally walked to load the bases and create the force at any base, and it worked when Marcus Thames grounded to third baseman Adrian Beltre as the next batter, who got the force at home.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

That brought Juan Miranda to the plate, an inning after he replaced Ramiro Pena who pinch hit for Mark Teixeira in the ninth. Yeah, more on that movement later. A .233/.316/.384 hitter against southpaws in the minors this year, the Miranda-Okajima matchup appeared to favor the Red Sox and even the most positive of Yankee fans worried about the double play possibility. First pitch was a curveball away for a ball, the second a curve down for a swinging strike. Okajima brings plenty of soft stuff, and the problem with that is that it can drift out of the zone unwantedly. Third and fourth pitches were off the plate for balls, and when he needed to throw a strike, Okajima went to the changeup inside. It was too far inside, and Miranda took it for the game winning walk-off walk.

Was it an anti-climatic ending? Sure, but at this point who cares. The Yanks needed a win any way possible, and they got it from an unexpected source.  Oh happy day.

A Lead Gone

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Following Brett Gardner’s failed steal attempt in the eighth, the Yanks had the Red Sox right where they wanted them. Mariano Rivera was in the game, and the Sox were going to send up their six, seven and eight hitters. With Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia out, the bottom of the Sox order suffers, and the Yanks were just three outs away from a win.

The inning started out easily enough as Jed Lowrie lofted a fly ball to the warning track in right field, but then the trouble began. Ryan Kalish knocked a ground-ball single to center, and with Bill Hall up, the Red Sox went to the races. Kalish stole second as Jorge Posada‘s throw sailed to the third base side of the base, and then he took off for third. He was safe without a throw, and the Red Sox, with one out, needed just a fly ball to tie the game.

What happened during Hall’s at-bat was alarming. Mariano Rivera wasn’t paying much attention to the runner, and the Yanks’ infielders weren’t holding him on. Posada’s throw to second was a bad one, and the Red Sox were clearly in Mo’s head. To make matters worse, Phil Cuzzi, who had a terrible strike zone all night, apparently missed by the 0-1 and 1-2 strikes. Hall lived to single in the tying run as the ball hydroplaned past A-Rod.

With Hall on first, it was deja vu all over again. On the second pitch to Mike Lowell, he stole second uncontested, and two pitches later, he stole third as well. The throw to third by Jorge bounced before it reached A-Rod, and only a nice stop by the Yanks’ third baseman prevented it from being a run-scoring error. When Mike Lowell hid a fly ball to Curtis Granderson, the Red Sox had a 3-2 lead with but three outs to play.

For Rivera and Posada, this running game is a bit of a concern. The Yanks’ relievers aren’t great at holding runners on, and the team’s catchers don’t have the arms to overcome big jumps. Posada, in particular, has looked weak behind the plate on attempted steals. Hopefully, the Yanks’ bats can overcome the need to keep runners close, but tonight the Red Sox exploited a clear hole in the Yanks’ defense.

A Tie Regained

Mariano Rivera wasn’t the only closer not in top form tonight. Just 20 minutes after Rivera blew the Yanks’ save, Jonathan Papelbon returned the favor. To start the ninth, the Yanks had everything in order. The top of the lineup was due up, and Papelbon hasn’t been sharp of late. Two pitches into the inning, Derek Jeter had lined out, but then the fun began.

Nick Swisher started the rally with a 3-2 single to right field, and already, Papelbon was upset with Phil Cuzzi’s strike zone. While Cuzzi was consistent in his bad zone, Papelbon stared incredulously at a pitch or two during Swisher’s at-bat. Mark Teixeira followed Swisher’s hit with a single of his own, and then Eduardo Nunez, pinch running for Swisher, stole third. With A-Rod up, the Yanks just needed a fly ball to tie the game.

The Red Sox played it dangerously safe. They fed A-Rod breaking balls away and ended up walking him to bring up Robinson Cano, and — don’t you know? — Cano delivered. He hit a hard ground ball to right field, and Nunez trotted home easily. Had the Yankees not won the game, Rob Thomson’s decision to hold Ramiro Peña at third would have come under the microscope. At the time, though, it seemed wise. The Yanks had just one out, and Jorge Posada was due up next. There was no need to challenge Josh Reddick’s cannon in right field.

Jorge, though, had designs on the second half of a no-good, very-bad inning. During a five-pitch at-bat, he swung at two pitches out of the zone and struck out with the bases juiced. When Lance Berkman flew out to right field, the Yanks and Red Sox would take this nail-biter to the tenth, where Miranda worked his magic.

Worth Every Penny

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Is there anyone still out there who thinks A-Rod isn’t clutch? Dude’s got four homers in his last eight at-bats, all against the Yanks’ biggest rivals with a playoff spot on the line, and tonight’s meant more than any of them.

Daisuke Matsuzaka cruised right along for the first six innings, needing just 68 pitches to record those first 18 outs. For a guy known to nibble and beat himself with walks, that’s a minor miracle against a lineup like this. Swisher started the seventh inning by swinging at ball four and rolling over on a grounder to second, but Teixeira sort of made up for it by singling on a full count as the next batter. The Yankees had generated basically nothing offensively up to that point, but with Alex at the plate a runner is always in scoring position. With Tex on first, there was a chance to take the lead with one swing of the bat.

Dice-K had a clear plan for A-Rod all night, and really the entire Red Sox team does when these two clubs meet. They pound him inside with hard stuff early, then go away with soft stuff hoping for a grounder or a swing-and-a-miss. The first pitch was a fastball on the inner third for a strike, then Alex swung through the second fastball inside for strike two. The expectation changes now, you hope for a single or a ground ball with eyes, because with the wind blowing in and an 0-2 count, swinging hard and trying to muscle a ball out just isn’t smart for mere mortals. A-Rod, of course, is anything but a mere mortal. The 0-2 pitch was another fastball inside, but A-Rod pulled his hands in and got the barrel of the bat on the ball, sending it out to deep right-center. It was at least a double, but it ended up clearing the fence by no more than three feet. Tex scores, Alex scores, and the Yankees had their first lead in four games.

Hughes The Man

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Given the back-and-forth nature of the last two or three innings, it’s easy to forget how stellar Phil Hughes was for the first six-plus innings. The young righthander, who as of yesterday afternoon wasn’t even supposed to start this game, came out shoving the fastball and bending knees with the curve. The lone run he surrendered came after Swisher misplayed a fly ball into a double, a sac fly, and a single, but other than that he was masterful.

Phil gave the Yankees six innings on the nose, though he pitched to two batters in the seventh before handing the ball off to David Robertson with men on first and second. The Red Sox picked up just three hits off Hughes, and his typical foul ball problems didn’t surface until late in the outing when his pitch count crept up towards the century mark. The final line (6 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 4 BB, 4 K) doesn’t do justice to how good he was; Hughes gave the Yankees everything they could have asked for and then some.

As for Robertson, boy was he some kind of unsung hero in this one. He inherited that first and second, no outs situation and escaped the inning with no runs. Ryan Kalish, who made a monster diving catch in the outfield to rob Cano of a sure double one batter after A-Rod’s homer, bunted the runners over, but D-Rob got Bill Hall to ground to short on an 0-2 fastball. With the infield in, the runners had to stay at second and third. The inning ended when the next batter, Lars Anderson, struck out on a curveball at his feet. Can’t say enough about his inning of work, Robertson was simply huge in this game.

Leftovers

One of my tweets got mentioned on the YES postgame show, which you can see to the right. Here’s video of Bob Lorenz butchering my last name (it’s Ax-ee-sa, Bob). My 15 minutes are almost up, but I sure enjoyed them. (thanks to J_Yankees for the screen cap, woainidepigu for the video)

Kerry Wood allowed a hit while recording the first two outs in the eighth before being instructed to intentionally walk David Ortiz. Mo came on and got Adrian Beltre to end the threat. Also big ups to Joba Chamberlain and Boone Logan for getting three big outs in the tenth. The Yanks were headed to Sergio Mitre, Chad Gaudin territory after that, so thank goodness they scored and won.

Derek Jeter’s 14 game hit streak came to an end, but oh well. Tex had three hits, Cano a pair, and Gardner reached on a single and walk. Posada and Lance Berkman each went 0-for-4 with a pair of strikeouts.

The Rays lost to the Mariners (hah!), so their lead in the division shrunk to one. The Yanks clinched at least a tie of the Wild Card with the win, so they have guaranteed that a Game 163 tiebreaker will be played if necessary. They’ll have to lose all of their remaining games while the Sox win all of theirs for that to happen, though.

WPA Graph & Box Score

That’s a whole lotta red lines, ain’t it? That means you almost had a heart attack. ESPN has the box, FanGraphs the nerd.

Up Next

The Yanks head up to Toronto, and as far as we know A.J. Burnett is still scheduled to start on Monday. Marc Rzepczynski will go for the Jays.