For Hughes, cutter could be the difference

Let's not see this scene again tonight (Chris O'Meara/AP)

In his first two playoff starts Phil Hughes has realized markedly different results. Against Minnesota he shined, throwing seven innings of shutout ball. That left the team with high hopes for his Game 2 start against Texas, but it didn’t go as expected. It started small, with a cheapie run in the first, but it ballooned to seven earned runs before he recorded an out in the fifth. The Yankees cannot afford a repeat performance tonight.

If you take a look at Hughes’s pitch breakdowns from the Twins game and then the Rangers game, you might notice something obvious. When he dominated against Minnesota he threw just seven cutters. Against Texas not only did he throw over three times that many, he also saw disastrous results. Just look at the Linear Weights column. The Rangers absolutely murdered his cutter, twice as badly as they did his four-seamer. That suggest Hughes should cut down on his cutter usage, right?

PitchFX is great. It provides us with information that previously only teams had. Even then, teams had to watch every pitch, classify it, and plot it. There is certainly potential for error there. PitchFX leaves everything up to high-speed cameras, so there is a greater degree of precision. But it is still prone to error, especially when it comes to pitch classification. As it turns out, Hughes didn’t throw a ton of cutters. It’s his four-seamer that got destroyed.

When I first sat down to write this I planned to center it on the cutter usage between the two games, because it seems like an obviously important factor in tonight’s game. If Texas is killing his cutter, Hughes has no choice but to scale back its usage and try to mix it in with more cunning. But after looking at the first two pitches he threw to Elvis Andrus, both classified cutters, it’s clear that PitchFX made a few errors. The first pitch had 10 inches of vertical break and 4 inches of horizontal break; the second had 12 inches of vertical break and 3 inches of horizontal. Those are in line with Hughes’s four-seamer rather than his cutter. Scrolling down to Vladimir Guerrero, we see a cutter with 7 inches of vertical break and 6 inches of horizontal, and at 89 mph. That’s more like his cutter.

By my count Hughes threw just 11 cutters against the Rangers, and only one caused serious damage. That came in the fifth, with Nelson Cruz at the plate. Hughes started him with a cutter up and Cruz fouled it off. Then he missed with a curveball away. The next cutter was also up, but was a bit more inside. Cruz fouled that one off also. On the fourth pitch Hughes delivered a cutter to the exact same spot as the first one. It’s no wonder that Cruz laid into it. Additionally, Cruz had seen one cutter in each of his first two at-bats, and each time he fouled it off. It was only a matter of time.

The fourth pitch completely covers up the first one.

What appeared to be Texas’s two biggest hits off the cutter — David Murphy’s second-inning home run and Michael Young’s RBI double four batters later — were both fastballs. In fact, they had the same vertical and horizontal breaks, 11 and 4 inches. This fastball futility came as something of a surprise, considering Hughes used it to finish off each of his three first-inning strikeouts. But after that it appeared to lose some effectiveness. In the fourth he was lucky that Vlad hit a fastball right to Nick Swisher. In the fifth Ian Kinsler hit a fastball, the third of the at-bat, for a triple.

Hughes’s lack of fastball success as the game went along was no secret. It played a big role in Frankie Piliere’s breakdown of the game:

The big issue, however, was that Hughes was unable to locate those pitches. On top of that, the fastball command he had against the Twins was also gone. Working at 93-94 mph with his short arm action, he still had more than enough to miss bats early. But, as the game rolled along the Rangers made the adjustment Hughes had to know they’d eventually make. They began to sit on the fastball early in the count as it was more than evident that Hughes had nothing else to offer them.

Another sign of ineffectiveness of the four-seamer and cutter was the rate at which the Rangers fouled off the pitches. Of his 68 four-seamers and cutters the Rangers fouled off 22, 32.4 percent. This is a problem for two reasons. First, Hughes led the AL in percentage of strikes as foul balls, and by no slim margin. Of the 3,003 pitches he threw in the regular season, Hughes got a strike 1,982 times. Of those strikes, 674 were foul balls (34 percent). The next closest pitchers threw 31 percent of their strikes for fouls. Only 10 qualified starters even broke the 30 percent mark.

Second, the Rangers have been fouling off pitches, especially two-strike pitches, at a torrid rate in this series. This requires a thorough explanation, so I will point you to friend of RAB Larry Koestler at Yankeeist, who breaks down the Rangers’ foul ball tendencies, especially when they have two strikes. Try to keep your cool as you look at his chart and see Hughes’s results once he got two strikes on the hitter.

What precedes leads to a fairly obvious conclusion: Hughes cannot rely on his fastball to get through the Rangers lineup. That’s not to say he should put it in his back pocket; it is still his best pitch and he’s going to need it in order to succeed. But he’ll also need his other pitches so that the Rangers can’t just wait on a fastball. It won’t be easy; reading Piliere’s scouting review makes it clear why Hughes hasn’t been able to get over his curveball consistently. But tonight, in the biggest start of his four-year career, he’ll need it more than ever.

Obvious: Yanks and Girardi ready for a reunion

We didn’t bring it up all week, because it comes from a dubious source, but there were rumblings that Joe Girardi was on his way out regardless of results this postseason. But then the Cubs hired Mike Quade, which dulled those already questionable rumors. This morning SI’s Jon Heyman states the obvious:

The Yankees plan to bring back manager Joe Girardi at a raise, no matter what some fans may say about his reliance on his ever-present binder. He is well-liked by Yankees honchos Hal Steinbrenner, Randy Levine and Brian Cashman.

Even if Chicago had its managerial spot still open, it was questionable whether Girardi would seriously consider the job. He already has one World Championship under his belt, and his team is back in the ALCS this year. That’s a success by any standards — beyond, of course, the insane mindset that anything less than a World Series championship is unacceptable. Girardi has done well in his three seasons, and I can’t think of a single manager who I’d rather have guiding the team.

As a side note, the “ever-present binder” comment now makes me think of the recent Simpsons episode. When Lisa asks Mo about strategy, he replies, “The only thing I know about strategy is that whatever the manager does, it’s wrong. Unless it works, in which case he’s a button-pusher.” Or a binder-reader, as it were.

A Zack attack

Zack Greinke would look much better in pinstripes and navy than he does in royal blue. (AP Photo/Ed Zurga)

What if? What if? What if? What if Andy Pettitte retires? What if Cliff Lee stays with the Rangers? What if the Yankees are left empty-handed on the open market and are forced to contemplate a rotation with only CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes, A.J. Burnett and a whole lot of question marks? Those are the questions of which nightmares are made for Yankee fans.

As the ALCS plays out, the Yankees know they have a mini pitching problem on their hands. Last year, they used just three starters en route to their 11-4 run through October, and this year, they saw A.J. Burnett spit the bit in a pivotal Game 4, which also happened to be his first start since October 2. Their supply of reliable pitchers has dwindled, and that number could sink even further.

We’re awaiting the end of a series against Cliff Lee, and many in baseball seem to think that Game 7, if it comes to it, could be the last time Cliff Lee faces the Yankees for a few years. If you can’t beat, the saying goes, throw enough money at him so he’ll join you. If it’s about the money, as Patrick Rishe at Forbes explored earlier this week, Lee will land in New York. He could make around $180-$200 million in salary and endorsements if he signs with the Yankees, and the Rangers, despite their new-found wealth, can’t even begin to approach a $25 million annual commitment for Lee.

But it’s baseball, and we can’t predict it. If Lee re-ups with Texas, the Yankees will look to the trade market, and as we know, the Royals will listen to offers for Zack Greinke, the 2009 Cy Young Award. The mercurial right-hander is owed $13.5 million in 2011 and 2012, and the perennial small-market Royals would love to clear some salary.

On the surface, Greinke is an alluring target. Despite suffering through a down-year — by his standards at least — the 27-year-old has some impressive numbers over the last three seasons (and for what’s it worth, Buster Olney’s sources think that Greinke’s numbers were down because he was bored in Kansas City last year). He’s made 98 starts with an ERA of 3.25 and a FIP of 2.98. He’s given up less than a home run while averaging 2.2 walks and 8.4 strike outs per 9 innings. He won’t come cheap, and because my trade proposal is bound to suck, there’s no point speculating. If the Mariners wanted Jesus Montero plus for three months of Cliff Lee, we can only imagine what the Royals should want for two full years of Greinke.

Olney, who first broke the Greinke story, listed his most likely destinations a few days ago. Interestingly, the top 13 unlikely destinations are mid-market teams that are a player or two away from competitiveness. Those are the franchises that could truly stand to benefit from a Greinke trade. The Yankees and Red Sox, says Olney, are among the ten teams with the pieces to land Greinke and perhaps the need too. He writes:

The first question that both teams would ask before seriously pursuing Greinke is how they think he would adapt to their high-pressure markets. Keep this in mind: The Yankees do have excellent catching prospects, and the Royals need catching, and even if they sign Cliff Lee, they would not hesitate to make a Greinke deal if they thought he could adjust to New York. GM Brian Cashman always has believed in shooting for high-end pitching.

Therein lies the rub — or two rubs. As Jon Morosi reported yesterday, Zack Greinke has a restrictive no-trade clause. This year, he can block trades to 20 teams; next year, that number sinks to 15. Both the Yankees and the Red Sox are on that list and seemingly for a good reason. Greinke has suffered from a social anxiety disorder and depression, and the various beat writers and scouts who have at least a passing knowledge of Greinke and his make-up question whether or not he would be able to handle the pressure of pitching for the beasts of the AL East. Think Javier Vazquez Redux.

In an ideal world, the Yankees would be able to separate Zack Greinke the pitcher from Zack Greinke the person. They could trade from their depth and take on Greinke’s modest salary. After all, he’s making less than A.J. Burnett and is a near-lock to outperform A.J. over the next two seasons. But it’s impossible to take Greinke’s arm without his head, and that might very well be a deal-breaker. Greinke is an appealing name for the Yankees, but it just wouldn’t work out for those two.

All Hands On Deck

(AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

On the brink of elimination, the Yankees and Joe Girardi had to pull out all the stops to secure a win in Wednesday’s Game Five. Thankfully the offense woke up a bit, so they didn’t have to resort anything too extreme, but Mariano Rivera was available for up to seven outs if needed. He’s done that just once in the last 53 months. It’s a win or go home situation, and that tells you just how desperate the Yanks were.

Unfortunately, things don’t get any easier from here. The Yanks are still facing elimination in Game Six later tonight, and once again they’ll have to pull out all the stops to save their season. That includes using Mo for multiple innings on back-to-back days, using other relievers in roles they might not be used too, and sometimes even bringing a starter out of the bullpen.

Game Five starter CC Sabathia told reporters during Thursday’s workout that he’ll be available to pitch in relief in Game Six. “I can probably throw 45 pitches, 50,” said the Yanks ace, definitely not an insignificant number of pitches. Perpetually confident, Sabathia declared that he would then throw another side session when (not if) the Yanks win in preparation for the World Series. We’ve known that CC is a team first guy for two years now, but this pretty much seals it.

Of course, going with your ace out of the bullpen is hardly a guarantee of success. The Phillies dropped Game Four of the NLCS two days ago when Roy Oswalt retired just one batter before allowing the Giants to score the winning run in the bottom of the ninth. Charles Nagy took the loss in Game Seven of the 1997 World Series, though that’s a special case since the game was in extra innings. One the other hand, the Yanks have first-hand knowledge of how devastating it can be to bring a starter out of the bullpen. Mike Mussina cleaned up Roger Clemens’ mess and then some in Game Seven of the 2003 ALCS, and I don’t think we need to re-live Randy Johnson’s heroics in both 1995 and 2001.

It’s the kind of move that’s ripe for second guessing. If the starter doesn’t get the job done in relief, everyone questions why he was brought in in the first place. If the regular relievers blow the game, everyone wants to know why the starter wasn’t in there. Managers get paid the big bucks to make that call, and Girardi will presumably have to decide between his setup crew (David Robertson, Boone Logan, and Joba Chamberlain) or his ace on two days rest after throwing 112 high-stress pitches in Game Five. I’m not Girardi, but for me the choice is clear: give me Sabathia eight days a week and twice on Sundays.

Given what he said, Sabathia probably available for two innings or so. Fifty pitches is a lot and should be more than enough for three innings, but I bet they’ll be just a little on the cautious side given their long-term commitment to him. That said, whatever needs to be done will be done, especially with Hughes on what we assume will be a short leash. Unlike Joba and D-Rob, CC has proven capable of retiring the Texas batters on a consistent basis (SSS), and he’s big and strong enough that the short rest isn’t much of a concern. It is his normal throw day, after all. If there’s a chance for Sabathia to take the ball from Hughes and hand it right off to Mo with the season on the line, I think that’s the route Girardi has to go. If CC isn’t needed in Game Six, then he’ll be available in Gave Seven. If you’re going to lose, lose with our best on the mound.

I hope Hughes renders this moot with a dominant and lengthy outing later tonight, something akin to what he did against the Twins in the ALDS. But anything short of that, Sabathia should be the first one out of the bullpen in any situation short of a Yankee blowout. There’s zero margin for error in Yankeeland right now, and the ball needs to be in the hands of the team’s best pitchers, period.

Open Thread: Phillies trying to stay alive

This is neither the time nor the place for a nap, Cody. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

The Yankees and Phillies will always have something in common after meeting in the 2009 World Series, at least until this current crop of players moves on and some new blood trickles in. This year, both clubs were saddled with three games to one deficits in the League Division Series, and the Phightin’s will attempt to dig out of that hole tonight like the Yanks started to do yesterday.

Don’t get me wrong, by no means am I rooting for the Phillies. They could all go to hell for all I care. I just want to see some exciting baseball, preferably as much as possible. If the NLCS went seven games, I wouldn’t mind one bit. Roy Halladay gets the ball with the season on the line against Tim Lincecum, with the first pitch scheduled for just before 8pm ET on FOX. If you don’t want to talk about the game, that’s cool, chat about whatever you want instead. ‘Tis an open thread.

Add swollen right knee to Teixeira’s list of injuries

Mark Teixeira‘s season ended unceremoniously two nights ago when his right hamstring popped, but that was just the latest in a long line of the injuries the Yankee first baseman was dealing with. He’s been playing through a broken toe since Vin Mazzaro hit him with a pitch on August 31st, and he also received a cortisone shot in September after bruising his hand diving for a ball not long before that. Well, we can now add a swollen right knee to the list according to Marc Carig, and who knows how that happened. I don’t remember seeing Tex get hit by a pitch or fouling a ball off the knee, but I could very easily be wrong. For what it’s worth, he thinks that overcompensating for the toe injury led to the knee and hammy issues. One thing I do know for sure is that Teixeira really needs the time off this winter, dude took an absolute beating at the end of the year.

Baseball America’s 2010 Draft Report Cards

The gang at Baseball America is in the process of posting their draft report cards for each of the 30 teams, and yesterday they hit the Yankees. It’s a subscriber only piece, but I can tell you that they do say scouting director Damon Oppenheimer’s latest effort is a “high-risk/high-reward class with up-the-middle athletes such as [Cito] Culver, [Angelo] Gumbs and [Mason] Williams. With strong pitching at the top of the farm system, the Yankees gambled on prep talent, so it will take time to see if it pans out.”

As for some of the individual categories, Ben Gamel (10th rounder) was dubbed the best pure hitter, Williams (4th) the fastest runner, Gumbs (2nd) the best athlete, and Culver (1st) the best defensive player. Tommy Kahnle (5th) and Conor Mullee (24th) are each said to have the best fastball at 93-95 and touching 98. Chase Whitley‘s (15th) changeup is the best offspeed offering, and both he and Kahnle are the closest to having an impact in the big leagues. Unsigned righty Josh Dezse (25th) was hitting 95 this summer, but he’s heading to Ohio State and was best prospect the Yankees failed to sign. It’s a class heavy on potential and risk, but the Yanks needed this kind of infusion of upside and power arms. Hopefully a few of these guys pan out.