Game 115: Keep it going

(AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)

Considering the general mood around the interweb about the Yankees in the last few days, you’d be hard pressed to believe that they’re actually 4-2 in their last six games. I know, crazy, right?

The goal of tonight’s game is to simply keep the good times going. Dustin Moseley will take his Aaron Small act on the road to Kansas City to face the imminently beatable Kyle Davies, and tonight Joe Girardi will have Mariano Rivera at his disposal. It would be nice to give Mo another day off though, he has worked in four of the last six games after all, so a sizable lead and some Chad Gaudin action in the late innings would be welcome. We fans need an easy win, August has been stressful as hell.

Here’s the starting nine…

Jeter, SS
Granderson, CF
Teixeira, 1B
A-Rod, 3B
Cano, 2B
Posada, C
Berkman, DH
Kearns, RF
Gardner, LF

And on the mound, it’s Dustin Moseley.

First pitch is scheduled for a little after 8pm ET on what I’m sure is another sweltering hot night in Kansas City. YES has the broadcast, as they almost always do. Enjoy.

Update (11:45 p.m.): After a lengthy rain delay, the Yankees and the Royals will resume play at approximately midnight eastern time. The Royals are leading 4-3 with a runner out and one out in the bottom of the 5th. Chad Gaudin is currently warming for the Yankees in the bullpen.

Update (11:57 p.m.): Just kidding about that midnight start time. With lightning nearby, Joe Girardi pulled the team off the field, and the grounds crew has put the tarp back on. We wait.

Update (12:30 a.m.): Game on.

Pettitte suffers rehab setback

While we thought that news of Pettitte’s trip to Kansas City was cause for celebration, the reality is a bit more sobering. According to Yankees manager Joe Girardi, Pettitte’s leg is not feeling up to par. The Yanks’ skipper said Pettitte threw 50 pitches today but could push off at only around 75 percent. “It didn’t go as well as we wanted,” Girardi said. Girardi later added that Pettitte “thinks it’s a setback.”

Pettitte will rejoin the team this weekend in Kansas City to get additional treatment on his groin and leg, and the Yanks will delay his rehab start until the injured area is feeling stronger. He won’t throw another sim game until at least Wednesday which pushes his return to August 28th at the earliest. For now, Dustin Moseley will keep his spot in the rotation, and Pettitte, who hasn’t pitched since July 18, will remain on the disabled list.

Yankees sign second rounder Angelo Gumbs

Via Jim Callis, the Yankees have signed second round pick Angelo Gumbs for a $750,000 bonus, more than $300,000 over slot. The outfielder from a California high school is extremely raw, but all of his tools grade out as average or better according to Callis. Most importantly, dude’s got some serious bat speed, which you can’t teach. Gumbs is a bit of a long-term project, but the skill set and potential are very exciting. Here’s some video.

You can find a list of all the Yanks’ signed picks here, and by my count at least seven have received an over slot bonus. The signing deadline is midnight Monday, so a little more than three days until this is all resolved.

Two former Bronx icons near the end of the line

Joe Torre and Lou Piniella talk during a 2001 game. Credit: AP Photo, Ron Frehm

Last night in Philadelphia, the Dodgers lost a game that summed up their season. Jonathan Broxton, the once-untouchable closer, allowed four runs without retiring a batter in the 9th, and Joe Torre’s previous bullpen machinations failed. Minus Mariano, it was a familiar story for Yankee fans as Torre used five relievers to try to get the final seven outs of the game.

With their loss, the Dodgers dropped to 59-56, nine games behind the Padres and in fourth place. They’re just 6.5 out of the Wild Card but behind five teams, and the team is treading water as the season nears an end. Their manager too is just treading water, and Los Angelenos are awaiting to see if Joe Torre will come back for another stint in Chavez Ravine or call it a career. Fans, it seems, are ready to let him go. Jon Weisman for Dodger Thoughts opines:

There’s also the fact that Torre has always felt like something of a visiting professor here. There was a ticking clock –partly self-imposed by Torre — from the moment he hastily replaced Grady Little in the fall of 2007. Torre has been liked by many and loved by some — but he hasn’t penetrated the hearts of Los Angeles’ baseball community in a meaningful way. His ties to New York’s string of World Series titles can’t be broken by a couple of NLCS runs. It took Jackson several NBA crowns before Lakers fans could begin to feel that the former Chicago Bulls coaching legend was really theirs. Torre is never going to reach that level in Los Angeles, and the people here intuitively know this. It’s noteworthy that the single act Torre might be most remembered for as Dodgers manager could be coaxing the greatest Los Angeles Dodger of them all, Sandy Koufax, into a rare public conversation earlier this year…

Things might have been different if the Dodgers had been able to take advantage of their chances to even the 2008 and 2009 NLCS at two games apiece. But Torre’s magic couldn’t save Los Angeles those years, and now the odds are against him doing any more.

“My feeling is that Torre won in New York because of an unlimited payroll, though he couldn’t do it every year,” another Dodger Thoughts commenter said. “That’s not necessarily to say he’s bad under a more financially constrained regime, but I consider him replaceable in every aspect except his celebrity (which he owes to his time in New York City). I would not miss him, but I’d like to see him go out with a World Series championship – which, however, would probably bring a clamor for him to stay.”

Since leaving New York, Torre has had to face a legacy not of success but of late-career failure. After setting himself up with impossible standards, Torre hasn’t won anything since 2000. A bitter defeat in 2001 wasn’t really his fault, but both the World Series defeat in 2003 and the ALCS collapse in 2004 bore his managerial signatures. A post-New York tell-all memoir didn’t endear him to fans who demand nothing short of a World Series trophy every year. If he retires after this season, he will be feted in New York, but we continue to grapple with the complexities of the Torre Years.

A few thousand miles closer to New York but years removed from Torre, another ex-Yankee manager is calling it quits after this season plays out. Late last month, Sweet Lou announced his intentions to depart from Chicago after the 2010 campaign. Piniella got his managerial start in New York in the mid-1980s, captured a World Series title in Cincinnati in 1990, and hasn’t been able to push the Mariners, Devils Rays or Cubs past the finish line. He’ll retire with over 1850 wins and three Manager of the Year awards.

When the Yanks picked Piniella to take over from Billy Martin in 1986, the choice was controversial. Lou had a fiery temper but no managerial experience, and few in the Yankee organization knew how this approach would play at the Big League level. He led the Yanks to a 90-72 second place finish and earned himself a two-year deal. Following the 1987 season, Piniella was promoted to GM while Martin returned until he was fired again in mid-June. Following the 1988 season, Piniella would be gone from the Bronx.

Over the years, Lou and the Yanks would be forever intertwined. As he headed up the Mariners from 1993-2002, a fierce East Coast/West Coast rivalry emerged. The Mariners stunned the Yanks in 1995, and the Yanks returned the favor in both 2000 and 2001. Piniella’s name briefly popped up when Joe Torre’s tenure ended, but the two sides never had their long-awaited reunion.

As these two men prepare for what comes next, both will be linked forever with the Yankees even if both left on less than ideal terms. As a player, Lou won some memorable titles, and as a manager, he served as the perfect foil for Joe Torre’s victorious Yankees. That they will probably retire at the same time is fitting indeed.

Report: Pettitte off to KC after sim game

Andy Pettitte took a big step toward his return to the Bronx today. According to Pete Caldera of the Bergen Record, Pettitte is heading to Kansas City to meet the Yankees after throwing a three-inning simulated game in Tampa. His sim game had been postponed yesterday after the lefty started complaining of hip flexor pain.

Although Pettitte will be with the Yankees tonight, he probably won’t be activated for another ten days. The Yankees would like to get him a rehab start on Wednesday in Trenton, and then Pettitte would take Dustin Moseley’s start on the 23rd in Toronto. Pettitte went on the DL after his July 18th start, and getting him back at the start of the stretch drive will do wonders for the team’s pitching staff.

The ever-changing Curtis Granderson

When word got out the other day that Curtis Granderson and hitting coach Kevin Long were working on a “total reformation” of the centerfielder’s swing, most of us thought “it’s about time!” It’s no secret that Granderson has been a disappointment in his first season in pinstripes, with a .240/.307/.417 batting line before this current road trip. He probably bought himself some time with a few timely homeruns, namely against the Red Sox, Diamondbacks, and Indians.

After two days out of the starting lineup in Texas to work with Long, Granderson was set to unveil his new swing and setup last night, except something happened. He didn’t look any different, at least to this untrained eye. Don’t believe me? Let’s hit the video. The screen cap on the left is his first at-bat against Jon Lester on Monday, the one of the left is his first at-bat against Bruce Chen last night.

The only real difference (and it’s basically impossible to see in the still pics) is his his front foot, which doesn’t have that same exaggerated toe tap. He still does it, but it’s not as extreme. His hands though, they’re basically in the same position with no discernible difference. I’m out of luck once he starts his swing, I have no authority to break down swing mechanics and talk about it intelligently. Perhaps there’s a significant change in there that I (we) simply can’t see. But just looking at his setup, hey look, the toe tap’s gone.

Granderson downplayed the changes yesterday, which comes as no surprise. “I wouldn’t necessarily call it big changes,” he said. “It’s just trying to simplify things. Everything I’ve done up to this point is just trying to get to the point I want, and there’s always some moving parts before it. We’re just trying to eliminate some of those moving parts.” Well, getting rid of toe tap would qualify as eliminating some moving parts, for sure. It’s not as sexy as the changes I think we were hoping for, but it’s a very real difference nonetheless.

As I was digging through video last night to see if there were any other obvious changes made throughout the season, it’s turns out that yeah, there definitely have been. Let’s start right from the get go, and compare one Granderson’s first at-bats of the season to his first at-bat last night.

Now there’s a difference. His hands went from way up high to in front of his chest, but what you can’t see in the still screen shots is all the fidgeting and extraneous movement. Here’s the video of his very first at-bat of the season, and here’s the video from his single last night. Granderson’s hands were waving all over the place back in April, but now they’re much calmer. Yeah, there’s still some movement now, probably his timing mechanism or whatever, but it’s definitely not as exaggerated.

Obviously, something has changed during the course of the season, and based on Granderson’s comments yesterday, it was probably a series of changes. “I’ve made changes throughout my whole career,” said the Grandyman. “I’ve been an unorthodox hitter. I’ve never been a very routine and picture-perfect hitter as far as what everyone else is doing. And everything in between. Whenever someone says to make a change, I’ve always been a very adaptive player.”

Curious about when this change actually happened, I dug through the archives and managed to find it. I actually feel kinda special for doing this, because I didn’t think there would be an exact moment where we could pinpoint exactly when he dropped his hands, but sure enough there is.

Anyway, this is Granderson on June 17th, the game Kyle Kendrick frustratingly shut the Yanks down.

Looks pretty similar to the shot of his April at-bat above, no? His hands are high and even though you can’t see it in the pic, trust me he was still waving the bat around like he was earlier in the season.

With lefthander Hisanori Takahashi on the mound for the Mets the next day (the 18th), Granderson started the game on the bench while Chad Huffman took his spot in the starting lineup. However, Grandy pinch hit for Huffman in the 7th inning with the righty Elmer Dessens on the mound (Jerry Manuel countered by bringing Pedro Feliciano out of the pen once Granderson was announced). Here’s a shot of him during that at-bat.

Look at that, change! If you’re having trouble seeing it, here’s a side-by-side shot that will hopefully make it easier. Use his head as a reference, on the 17th his hands are basically even with the interlocking NY on his helmet, but the next day his hands are level with his shoulders/neck. He didn’t start on the 18th, so it’s easy to think he and K-Long had a little mid-afternoon pow-wow that resulted in Granderson lower his hands, but we don’t know that for sure. For all we know Grandy made the adjustment himself.

Now, did it work? Eh, kinda. From the start of the season through June 17th, he hit .234/.317/.428, and in his first 35 games after the change (completely arbitrary sample size) he hit .276/.328/.457 before falling into another slump that presumably brought about this latest session with Long. His spray charts don’t look too different either (pre-June 18th, since then). If anything, Granderson hasn’t hit as many balls deep to the outfield the other way, which could means he’s cut down on the lazy flies, but we have no way of being sure.

Curtis Granderson may never be anything more than a league average hitter again, we don’t know. The guy that hit .302/.361/.552 with 26 steals  in 2007 might never come back, but it won’t be for lack of effort. He’s not naive about his struggles and is clearly making an effort to fix things by tinkering with his swing. All this talk about making adjustments isn’t just talk, there’s tangible evidence of him putting these changes into practice. Hopefully one of these adjustments unlocks the talent that made Granderson one of the best outfielders in baseball just two or three seasons ago.

Phil Hughes and the developing curveball

Hughes gears up for a curveball (AP Photo/Mike Carlson)

Part of becoming a major league starter is developing a full repertoire. That seemed to be the one thing holding back Phil Hughes in the past. When the Yankees drafted him in 2004 he seemed to have a formidable arsenal, featuring a fastball, slider, and changeup. Here’s what Baseball America said when they rated him the team’s No. 3 prospect, behind Eric Duncan and Robinson Cano, before the 2005 season:

His fastball also has late life up in the strike zone. Hughes changes a hitter’s sightline with a slider that at times has good bite and depth. He’s also shown good arm action on his changeup, and both his secondary offerings project as at least average pitches.

We certainly see the late life on that fastball, but we don’t see either of the other offerings. The changeup seemed to come and go in the minors and up to the majors. Its reemergence this year was said to be one of the reasons why the Yankees named Hughes the fifth starter, but we haven’t seen much of it to date. He’s thrown just 43 all season, accounting for a mere two percent of his pitches. The slider he has abandoned altogether, replacing it with a curveball. That started in 2005. Here’s what Baseball America said about the curve after that season.

His curve progressed significantly and is now an above-average pitch. … At times he throws his curve in the low 70s just to get it over, and he needs to throw it in the 78-80 mph range for it to be a plus pitch.

Apparently he used it with success in 2006. Baseball America wrote a glowing review of Hughes before the 2007 season, before which they ranked him the No. 4 overall prospect, and the No. 1 pitching prospect, in baseball.

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.

It sounds like the curveball should be something we see more often from Hughes, but instead we’ve seen him rely on his fastballs, both the four-seamer and the cutter, for most of the season. He’s thrown those pitches a combined 76.4 percent of the time, while using the curveball with just 15.6 percent of his pitches. He’s thrown it a bit more lately, 17.9 percent since the beginning of June and 19.8 percent since the beginning of July. Yet we’ve seen batters swing and miss at it less often. In April and May they swung and missed 8.4 percent of the time. Since June 1 that is down to 5.9 percent. Since July 1 it is 5.5 percent.

Opposing hitters have fared well when Hughes throws the curve. According to FanGraphs’ Pitch Type Values, his curve rates as his worst pitch, 3.9 runs below average overall and 1.16 runs below average per 100 pitches. Since both of his fastball rate more than a run above average per 100 pitches, it’s no wonder that he’s been sticking with those. I suspect, however, that if he continues throwing these pitches while neglecting his curveball that we’ll see those fastball numbers decline. It’s hard for any pitcher, never mind one pitching in the AL East, to survive on just two fastballs. The curve is a necessary weapon.

This is just an observation, not a call to change this or that. I’m not a pitching coach so I don’t have all the relevant information. I also know that it’s difficult to develop a pitch on the fly, especially when your team needs you to go out there and put them in a position to win a game. In the long run curveball development is necessary. In the short run, he needs to do whatever is necessary to win the ballgame at hand. It’s a tough balance to strike, and while we’ve seen Hughes start to work in his curveball more we’ve also seen him realize worse results on it.

Bonus graphs

Using Joe Lefkowitz’s PitchFX tool, I created a few graphs with Hughes’s curveball. I’m not sure what we can glean from these, but they’re pretty damn neat in any case.

Pitches taken by lefties
Pitches taken by righties
Swinging out of the zone
Strikes called a ball
Balls called strikes