I just can’t let go of high expectations for Hughes

Despite Alex Rodriguez‘s and Jorge Posada‘s torrid Aprils, the Yankees had plenty of problems at the beginning of 2007. Their pitching situation got so bad that Carl Pavano had to start Opening Day. Andy Pettitte and Mike Mussina presented quality options behind him, but the final rotation spots went to Kei Igawa and Darrell Rasner. Jeff Karstens and Chase Wright made starts in early April, thought they weren’t much better. Finally, for a start on April 26, the Yankees recalled Phil Hughes from AAA.

Photo credit: Julie Jacobson/AP

At the time RAB was just two months old. Yet in that time we’d already made our excitement over Phil Hughes well known. For many of us he was the first prospect we followed all the way through the minors. For others, he represented something we hadn’t seen from the Yankees in many, many years: a Top 5 pitching prospect. Even though Hughes was just 20 years old, the expectations for him were through the roof. In retrospect, it was a bit much to pin on a player who had thrown just 153.1 professional innings at that point.

To express our excitement, Mike and I combined to write a massive Hughes post, by far the longest post in our young site’s history at the time. Mike spend the first half writing about how Hughes ended up on the Yankees, from his selection as the No. 23 overall pick in 2004 to the Yankees’ pitching problems that forced his call-up. In the second half I compared Hughes to a number of high-profile minor league pitchers. By the end I assumed everyone was as pumped for Hughes as we were.

From there it was an up and down act for Hughes. He didn’t dazzle in his debut, nor did he get lit up. In his second start, as we all remember, he was working on a no-hitter when he popped his hamstring. He was decent upon his return in 2007, but then something happened during the off-season and Hughes didn’t return the same pitcher in 2008. He spent most of the year on the DL and then in minors. In 2009 he was the sixth starter, though he struggled most of the time. He did finally find himself in the bullpen, giving us hope for this season.

The Yankees skipped Hughes the first time through the rotation, so tonight marks his season debut. I know I should have learned from my previous behavior. I should understand that Hughes might not pitch well tonight. It’s just one game, after all, and Hughes’s first real appearance of the year at that. Yet if he does fail, I’ll still feel that disappointment. No, I won’t boo him, but it will still feel like a big letdown. That’s how big the expectations were for Hughes back in 2007. I don’t know why, but I haven’t been able to let go of those.

For an example of the cognitive divide I’m experiencing:

A reasonable expectation: 6 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 2 BB, 4 K

My ridiculous expectation: 8 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 7 K

Do other fans place lofty, even unrealistic expectations on their favorite players? It’s pretty unreasonable to do so, but sometimes we just can’t help ourselves. For some reason, I just can’t quit expecting the world from Hughes.

RAB on The Shore Sports Report

Just a reminder, my weekly appearance on The Shore Sports Report with Mike Krenek and Joe Giglio is coming up at 4:05pm ET today. You can listen in on either FOX Sports 1030 AM or WOBM 1160 AM, and I’m willing to bet that you’ll be able to stream it online via one of those links as well.

Ticket sales for 2010 outpacing ’09

As the Yankees begin their second season in a new ballpark with lower ticket prices and a World Series title to defend, fans are flocking to the Bronx for a chance to watch a game or 81. According to a report from the Associated Press, ticket sales for 2010 are outpacing 2009, and Yankee officials say they may soon need to cut off season-ticket sales to keep some seats open for individual game purchases.

Earlier this week, Hal Steinbrenner said that the Yankees have outsold last year by 2000 full season ticket packages. So far, the team has sold the equivalent of 37,000 season ticket plans while, in 2009, they had sold 35,000 before the stadium had hosted Opening Day. The team eventually sold 2000 more tickets last year, and Steinbrenner anticipates cutting off season ticket sales shortly.

The team averaged 45,918 fans per game last year in a stadium with a capacity that nears 50,000, and team officials believe that high prices were to blame for the empty seats. This year, as the AP notes, the team has slashed the price tag on the most expensive options:

New York renamed 538 seats along the foul lines Champions Suite, removing them from the Legends Suite and cutting off access from the duplex Legends Suite Club. The reclassified seats sell for $350-$550 for individual games, while the 1,357 remaining seats in the Legends Suite are $450-$1,600 for individual games, down from $500 to $2,625.

New York also cut 3,400 tickets behind home plate in the lower deck from $325 to $235-$250 per game as part of season plans. “The big change here was giving our fans yet another option as far as tickets,” Steinbrenner said.

I’m curious to see how these numbers translate into final attendance figures for the Yankees. In old Yankee Stadium‘s last year, the team drew a record 4.29 million fans with an average of 53,069 per game. In the new park, the Yankees still claim a capacity of 52,325 including standing room, but the team averaged just 45,918 fans last year for a total attendance of 3.79 million. Tuesday’s crowd of 49,293 was the largest regular season crowd in the new park’s short history. Wednesday’s game drew just 42,372.

For the Yanks to draw 4 million fans again, they’ll have to average 49,382 fans per game in the new house, and until standing room tickets are available for every game, that mark seems unattainable. For now, though, we should be happy that the Yankees are both lowering ticket prices and selling so many seats. The gaudy economic experiment of the new stadium may not have been as smashing a success as the Yanks had originally hoped, but the team has found a gold mine of money no matter. People will, after all, come out to watch a winner.

Photo of the 2009 ticket above comes to us from the incomparable Amanda Rykoff.

MLB celebrating Jackie Robinson Day

Today marks the 63rd anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, making him the first African American player in Major League Baseball since the 1880s. There’s plenty to say about Jackie and the effect he had on MLB. Thankfully, Matt at Fack Youk says it, and says it well. Not only does he touch on how Robinson’s promotion led other teams to do the same, but he also notes the Yankees’ reluctance to follow suit. They eventually did, promoting eventual MVP Elston Howard in 1955.

When you’re done with Matt’s article, head over to The New York Times, where Harvey Araton has penned an article on Robinson’s connection to the only remaining player sporting No. 42, Mariano Rivera.

It helps to have an Army medic nearby when you’re choking

At some point or another, chances are someone taught you the Heimlich maneuver. That, however, does not mean that you can perform it properly. Toby Weiss, wife of Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hewbrew Institute of Riverdale, found that out first hand at Yankee Stadium yesterday. When she began choking on her steak the people around her tried to help, but no one could dislodge the hunk of meat from her throat. Thankfully, John Stone, staff sergeant with the Connecticut National Guard, was nearby. Once he saw Ms. Weiss turn blue he stepped in, performed the maneuver, and got her to spit up the steak.

Said Weiss afterwards, “I’m a big Yankee fan, but I really didn’t want to die in Yankee Stadium.”

Was a changeup low the right pitch to Morales?

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP

Considering all the backlash, Javy Vazquez wasn’t all that bad yesterday. I know, sounds crazy, but it’s true. He allowed just two runs through his first five innings of work, both of which came in the third inning when Erick Aybar singled in Brandon Wood (who singled and stole second) before being doubled in by our old buddy Bobby Abreu. Javy allowed another run in the sixth when Kendry Morales doubled in Torii Hunter, and the fourth run charged to him came while he was sitting in the dugout; Al Aceves had come on and allowed a two out, worm burning single back up the middle to noted power hitter Maicer Izturis. The overall line isn’t pretty (5.1 IP, 6 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 2 BB, 4 K), but his first five innings were just swell before his pitch count approached triple digits. It’s nothing to write home about, but it’s nothing to cancel your season tickets over.

But what if that double to Morales could have been prevented through a different plan of attack? I certainly am not privy to the Yanks’ scouting reports and what not, but I thought the pitch selection to Morales in the 6th was a little questionable. Clearly, Javy missed his spot on the payoff pitch, which was the biggest mistake of all:

You can see where Jorge Posada set up, and where the pitch went. So yeah, he definitely missed his spot. It happens, But what if the spot and the pitch call were different?

In his first two at-bats, Vazquez threw Morales six fastballs, six changeups, and one slider. He went FB-CH-CH-FB-FB in his first at-bat, getting him to ground out on a pitch off the plate. Morales took a changeup for a strike and a fastball for a ball in the 3rd, but Bobby Abreu ended the inning mid-AB when he was caught trying to steal third. Javy went FB-CH-CH-CH-FB before retiring Morales on a slider way off the plate (foul pop-up to third) when he came back to the plate the next inning.

So after giving him first pitch fastballs in each of his two previous official at-bats, Javy broke out the change and got Morales out in front for a swinging strike one in the 6th. The second pitch was a slider well off the plate, further out than the one he popped up in the 4th. Javy came right back with another change, and again Morales was out in front for a swinging strike. So that’s two swings and misses on changeups in the first three pitches of the at-bat.

Pitch four: changeup in the dirt. Ball two.
Pitch five: changeup in the dirt. Ball three.

So now the count is full, and Morales has seen six straight offspeed pitches going back to his last at-bat. Vazquez and Posada went with a fourth straight changeup, which Javy left up in the zone and Morales did what good hitters are supposed to do with a belt high changeup.

I can’t help but wonder if a fastball would have been a better call in that spot. The effectiveness of the fastball-changeup combination is dependent on the separation between the two pitches, meaning the difference in velocities. Obviously things like location and arm speed matter, but in general it’s the separation. The last two changes Morales saw were clocked at 80mph, and Javy’s fastball averaged 89 on the day, topping out at 91. So basically you had a ten mile an hour separation between the two at that point in the game, which is almost exactly what you want.

So, at that moment, after three straight changeups and six straight offspeed pitches down in the zone, a high fastball may have made the most sense. The art of pitching is all about disrupting the hitter’s timing, and some high cheese after that much slow stuff changes both Morales’ timing and his sight level. An 89 mph fastball after so many 80 mph pitches doesn’t look like 89, it looks like 99. Morales isn’t the most disciplined hitter, so if you get it high enough, he might swing through it Melky Cabrera-style. As you can see, he definitely had no problems offering at the high heat last season…

(h/t Texas Leaguers)

If Morales takes the pitch, then you’ve walked him and set up the double play for a good but inferior hitter in Juan Rivera. That ends Javy’s day and he gets booed off the mound for walking a guy, but he leaves a very winnable 2-1 game.  If Morales tomahawks it into the rightfield stands, then you tip your cap to him.

Again, I’m no expert. But after getting a steady diet of offspeed pitches down in the zone and on the outer half, a fastball up at eye level may have been the way to go when trying to finish off Morales in the 6th. It’s easy to look in hindsight and say the pitch selection was questionable, but if Javy buries the change and Morales swings over it, then this post doesn’t exist. Such is the nature of day-after analysis.

Late comeback not enough as Pineiro foils Yanks

This type of game will happen. Javy Vazquez wasn’t sharp, though he managed to limit the damage through five innings. It looked like he might escape doom in the sixth, but it was not to be. Not only did he allow a run on a Kendry Morales double, but Morales himself came around to score later in the inning, courtesy of Al Aceves. Mike will have more on the Morales at-bat in the morning. For now, onto the recap.

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

Biggest Hit: Swisher triples

Joel Pineiro had his sinker working yesterday, and it had Yankees’ hitters baffled. Through four innings they managed just one hit, a Robinson Cano double off the glove of Torii Hunter. Cano managed another hit off him in the fifth, this time a single to left. To groundouts moved him to third base with Nick Swisher at the plate.

While the count didn’t run to 3-2, Swisher did make Pineiro work, fouling off three straight 2-2 pitches after not swinging at the first four. Pineiro tried to mix things up later in the at-bat, throwing a curveball and then a changeup, but on the eighth pitch went back to the sinker. It caught enough of the zone that Swisher was able to make solid contact, driving it to right-center. Cano scored easily, and the outfielders were so ill-positioned for that particular hit that Swisher made it all the way to third.

This was actually the biggest hit of the game from either side. The Angels spread their runs out, and since the Yankees never got too close the Angels gradually moved closer to that 100 percent WPA mark. Swisher’s hit was huge because not only did it cut the Angels lead to one, but it also made Swisher the potential tying run. Brett Gardner, however, could not deliver.

Biggest Pitch: Abreu continues owning Vazquez

When Abreu came to bat in the first inning, Michael Kay mentioned how well he had hit Vazquez in the past. He spoke mostly of counting stats, but here are the rate stats, just for fun: .282/.358/.746. In other words, Abreu posted a decent BA and OBP against Vazquez, but when he hit it he hit it a ton. A hit in the first improved those numbers, but his third-inning double did the most damage.

With Erick Aybar standing on first, Abreu took a called strike one on the low-outside corner. Vazquez came back with a changeup, again outside, but this one ran a bit high. Abreu laid into it, lining it to center. It got behind Curtis Granderson, and Aybar came around to score. Brandon Wood had previously scored on Aybar’s single, so this staked the Angels to a 2-0 lead. It also led to boos from the Stadium denizens. Where do we get these fans?

Vazquez actually recovered decently, pitching two more scoreless innings before running into trouble again in the sixth.

Biggest Blunder: The eighth inning

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

With a 5-1 lead heading into the eighth inning, the Angels looked poised for victory. Mike Scioscia turned to his erstwhile setup man, Scot Shields, long-time Yankee-killer, to hold a four-run lead. It was immediately clear that, at least on this day, he was not up to the task.

After a failed bunt attempt Shields delivered four straight pitches out of the zone to Brett Gardner. That’s usually a terrible way to start an inning, but with the Yanks down four it was unlikely Gardner would take a base. Derek Jeter tapped one to the pitcher after taking two pitches, and he beat out the throw to first, setting up the Yanks with runners on first and second.

Nick Johnson might have had the best at-bat of the game in this spot. He took the first three pitches, a called strike followed by two balls, before fouling off the next five. On the at-bat’s ninth pitch Shields went back to his curveball and placed it on the outside edge. Johnson jumped on it, though, lining it to center and scoring Gardner. The Yanks, as they always seem to do, sent the tying run to the plate.

Scioscia had seen enough of Shields. With the game on the line he turned to Kevin Jepsen, who was all over the place. It did work to his advantage, though. A wild pitch put runners on second and third, but Mark Teixeira couldn’t deliver. He grounded one to short. It scored Jeter but didn’t advance Johnson and accounted for the inning’s first out. Alex Rodriguez drew a walk in the next at-bat, so he became the tying run.

Robinson Cano whaled one to third base in the next at-bat, and I have no idea how he beat out the double play. It looked tailor-made, especially for a player with Cano’s speed. He was just safe, though, preserving the inning. Here’s where Jepsen’s wildness helped. After throwing just six of his first 15 pitches for strikes, Jepsen came back with two straight in the zone to Posada. He took both, and eventually — and predictably — struck out on a low slider.

Teixeira’s ground out lowered the Yankees’ chances of winning by 8.3 percent. Cano’s fielder’s choice brought it down another 8.8 percent, and Jorge’s strikeout, with the tying run on first base, sunk it another 9.8 percent. The Yanks had a grand opportunity to tie the game, or at least bring it within a run, and failed to do so.

Aceves slowing it down

Either the gun was cold — which is possible, since Vazquez topped out at 90 — or Aceves was a bit slow with the fastball yesterday. It topped out at 89 on the Pitch f/x gun. He didn’t look very good in general, perhaps because he hasn’t gotten much work this season.

Things that annoyed me

The eighth, even though the Yanks scored runs. It seemed like a classic comeback in the making. Instead if was marred by middle of the lineup futility. Thankfully, we know these guys will come around.

Hideki Matsui. Come on. The Angels hit three doubles today. I’m not wishing Matsui added to that, but rather that he hit a double in place of, say, Torii Hunter.

The fans. There’s no need to boo Vazquez, especially in the third inning. He recovered nicely, and he nearly finished his appearance with six innings and two runs. Alas, that was not to be, and the sixth inning was quite annoying. Still, there’s just no need for the booing, especially in freaking April.

Mark Teixeira. Yeah, I know. We’ve seen his April struggles first-hand and know that he makes up for it later. It doesn’t make it any less annoying while it’s happening, though.

Also, it’s been two games at home this season and we haven’t seen a walk-off. This team is clearly a bust.

Things that made me smile

Joba. He allowed a hit, struck out a batter, and still needed only nine pitches to retire the side.

Robinson Cano’s continued excellence. Even in the eighth he whaled the ball. Too bad it was right at Wood.

Nick Swisher. For his gritty at-bats and his hustle around second and into third.

Nick Johnson. Coming through big.

Also, someone mentioned this in the chat last week. New York Nicks. That gonna take?

Derek Jeter. Because while it seems everything he hits is a grounder to short, he’s still hitting .324.

WPA Chart

To FanGraphs for the full boxey.

Up Next

It’s a battle of season debuts, as Phil Hughes takes on Scott Kazmir tomorrow at 7 p.m.