The Yanks had their first walk-off win last night, which always brings the good vibes. There were a few critical moments in that game, but Mike and I aren’t sure the respective managers made the optimal moves. We discuss why they did what they did, and why we disagreed in these instances.
Plus, you can probably guess that there’s plenty of Phil Hughes talk. Something’s gotta give.
Podcast run time 26:27
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Intro music: “Die Hard” courtesy of reader Alex Kresovich. Thanks to Tyler Wilkinson for the graphic.
I’ve got five questions for you this week, each bringing something unique to the table. The Submit A Tip box in the sidebar is the way to go if you want to send in questions.
Findley asks: What are the chances that Bartolo Colon makes a start for the Yankees this season? And how would he fare?
I will say small, maybe 10% or so. The Yankees seem to like him in that Al Aceves role (even though we’ve only seen him in long relief so far), the versatile bullpen guy that could give you three outs or three innings. We also have to remember that his velocity has declined steadily during his outings (here’s his velo graph from game one, game two, and game three), maybe from lack of conditioning/fatigue, maybe from being physically unable to hold that velocity over 80-100 pitches. The guy had some major shoulder problems, you know.
I suspect that if he did start, Colon would be average at best. Six innings and three or four runs seems like a reasonable best case scenario, and finding a guy to do that shouldn’t be too hard. I wanted Colon to start the season in the rotation and think he should be there, but that’s only because I think he’s better than Freddy Garcia.
David asks: It seems like so called “toolsy” guys are a dime-a-dozen in the minor leagues. Athletic shortstops who have a great glove but nobody is real sure if the bat is ever going to show up. Obviously some of these guys even make it to the bigs (like Nunez/Pena). So, is it safe to say that predicting what a guy is going to be able to do in the field is a helluva lot easier than predicting his hitting ability? IE if you see a slick fielding high school guy, is it a much smaller leap to assume that guy will be able to do the same things in the big leagues? By comparison, some guy who can hit home runs off HS pitching (or hit for average for that matter) seems like much more of a crap shoot to project (hell, I even hit a few dingers in my day).
Hitting a round ball with a round bat is the hardest thing to the do in sports, so yeah, projecting offensive ability is tough that projecting defense. That doesn’t mean it’s a slam dunk though. Players get bigger and might have change positions, which has a big impact on their future defensive value. The professional game is faster than anything these guys saw in high school and in college, so routine grounders aren’t so routine anymore. That said, the athleticism and reflexes needed for fielding a little more obvious than those needed for hitting. When it comes to batting, you’re talking about guys seeing breaking balls for the first time, getting pitched inside for the first time, using wood bats for the first time, etc. There’s a lot that can do wrong there.
But then again, I’m no expert, so I wouldn’t take my word as gospel. It just seems like projecting defensive ability would be a helluva lot easier than projecting whether or not a guy could hit Major League caliber pitching.
Charles asks: Is it possible for a team to exercise future club options early? For instance, is it possible to exercise Buchholz’s club options now, then trade him to another team if they could receive a good deal in exchange? Strictly hypothetical, not logical.
Just about all of these options have windows during which they must be exercised/declined, and that’s usually within ten days after the end of the World Series. Sometimes the contract will stipulate that the team has to decide on an option a year ahead of time, like the Blue Jays had to do with Aaron Hill’s 2012, 2013, and 2014 options this year. They had to either a) pick up all three before the start of this season, or b) forfeit the 2014 option all together. They passed this time around, but can still exercise the 2012 and 2013 options after this season.
Sometimes there’s no window and it’s anytime before the player becomes a free agent. I know the Phillies picked up Jimmy Rollins’ option a full year before they had to. Frankly, I think Buchholz would have more value without the options picked up in your hypothetical scenario. Instead of trying to trade a 26-year-old with five years and $30M coming to him with two club options, they’d be trying to trade a 26-year-old with seven years and $56M coming to him. I’d rather not have the options picked up and keep the flexibility.
Brian asks: So apparently the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is already calling the Pirates the winners of the Nady/Marte trade of a couple years ago. Is it still too early to tell who won? Granted Nady is gone and Marte likely wont pitch again this year, but Tabata has only played MLB level ball for a couple weeks now. And we did get that magical post-season out of Marte in 2009.
I think the Pirates won this trade rather convincingly. Xavier Nady predictably turned back into a pumpkin after the trade, and then he missed basically all of 2009 with the elbow injury. Damaso Marte‘s been a complete non-factor for New York outside of two weeks in October and November of 2009. If you want to fWAR this, the Yankees acquired exactly one win the trade.
As for Pittsburgh, they’ve already gotten two okay (1.1 and 0.9 fWAR) seasons (285 IP total) out of Ross Ohlendorf, not to mention a pair of up-and-down arms (393.1 IP combined) in Jeff Karstens (0.8 fWAR) and Dan McCutchen (-0.7 fWAR). Jose Tabata’s the real prize as a legitimate everyday outfielder. He’s not (yet?) the star we thought he’d become and probably won’t ever turn into that guy since he’s a corner outfielder with little power, but he can hit (career .336 wOBA) and is dirt cheap for the foreseeable future. He’s already been worth 2.7 fWAR by himself, and has a good chance of being a four win player this season.
The Yankees probably don’t win the 2009 World Series without Marte’s great relief work, so in that respect they “won” the trade. But in terms of value added and subtracted, the Pirates kicked their asses, even if none of three pitchers turns into anything better than what they are right now.
Tucker asks: Who would you say has been the most productive big leaguer out of the old big three (Joba, Hughes, Kennedy)? I’m leaning Kennedy but Hughes is right there.
I think it’s Joba Chamberlain and not particularly close. Let’s look at their big league resumes in general terms…
Joba: one full season as a starter (2009), one full season as a reliever (2010), one full season as a reliever/starter (2008)
Hughes: one full season as a starter (2010), one full season as a reliever (2009), one half season as a starter (2007 and 2008 combined)
Kennedy: one full season as a starter (2010), one half season as a starter (2007 through 2009 combined)
Hughes has a leg up on Kennedy because of his relief stint in 2009, and Joba has a leg up on Hughes because of the 2008 season he split between the rotation and bullpen. If you want to get technical and compare fWAR, then Joba (7.5) leads Hughes (6.0) by a sizable margin and IPK (3.0) by a mile.
Who would I want long-term? I’d take Joba if I could move him back into the rotation. If not, then give me Kennedy. Phil’s missing velocity and stuff this year raises a pretty big red flag. Four months ago I would have said Hughes without thinking twice about it. Funny how that works.
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.
I think the best way to recap this game is chronologically, so let’s do that…
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 in 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
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.
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.
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.
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.