Phil Hughes through the lens of Pitch f/x

If there were an official Yankees pitcher of RAB, it would be Phil Hughes. Sure, Joba claims most of the attention, but back when we were just a fledgling site our big obsession was Hughes. We all followed him through the minors, and knew that in the year we launched, 2007, he would make his major league debut. Because the Yankees pitching staff was a shambles early in the year, Hughes got the call in late April, and wasted little time in dazzling us. Unfortunately, he wasted equally little time in ripping out our hearts.

For Hughes it was a long road to redemption. An ankle injury while performing calisthenics kept him on the DL for longer than initially anticipated, and we’d have to wait until his final start of the season for him to again dazzle us. It did help, though, that he looked like an ace in relief of the injured Roger Clemens during that year’s postseason. That was enough to win Hughes a spot in the rotation for 2008, though it was apparent early on that he hadn’t quite earned it, but rather benefited from a scarcity of reliable arms. Again we had to wait until Hughes’s final start to see a glimmer of hope.

We know from the start that 2009 would be different. Brian Cashman stocked the rotation, adding CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett to go along with incumbents Chien-Ming Wang, Andy Pettitte, and Joba Chamberlain. With the five rotation spots filled from the start, Hughes started the season in AAA, knowing he’d get the call in case of emergency. That happened early, and Hughes got off to a great start, pitching six shutout innings in Detroit, fanning six and and allowing just four baserunners. From there he went from bad to mediocre, interspersing it with easily his best start of the year, an eight-inning shutout in his return to Texas, where he had strained his hamstring just over two years prior.

From there he hit the bullpen, where, after a short adjustment period, he appeared a natural fit. His fastball blazed, so much so that he often threw it more than 80 percent of the time, mixing in the occasional cutter and curveball. The change in his fastball, however, included more than just velocity. It always does.

Most of the information we need to examine Hughes resides on his FanGraphs player page. Here we can see not only the average velocity and movement of his pitches, but we can also see, in graphical form, how they changed over the course of the season. Since Hughes switched to the bullpen mid-year, perhaps that will give us some insight into exactly what changed. First up, velocity chart:

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Understandably, his velocity jumped at one point, not coincidentally around the time he joined the bullpen. Take a look at the plots prior to the rise, though. There’s one noticeable dip, Hughes’s sixth start of the season. That dot, believe it or not, represents his game in Texas. His fastball averaged just under 91 mph and maxed out just under 93. The difference that game, it appears, is that he threw it less frequently than in other starts. So maybe velocity isn’t the key at all.

Another trend that stands out is towards the end. It appears his fastball velocity consistently declines towards the end of the season. He seems to have recovered the fastball for the playoffs, though it wasn’t all that effective. But, as I said a few paragraphs above, a fastball is about more than just velocity. Vertical movement plays a part, too. Allow me a second to explain, though I’ll do so in more detail when we cover Pitch F/X in The stats we use. Feel free to skip the next paragraph if you’re familiar with Pitch F/X numbers.

Pitch F/X measures movement by comparing an actual pitch to one with no spin. A pitch with no spin would drop more quickly than a pitch with backspin, so vertical movement on fastballs is expressed as a positive number. In 2009 the average fastball “rose” 8.6 inches over the same pitch if it didn’t have any spin. Higher vertical breaks can mean a fastball is tougher to hit. David Robertson, for example, had a vertical break of 11.2 inches on his fastball, which is phenomenal.

Now, onto Hughes’s vertical movement chart.

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For most of the season, Hughes’s vertical movement sat around that 10 inch mark. True to that, his average fastball vertical movement was 10.1 inches. But as his velocity dropped towards the end of the season, so did his fastball vertical movement increase. In that final game against the Rays, when his fastball averaged just under 93 mph, his vertical break was just under 11 inches. In his second playoff appearances, the one where he allowed two runs against the Twins, his fastball was back up to 94, but his vertical break was all the way down at 8.75 inches. Thankfully, it was back up over 10 for most of the playoffs.

We know that when Hughes eventually returns to the rotation that he won’t throw an average 94 mph fastball. We also know that he doesn’t need that type of velocity to succeed. Not only does he have that “sneaky” fastball — though, just so you think I’m not working on an agenda here, his vertical movement was at times sub-par, including in the Texas game, earlier in the year — but he also generates excellent movement on his curveball. The average curveball in 2009 moved 5.3 inches horizontally (away from a righty) and -5.2 inches vertically. Hughes’s curveball averaged 7.4 inches horizontally and -7.6 inches vertically. His cutter also had good horizontal movement. 0.2 inches (into a lefty) vs. a league average of -0.5, and while his vertical movement was below league average, you can see in the above chart that it did trend upward toward the end, along with the velocity (perhaps explaining the 4-seamer’s decreased velocity).

As I said in the Robertson post, it’s difficult to draw sweeping conclusions from this data. I’d like to think that it signals Hughes can succeed back in the rotation, even without that 94 mph fastball. He has good movement on it, and combined with a quality curveball and a developing cutter, he might be able to pitch six, seven, eight innings every five days. If not, we’ve seen his success in the pen, and that’s a pretty solid fallback option.

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Matt Slocum. Graphs credit:

Just for a trip down memory lane, here’s Hughes’s no-hit bid in Texas in 2007. Fastball vertical? Check. Curveball vertical? Check-plus — 7.47 horizontal and -9.76 vertical against league averages of 5.4 and -4.4. Ah, what could have been. Maybe we’ll finally realize it this season.

Open Thread: Death By Snow

Apparently someone upstairs screwed up and sent all the extra snow to the Northeast instead of Vancouver for the Olympics. It started late last night and it hasn’t stopped since. Good thing the store on the corner is open, otherwise I might go hungry.

All the local teams sans the Knicks are in action, but I’m honestly not sure if any of the games have been postponed due to the weather. Use this open thread to keep yourself occupied while you wait for the end of days snow to subside.

Turner takes over as Charleston’s hitting coach

After promoting Greg Colbrunn to manager of Low-A Charleston last week, the Yankees filled his previous gig as the team’s hitting coach with Justin Turner. The 30-year-old Turner was the Angels’ eighth round pick in 2001, and retired in 2005 as a .237-.309-.370 career hitter. From what I can find, this is his first coaching job, though I suspect I’m wrong.

Coaching is something that is perpetually underappreciated in player development. Drafting and signing players is only one piece of the puzzle; you need to have the right people in place to help those kids learn and hone their skills. It’s funny how guys like Dave Eiland and Kevin Long can become very good coaches despite spotty track records as players.

Sherman on Jeter: How about four years and $100M?

As a heavy snow begins to blanket New York City, there’s little to do until pitchers and catcher report but sit and wait. The Yankees are through with their Hot Stove League wheelin’ and dealin’, and as the equipment trucks head south, a calm descends upon the organization. Yet, this moment of off-season serenity isn’t wanting for musings on the next season.

As we’ve written more than once over the last few months, the Yankees face some contract choices next winter. Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter and Joe Girardi will be free agents, and while it’s easy to see Rivera and Girardi returning on similar deals to those in place now, Jeter remains the big question mark. When it will time to sign his new contract, Jeter will be 36, and even though he is coming off of a 10-year, $189 million, the Yankees may very well have to pay him for what he’s done rather than for what he will do.

Today in The Post, Joel Sherman tackles the topic with a piece on Jeter’s pride. He doesn’t talk about Derek’s pride as arrogance but rather focuses on Jeter’s pride as it impacts his desire to be a better player. The story is one we’ve heard before because Joe discussed it after attending a Brian Cashman WFAN breakfast a while back: The Yanks’ GM challenged Jeter to improve his defense, and Jeter did so. While maintaining his prodigious offensive output, Jeter has morphed from a below-average defender into an average-to-above-average one.

How will this impact the Yanks’ efforts at extending their star short stop? Sherman thinks that Jeter’s drive to stay at the top of his game will lead him to pressure the Yanks into paying up simply producing on the field. Sherman pegs the chances of Jeter’s remaining in pinstripes at 98 percent, and because of A-Rod‘s contract, the Post scribe believes Jeter will get four years at $100 million. He would, in that sense, nearly match A-Rod, and the left side of the Yanks’ infield would be making a combined $50 million at a time when both players are over 35.

Does this make sense? Over the last four seasons, Jeter has seen his WAR value fluctuate. According to Fangraphs, he was worth $23.2 million in 2006, $15.5 million in 2007, $16.6 million in 2008 and a whopping $33.4 million in 2009 for a four-year total of $88.7 million. Since he, like the rest of us, isn’t getting any younger, I doubt he can duplicate even that four-year total, and, for example, his CHONE prediction pegs him at $15.4 for 2010.

In the end, the Yankees will pay Derek Jeter simply because he is Derek Jeter. He’s not going to go anywhere, and the team will take care of him. As I said yesterday, though, as the Yanks’ core players age and earn more, the team will have to find young cost-controlled talent to alleviate the payroll pressure. If Derek gets even a four-year, $84-million extension, thus replicating his 2010 salary, the Yanks will be paying their short stop and third baseman a combined $46 million in 2014 when they are 40 and 38 respectively. That’s a bit of a scary thought.

Yankees hitters against strikeout pitchers

Last week we looked at the Yankees hitters against the best ground ball pitchers and against the best fly ball pitchers. We saw that the Yankees often demolished ground ball pitchers, while they had more of a mixed bag against the fly ball type. Today we’ll move onto high strikeout pitchers. Again, the idea is to plot their performances against pitchers of all different types at the end. Some guys, after all, fall into multiple classifications. As we’ll soon see, Justin Verlander is both a strikeout and fly ball pitcher.

As with the ground ball and fly ball pitchers, we run into a few issues with strikeout pitchers. First, the pitcher with the third highest K rate, Zack Greinke, never faced the Yankees. Second, two of the top 10 pitched for the Yankees. For this study I’ll list qualifying AL starters with a greater than 7.00 K/9 rate. The last pitcher on the list is John Lackey; the next highest K rate belongs to Andy Pettitte.

This list is nice, because everyone but Floyd appeared on either the fly ball or the ground ball one. Once I saw that there were four guys on the fly ball list and seven from the ground ball list, maybe we’d see a trend emerge. Sadly, this doesn’t appear to be the case. Even when we average it all out, the Yankees scored almost exactly the same runs per nine innings against strikeout pitchers as they did fly ball pitchers.

One aspect I noted in the previous post was the team’s home run rate. Against ground ball pitchers they hit 1.63 home runs per nine innings, and against fly ball pitchers that number dropped to 1.36. They hit 1.38 home runs per nine innings against strikeout pitchers. It appears Beckett skews the numbers against ground ballers and strikeout pitchers a bit higher, since he gave up an inordinate amount of home runs against the team. Then again, against Felix, Gloyd, Baker, and Lackey they hit no home runs over 26.2 innings, so perhaps that helps balance the figure.

Again, the Yankees beat up on the rookies, Anderson and Romero, and knocked around the Red Sox. The other pitcher they hit well, Jered Weaver, has always pitched poorly against them. In 41.1 career innings against the Yankees Weaver has allowed 28 runs, or a 6.10 RA. It’s a terribly small sample, covering just seven starts, so I expect we’ll see that even out a bit more in the coming years. Ditto with Anderson and Romero, especially the latter, since he’ll face the Yankees plenty.

While I’ll continue the series with the low-walk and low-homer pitchers, it doesn’t appear we’ll see many definitive trends. Considering the short samples we see from each pitcher, and considering each pitcher is defined by more than one aspect, this makes sense. There are just so may variables to consider that we can’t put much stock in how a pitcher fared against the team in 10 to 20, or even 40 innings. Though, in Halladay’s case, yeah, he’s pretty damn good against the Yanks.

Link Dump: Joba Rules, J.T. Snow, Damon

Snowpocalypse 2010 has hit, so ride it out with these links…

Death to the Joba Rules

At long last, the Joba Rules are dead. “He’s not going to have any restrictions,” said pitching coach Dave Eiland, “so Joe (Girardi) and I are not going to have to go into the game thinking, ‘Oh, he’s got 85 pitches or six innings or whatever comes first.’ We don’t have to game plan it out. The kid gloves are off, and he’s just going to go out and pitch and he knows that and he’s going to come in and be all geared up to win that job, as are the other guys. Competition should bring out the best in everyone.” Of course, this won’t calm the conspiracy theorists who think Joba is going to return to the bullpen next year, because there was both a bullpen and rotation version of the rules. Either way, so long Joba Rules, and thanks for the shirt.

Big leaguers give bloggers a bad name

At his blog earlier this week, former big league catcher Brent Mayne told a story about how he once told a batter what pitch was coming. That batter was J.T. Snow, who was with the Yanks at the time and grew up playing with/against Mayne in Southern California. Long story short, he mumbled to the pinch hitting Snow that he was getting a fastball away, which Snow promptly ripped for a double and his first big league hit. Except, of course, that never happened.

Mayne said Snow was a September call-up with the Yanks, and they were playing in Kansas City. Snow went 0-for-5 in the only game he played against the Royals as a Bomber, and even though his first big league hit was in fact a pinch-hit double, it came off of Tom Henke of Toronto with Pat Borders behind the plate a week later. Here’s the easy to read game log. I expect it from the mother’s basement dwellers, Brent. But not from you.

Damon’s still looking for two years

Yeah, amazing, isn’t it? We’re basically a week from pitchers and catchers, Damon has received offers from just one team (that we know of), and yet he and Boras are still holding out for a two year deal. Matt at Fack Youk wonders if Johnny’s lost his mind, as do so many others. I can’t imagine Damon is happy with how Boras worked him over, or maybe he’s just naive and thinks someone will meet one day his demands.

Thames No. 1 on an all-time Tigers list

Marcus Thames doesn’t stand out as someone who would hold a franchise record, but according to Tom Gage of The Detroit News, he does. His 99 home runs in 1,463 at-bats is the franchise record for home run pace among players with 1,500 or more plate appearances as a Tiger. That also amounts to a home run every 16.28 times he stepped to the plate, which, considering his lack of bases on balls, is probably an even further record. Cecil Fielder, who ranks second on the AB/HR list, hit a home run once every 17.36 plate appearances.

Wade Boggs and the winter of 1992

Wade Boggs knocks out a base hit against the Orioles in Sept. 1997. (AP Photo/Roberto Borea)

These days, the Yankees don’t struggle to attract top talent. With playoff appearances in 13 of the last 14 seasons and five World Series titles out of their last seven Fall Classic appearances, the Yankees have become one of the top destinations for marquee players looking for a shot at October glory. Adding to the winning is the team’s willingness to spend, spend, spend.

It wasn’t always like this though. The Yankees have always been happy to dole out the dollars, but sometimes, even the dollars aren’t incentive enough. For a look at just when and why the Yankees couldn’t convince players to come to the Bronx and how it all ended, we flashback again to the winter of 1992/1993. A few weeks ago, I explored the Roberto Kelly/Paul O’Neill trade, and today, we look at the circumstances surrounding Wade Boggs’ arrival in the Bronx.

For Yankee fans of a certain age, the thought of Boggs in the Bronx was enough to churn the strongest of stomachs. Boggs was so deeply associated with the hated Red Sox that fans despised him. To make matters worse, he and Don Mattingly had a relationship about as warm as the one Derek Jeter and A-Rod share today.

After the 1992 season, Boggs was a free agent, and the Yankees needed a third baseman. They had recently lost Charlie Hayes in the expansion draft, and although Boggs had put up an anemic .259/.353/.358 line in Boston and had suffered through back spasms, the Tampa faction of the divisive Yankee Front Office had their eyes set on Boggs. Eventually, the team signed him to a three-year, $11 million deal — a contract Jack Curry called “curious” — but the circumstances of the deal reveal much about the way the Yankees used to operate.

The Yankees in 1992 were a team no one wanted to join. They had just finished their fourth straight losing season, and it was just the second time in franchise history and the first since 1912-1915 that the team had suffered through that much futility on the field. Behind the scenes, the Yankees had struggled with the suspension of George Steinbrenner and struggled with his return. The Boss and Joseph Molloy, a managing partner in Tampa, had wrested control of personnel moves from Gene Michael and Buck Showalter, and the strains of that fight over the team power was in full display. That winter, David Cone, Barry Bonds, Greg Maddux, Terry Steinbach and Doug Drabek all rejected the Yankes. The team had to outbid the Dodgers by one year and $5 million just to land Boggs. It was ugly indeed.

Yet, somehow, someway, it worked out for the Yankees. Boggs stuck around for five years and wasn’t terrible. He hit .313/.396/.407 with a 111 OPS+ while in the Bronx, and the image of his horse ride around the stadium in 1996 has come to represent October salvation for a group of Yankee lovers who were formative fans as the Yanks struggled for wins. A sign of the baseball split in the Yankee Front Office early on, Boggs became a symbol of the team’s new-found success by mid-decade.

These days, of course, the Yankees don’t have to bend and break to get the guys they want. They have resolved issues of decentralized baseball power that seem to crop up every ten years and have put a product on the field that 29 other teams envy and strive to beat. Boggs and O’Neill, two guys most analysts were already counting out before they played their first games in pinstripes, were the harbingers of this great new era in Yankee baseball. Who would have believed it then?