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Piliere on Hughes and Joba

AOL FanHouse’s Frankie Piliere has a new post up comparing the Yankees’ two young and hyped righties, Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain. The two appear to be going in opposite directions, as Hughes is in the process of cementing his place in the Yanks’ rotation while Joba flounders in the bullpen. “[Hughes] was challenging hitters and rearing back and firing with the fastball last year,” said Piliere, “and as he showed on Thursday, he has carried that over into 2010 … If we see more of what he showed against the Angels, the Yankees’ patience is on the verge of paying off.”

I’ve always said that I expect Hughes to have the longer and more productive career, while Joba will have the greater peak. Is it possible we’ve already seen the best of Joba? I don’t believe so, but it’s foolish to disregard the possibility.

Changing up the chat

Mike chatted during the game last night, so I’m coming in from the bullpen to provide relief. I’ll try to be more like David Robertson yesterday than David Robertson Tuesday. We’ll kick this off at 2:30pm ET and run it until I need to go somewhere, or else we run out of questions.

A hot start something new for the Yanks

With last night’s victory the Yankees improved their season record to 6-3, having taken two out of three in each of the first three series. That doesn’t quite place them atop the AL East, as the Blue Jays have played one more game (and won it), but it’s an excellent start nonetheless. The Yankees aren’t exactly used to this type of occurrence in April. For what seems like forever the team has taken its time to get into a groove, sacrificing April for torrid production later in the season. Imagine what the 2009 team would have looked like, for instance, if their April looked more like their August.

Photo credit: Charles Krupa/AP

Six wins in nine games represents quite a pace when extrapolated over a full season. That’s 108 wins, which would surely mean another AL East title. Of course, just because they hold a .667 winning percentage now doesn’t mean they’ll maintain it over the course of the season. April results, as we’ve seen over the past — well, forever — don’t necessarily correlate to how a team plays over the course of a season. That presents more of a concern for teams like Toronto, which stand little chance of contending.

The last time I can remember the Yankees getting off to a decent start was in 2006. In 2005, I’m sure you remember, the team got off to its infamous 11-19 start, prompting plenty of questions about the team’s moxie. That year they had played 15 games before they reached the six-win plateau. The next year went a bit better, but apparently the slow start in 05 left such a scar that my memory is willing to interpret a middling start as something positive. It took the Yankees 12 games to reach the 6-win mark. They actually played pretty much .500 ball through the first month.

I remember April 2007 very well. It was the month where Alex Rodriguez started to shed the choker tag, as he hit two walk-off home runs during the team’s first two home stands. Yet that team started off as a .500 team as well, losing Game 11 before winning their sixth game in Game 12. It was afterwards that they stumbled, losing eight of their next 11 games to finish April at 9-14. May was just as bad, and they finished that month 22-29 before becoming the hottest team in baseball the rest of the way.

(Just how hot? They finished 94-68, so from June 1 on they went 72-39, a .649 winning percentage. From July 1 on, though, they went 56-27, a .675 win percentage. So while they stanched the bleeding in June, they really started to lay into the league in July.)

Most of us remember 2008 as a total disaster, with the Yankees facing injury after injury in Joe Girardi‘s debut season. The Yankees actually didn’t start horribly, though they didn’t start great. As in 2006 and 2007 the team went 5-5 through 10 games, but in 2008 they won Game 11, earning them their sixth win. They then lost Game 12 to even their record again, before falling to 20-25 after Game 45. They did make a nice recovery, but there was little to get excited about that season, other than Joba throwing gas in the rotation for a couple of months.

Last season opened the same way, with the sixth win coming in Game 11 (and the sixth loss coming in Game 12). So when was the last time the Yankees got to their sixth win in Game 9 or better? I thought maybe 2004, but they pulled the same .500 jig that year, attaining six wins after Game 12. It was actually 2003 when they got off to a rapid start, going 18-3 over their first 21 games. That year they were 6-1, so they got to their sixth win even faster, in Game 7. The Yanks could certainly use a little 2003 this season. They won the AL East by six games that year.

From the purview of a six-month baseball season the Yankees’ hot start means little. We’ve seen teams get off to slow starts and win over 100 games. We’ve also seen teams get off to fast starts and crumble. After this off-season, however, it’s nice to see the team starting well. Not only does the team face heightened expectations after a World Series victory, but they also faced a bit of criticism by pulling a few fan-unfriendly moves. From what I’ve gathered, the average Yankees fan didn’t like the idea of replacing Matsui and Damon, and certainly, as demonstrated on Wednesday, did not approve the return of Javy Vazquez. The Yanks are doing their part to change the fans’ mindsets. A hot start oftentimes cures all.

Been caught stealing once

If I told you that the Yanks would start the season going 6-3 against the Red Sox, Rays and Angels – three teams considered to be among the AL’s top contenders this year – would you have believed me? The Yanks currently lead the AL in runs scored and have allowed fewer runs than any of their AL East opponents. The franchise hasn’t seen a start this good since 2003 when the Yanks went 8-1 over their first nine contests, and everyone is feeling pretty good about things.

At the risk of reading too much into the results from just nine games, there is one stat though that leaps out at me as problematic. Yankee backstops have caught just one of the 13 runners who have attempted to steal against them. Jorge Posada, the Yanks’ offensive-minded catcher, has allowed 10 of 11 runners to take a base while Francisco Cervelli, the defensive back-up, allowed both runners to steal against him on Saturday. Although some of the fault lies with the team’s pitchers, only the hapless Orioles, who have allowed 14 of 15 runners to steal, have a worse mark in the early going.

Generally speaking, these stolen bases haven’t had a tremendous impact on the Yanks’ win chances yet. For example, whereas Dave Roberts’ infamous stolen base increased Boston’s win expectancy from 37 percent to 47 percent, last night’s Erick Aybar steal dropped New York’s win expectancy from 53.1 percent to 52.1 percent. With two outs in the third, it was hardly a game-changer.

Take a look at each of the stolen bases so far the Yanks have allowed this season, and their corresponding win probability added values. Even with Jacoby Ellsbury‘s stolen bases and an error on the same play that allowed him to move to third, the Yanks have lost just 0.155 WPA points – or 15.5 percent of a win – by catching just one out of 13 base stealers. A few more runners gunned out will easily negate that positive advantage.

Player Outcome WPA
Aybar SB 0.01
Wood SB 0.026
Izturis SB 0.006
Abreu CS -0.028
Bartlett SB 0.023
Crawford SB 0.021
Longoria SB 0.015
Zobrist SB 0.004
Upton SB 0.019
Bartlett SB 0.001
Crawford SB 0.001
Ellsbury SB + Error 0.047
Beltre SB 0.01
Total   0.155

My fears for the season though aren’t in the potential for a single stolen base to be a game-changer. Rather, it is in the sheer number of stolen bases the Yanks may allow. So far, Jorge Posada hasn’t shown much on his arm this year, and we can’t be too surprised. He’s 38 – two years removed from shoulder surgery – and has always been an offensive force first and a defensive catcher second. His current 1.147 OPS makes it easy to forget about his defense.

Yet, right now, any time a player with a modicum of speed reaches first base, Posada will be tested. Other than Andy Pettitte, Yankee pitchers aren’t adept at holding runners on, and Posada’s arm will only encourage opposing managers to run. While it’s unsurprising to see Ellsbury, Barlett and Crawford attempt steals, Adrian Beltre ran only 15 times in 2009. He’s a player who will test Posada this year.

The Yanks know their limitations. Joe Girardi will try to get Cervelli into as many games as he can over the course of the season both for defensive purposes and to keep Jorge fresh. Additionally, it’s far too early in the season for us to make major pronouncements on the team’s deficiencies, but as the season gets older, keep an eye on those stolen bases. One or two may end up coming back to haunt the Yanks yet.

Hughes, bats power Yanks to series win

From the first batter last night it was clear what kind of Phil Hughes we’d see. Instead of the starter who threw 91, 92, Hughes came out throwing 93 and 94 mph fastballs in the first inning. He threw 13 pitches that inning, 11 of them four-seamers, and struck out two Angels. He pitched very well through the next three innings before running into a bit of trouble in the fifth, which he escaped without any damage. It wasn’t a great start, as he only lasted five innings, but it certainly was encouraging.

Biggest Hit: Curtis Granderson‘s first triple

Photo credit: Frank Franklin II/AP

The Yankees trailed for just three outs in the game. After Hideki Matsui homered to lead off the second, Robinson Cano answered with a lead-off shot of his own. From there on it was all Yankees. Jeter’s home run put the Yankees ahead, but it was Curtis Granderson’s triple that opened up the game a bit. It drove in Marcus Thames, who had singled to lead off the fifth after doubling off the wall in the second.

Granderson’s triple wasn’t valuable only because it gave the Yankees a two-run lead with a quality pitcher on the mound. It also put him on third with none out, which meant he himself had a high probability of scoring. That happened two batters later, when Derek Jeter pulled a double into the left field corner. The Angels were shading him towards right, so Jeter put it in the perfect spot. Unfortunately, neither Swisher nor Teixeira cold bring home Jeter and really open up the game.

Honorable mentions go to Jeter and Cano for their solo home runs. Cano’s was an absolute shot, and he followed it with another one in the fifth, that one chasing Scott Kazmir from the game. There might not be a hitter in the majors as hot as Robinson Cano.

Granderson pulled the improbable, tripling again one inning later. Only 67 players ever tripled twice in a game at the old Yankee Stadium. The last one to do it was Enrique Wilson in 2002. Granderson was the first to do it in the new Yankee Stadium.

Biggest Pitch: Matsui hits a rare Hughes mistake

Photo credit: Frank Franklin II/AP

Phil Hughes looked unstoppable at the beginning of the game, but the fourth batter he faced, Hideki Matsui, put the barrel on a 1-0 fastball that didn’t quite reach the outside edge. It went into the Yankees’ bullpen and gave the Angels their only lead of the night. Hughes came back to finish the inning strong, inducing a grounder before striking out two hitters with the curveball.

Hughes tires in the fifth

For the first few innings Hughes’s fastball looked like the one that made him the most coveted pitching prospect in the game. He sat mostly 93-94 mph in the first inning, dropping to 92-93 for the next few. By the fourth he was sitting mostly 92, and by the fifth he threw mostly 91 mph fastballs with some at 92. What impressed me most was the vertical break on Hughes’s fastball*.

*Quick, quick PitchFX primer. Pitches are compared to a pitch thrown with no spin. A pitch with no spin would drop quickly compared to a pitch with backspin. Vertical break refers to how much higher a pitch with backspin stays over a pitch with no spin.

There must be something up with the system this year, because Hughes’s veritcal break was sometimes as high at 18 inches. In last year’s system an 11 inch vertical break was considered excellent. Hughes was often at or above that figure, but 17 and 18 inches? That has to be a change in the algorithm, right?

The only negative from his performance was the inefficiency. He generated a lot of foul balls with two strikes, which drove up his pitch count a bit. That hit him especially in the third, when Torii Hunter extended his at-bat with three two-strike fouls. Brandon Wood also started the inning by fouling off two two-strike pitches. A few too many three-ball counts in the fourth, fifth, and sixth pushed his pitch count a bit high. Still, it was one of Hughes’s finer starts.

Cano is murdering the baseball

Photo credit: Frank Franklin II/AP

There might not be a hitter in the majors as hot as Robinson Cano. He came to the plate four times last night and picked up two hits, both of them home runs. That makes four home runs in 40 plate appearances on the season. It took him 17 games to get his fourth home run last year. The evening raised his average to .395, his OBP to .400, and his SLG to .816.

Not only has Cano been hitting the ball everywhere — he has more extra base hits than singles right now — it seems like even his outs are well-struck. That’s the way Cano works when he’s locked in. He has always possessed the talent to be one of the league’s best second basemen. I don’t want to make too much of a hot start, but this is the kind of talent we know Cano possesses. No, he won’t finish the year with a slugging percentage that resembles an OPS, but he can still hit 30 homers and 50 doubles. That would be an incredible year.

He’s in the prime of his career, he’s surrounded by elite hitters, and, not to get all intangible on everyone, he’s a champion. Hot starts can mislead, but I think Cano is going to turn this into one hell of a year.

Things that made me smile

Joba again. I had something to do and knew I’d miss the bottom of the eighth and the ninth, so I was kind of annoyed when Girardi made the pitching change. But Joba came in and got just what I was hoping for, a ground ball double play. I ducked out for the rest of the game, DVRing it. When I came back I mostly fast-forwarded, pretty much knowing the outcome. I especially enjoyed the Willets and Aybar at-bats. Joba fell behind both 2-0, but came back and threw nothing but strikes to each.

Thames producing against a lefty. No, Kazmir did not have his best stuff — and we don’t know whether he’ll ever have his best stuff again — but Thames had his number. His single in the fourth raised his average to .500, though later in the game it dropped to .429.

Did I mention Robinson Cano is slugging .816?

Robertson getting the ball just two days after his infamous ninth inning affair on Tuesday. He got the job done, getting two strikeouts and a groundout to end a minor threat in the sixth. He again looked strong in the seventh.

Nick Swisher is hitting the ball very well, too, but it didn’t show up in the box score tonight. He was 0-4 with a walk, but in fairer conditions he might have sent a ball over the center field wall in the third.

Things that annoyed me

I absolutely loved this game. The mound visits and other pauses between pitches in the fifth got old quick, but the results made me forget that pretty quickly.

WPA Chart

Can’t argue with a graph like that. Full boxscore at FanGraphs

Next up

The Rangers, with freshly converted starter C.J. Wilson, come to town tomorrow night. The Yanks will send their ace, CC Sabathia, to the mound for his 2010 Stadium debut.

Park injuries hamstring while warming up

Via Bryan Hoch, Chan ho Park injured his hamstring while warming up in the bullpen tonight, and will be reevaluated tomorrow. Park battled hamstring issues in Spring Training last year, as well as last September with the Phillies, so this is something worth keeping an eye on. The good news is that tonight’s injury involved his right hammy, last year’s troubles were with the left.

If a disabled list stint is required, Boone Logan would be the obvious callup, however he threw for Triple-A Scranton tonight, so he might not be available for a few days. In that case, Mark Melancon is the guy.