What to look for from Hughes tonight

Tonight, about 800 miles north of Oakland, the baseball fans in Seattle will celebrate Felix Day. This might be the most glorious holiday of them all, if only because it recurs every five days. Yet it’s so much more. It’s the day that they can forget about the team’s woes and enjoy a young, dominant pitcher ply his craft. Felix Day is even better when the team is playing well, as Seattle has for the past week or so.

While I acknowledge he’s no Felix, I plan to hold a similar celebration for Phil Hughes every fifth or so day this season. As I explained before his first start, Hughes is the first prospect I’ve followed from the draft to the majors. He has the tools to pitch at the top of a major league rotation, and after he found his bearings in the bullpen last season I think he can begin to fulfill those expectations this season. He did not disappoint in his first outing.

Still, he has some adjustments to make. In his first outing he came out firing fastballs at 93 and 94 mph, blowing away Angels hitters. As the game wore on, though, Hughes tired out a bit. By the end he was throwing his fastball at 91 and 92 mph. This is understandable. During his first two years in the minors the Yankees kept him on a pitch and innings count, often limiting him to five innings per start. They lifted that in 2007, the year he was promoted, but he still hasn’t worked deep into games regularly.

In 2007 Hughes opened the season at AAA, and then returned after quick rehab stints at A+ and AA. In eight AAA starts he threw 37.2 innings, around 4.2 innings per start. Then, the next year, after his injury and demotion, he pitched 29 AAA innings that covered six starts, or just a hair above the 4.2 innings he averaged teh previous year. At the major league level Hughes hasn’t exactly pitched deep into games, either. In 21 starts from 2007 to 2008 he pitched 106.2 innings, or about five innings per start. Last year, in seven starts before his move to the bullpen, he pitched just 34.2 innings, or a hair under five per start.

Given that it’s just is second start of the year, I don’t think we’ll see Hughes maintain his fastball speed much longer than he did in his first. That’s something he’ll have to build up over time. What I would like to see, though, is him making adjustments to compensate. When he reached a two-strike count in the later innings last Thursday he had a hard time finishing hitters. He’d go back to his normal repertoire, but instead of whiffing the Angels hitters fouled off pitch after pitch. Hughes also went back to nibbling and faced too many three-ball counts. He also walked too many hitters.

Instead of looking for greater fastball velocity in the fifth and, hopefully, sixth, what I hope to see from Hughes is a bit more pitching to contact. He clearly has a dominant fastball, and over time I hope he can maintain his velocity later in the game. For now, though, he might have to settle for pitching to contact. It means using his cutter, curveball, and, yes, changeup more often. I think that’s a better strategy, though, than continuing to pump fastballs that hitters can handle.

Happy Hughes Day, everyone.

To gouge or to capture? That is the question

As American businesses have grown accustomed to life under a bad economy, consumers have seen long-established pricing practices thrown by the wayside. The airline industry has been the one taking the lead here, and the most notable example came last week when Spirit Airlines announced they would be charging for carry-on luggage.

Spirit’s CEO subsequently explained their pricing rationale. Their base fares would be reduced by $45, and those who wanted to bring a piece of luggage on board would have to pay the unbundled $45 to do so. Potential customers were unhappy but only because this is a new — and sensible — way to price a commodity. By paying for component parts, we are paying for what we need and want to use. If only telecommunications and cable providers would follow such a path.

In baseball, economics are moving in new ways as well, and the Yankees have been among the prime motivating factors. The team has long been a hot ticket in New York, and road attendance has risen as well. Last year, the Yanks averaged over 34,000 fans per game on the road, tops in the AL and second overall to the Cubs. Teams such as Tampa and Kansas City that don’t draw well regularly see record crowds when the Yanks come to town.

As such, teams have wisely jacked up prices when the Yanks come to town. Tickets and concessions are priced for premium games, and it works because the market forces of supply and demand can dictate the prices. If a potential fan is willing to pay more on the secondary market for a chance to see a premium team play, the home team should be trying to capture that added revenue.

What happens though when teams start bundling tickets? That’s the question Craig Calcaterra raises today. He highlights two Consumerist posts — one on the Mets and one on the Dodgers — that expose a new practice. Instead of selling individual tickets to games involving the Yankees, these teams are requiring their fans to purchase Yankee tickets as part of a season- or package-ticket plan. For Yankees/Mets games, fans have to buy tickets in groups of five or more. For Dodgers/Yankees games, Los Angelinos have to purchase at least a seven-game mini plan. (The Orioles, I believe, instituted this practice last year when Yankee fans started overwhelming the Baltimore crowd.)

Loyal fans, of course, aren’t happen. Said the Mets fan who reported his tale to Consumerist to his ticket agent, “I’m going to be blunt with you. That is a horrible practice. The fact that I have to buy four extra tickets to get a guaranteed good seat ticket right now is horse shit. To be honest you have just turned me off from buying a ticket for the rest of the season.”

From an economics perspective, though, teams should have done this years ago. The demand for these premium games is great enough for the team to try to get fans interested in other non-sold out games as well. The teams want to capture more fans, and if they alienate a few fans along the way, well, then others will just take those seats instead. What makes people uncomfortable with it is that it’s a new practice. Had the ticket office been run as a sensible business from the start, teams would have been bundling years ago.

Calcaterra wants teams to “what the market would bear for the hot seats and sell them individually,” but he freely admits its an emotional reaction to what he views as sensible economics by clubs looking to milk money out of fan attraction. We might not like the blatant money grab, but that’s the way the capture market works.

Pondering a relief hook too quick

As it neared 1:45 a.m. earlier this morning and the Yanks and A’s continued to slog through their West Coast walk-fest, Joe Girardi brought in Damaso Marte to protect a four-run lead in the 9th. It wasn’t a save situation and wouldn’t be unless Marte imploded. At the time, the Yanks’ win expectancy stood at 98.2 percent, but that wasn’t good enough for the Yanks’ skipper.

Marte began the inning in an inauspicious fashion. Facing the right-handed Jake Fox, a career .245/.298/.443 hitter who had but one base on balls this season, Marte issued a five-pitch walk. The Yanks’ win expectancy dropped all the way to 95.8, and Joe Girardi bounded out of the dugout to summon Mariano Rivera. While the strains of “Enter Sandman” played in my head, Rivera jogged in to get three easy outs in a non-save situation. Game, set, match.

Yet, something about the way the game ended irked me. It wasn’t so much Marte’s unwillingness to throw strikes to a guy who can’t hit much as it was the quick hook. Girardi brought in a lefty to face a righty — not always the best of match-ups — and then pulled him with the game still in the pocket. Rivera had to both warm up and make his league-leading seventh appearance of the young season in a game the Yanks were going to win. Why bother with the quick hook? Why bother bringing in Marte in the first place?

For Girardi, though, this approach to the bullpen is nothing new. In fact, last week against the Angels, Girardi went through a similar sequence of events. He used Joba Chamberlain to get the last out in the 8th on Thursday, but then Joba ran into a spot of trouble in the 9th. After a walk and two outs, Erick Aybar hit a weak infield single, and the Angels had the tying run at the plate with two outs. Instead of letting Joba pitch to Bobby Abreu, Girardi brought in Rivera for a quick one-out save. Because Abreu is a lefty power bat, that move was more defensible, but it still seemed as though Joe overmanaged a bit.

In the early goings, my complaints over Mariano Rivera’s usage are but a nitpick. Rivera has appeared in a team-high seven games and has allowed two hits and a walk while striking out six. He needs to get some work in, and Girardi has made sure of it.

At the same time, I’d like to see Girardi trust his other relievers a bit more. Marte has appeared in six games and has recorded eight outs while facing just 12 batters. I don’t want to see him walk a weak-hitting pinch hitter to start the inning, but I wouldn’t mind giving him another batter or two.

Overall, though, Girardi has done a good job of managing the bullpen this year. His 33 calls to the pen – — all brought to you by AT&T — rank last in the AL and are a testament to the Yanks’ solid starting pitching (and one six-inning game). On average, Yanks’ relievers are raking up 3.1 outs per appearance, just a tad below the AL average of 3.2 and well within the early-season margin of error for that statistic. Hopefully, these positive trends will continue, but it wouldn’t kill Girarid to let his guys pitch out of a tough spot when the game isn’t really on the line.

Cano showing patience — on certain pitches

During the seventh inning of last night’s game it looked like Robinson Cano did not want to take a walk. He had already earned a free pass in the first inning, and to take another walk would give him as many in one game as he had earned in the entire season to that point. The at-bat lasted eight pitches, the final one a weak fastball that ran way too far inside. Not even Cano would take a hack. He took his base for the second time that night.

Cano, as he does so often, made the at-bat longer than it needed to be. Not one of the pitches from Edwar Ramirez ended up in the strike zone — least of all pitches six and seven, both changeups low and away, both fouled off. Both, also, had Cano taken them, would have put him on first base. Thankfully, Cano has a penchant for fouling off bad pitches, so he was able to extend the at-bat without any real damage. Here’s the Gameday view of his PA:

That wasn’t Cano’s first long at-bat of the night, either. In the first he worked the count on A’s starter Gio Gonzalez, taking that one to eight pitches as well. Gonzalez threw far more pitches in or near the zone than Edwar — and Robbie actually took one of them, a third pitch fastball for a strike after the first two pitches missed inside for balls. I’m actually surprised that Cano didn’t crush the sixth pitch, a fastball at the heart of the plate. He managed to only foul it away, though. He did the same on the next pitch before deciding that the at-bat’s final fastball, low and inside, wasn’t worth the hack.

By the ninth inning the Yankees had the game well in hand. Still, Cano came to the plate for one last appearance, this time against the side-arming Brad Ziegler. Like most side-armers, Ziegler fares far worse against lefties, a .868 OPS against. Against righties he fares much better, just a .569 OPS against. To this end, Ziegler worked carefully to Cano. As you can see in the Gameday plot below, only a few of the pitches came anywhere near the strike zone. It’s a shame that he swung at the fourth pitch, but other than that he displayed a pretty good batting eye in this plate appearances.

Looking at all three pitch plots, it appears that Robbie does not like the low inside pitch. It is the pitch he takes most frequently, even when it’s closer to the strike zone than other pitches in the at-bat at which he swung. This has been a trend all season for Cano. Check out the following plots, courtesy of Texas Leaguers. The first is a plot of the pitches Cano has swung at. The second is a plot of the pitches he’s taken.

Throw it low and inside, and Cano’s eye seems as good as anyone else’s. Throw it low or away, and he’s probably going to hack. This seems like a positive development. It might not last all season — Cano did hack at his share of low and inside pitches outside the strikezone last season — but so far it has been a definite positive for Cano.

Surprisingly, last night was not the first time Cano drew three walks in a game. It was actually the fourth. In 2007 he did it twice within a couple of weeks. The first came on July 24 against the Royals, and the second came on August 7 against the Blue Jays. He then did it in 2008, in August against the Rangers.

Vazquez gets in the win column as Yanks take fifth straight

The Yankees arrived on the West Coast on a high note, having won their last four games and seven of their last eight overall. The team enjoyed a nice moment before the game, presenting  Chad Gaudin and Edwar Ramirez with their 2009 World Series rings, but there was no mercy to be found once everybody took the field.

Photo Credit: Ben Margot, AP

Biggest Hit: Nick Swisher‘s two run single

Before the game even got underway, I said Gio Gonzalez was exactly the kind of pitcher that the Yankees should destroy. He throws way too many pitches out of the zone, and this lineup isn’t going to help him out at all. Sure enough, they made him pay before starter Javy Vazquez even came out of the dugout.

Derek Jeter and Nick Johnson started the first inning off by making two very quick outs (just five pitches between the two of them), but Mark Teixeira doubled them up by taking four straight fastballs for a 3-1 count before ripping the fifth into the corner for a double. Alex Rodriguez and Robbie Cano followed with walks, and Jorge Posada reached base with a little help from Daric Barton’s stone hands at first. The Yanks were up a run, but they had a golden opportunity to cash in more.

At the plate was Nick Swisher, who coming into the game had made outs in his last nine plate appearances and hadn’t picked up a hit since tripling off Joel Pineiro last Wednesday. He had become anxious at the plate, hacking at the first more than a few times in the previous series against the Rangers. Gonzalez poured a first pitch fastball in for a questionable called strike, then two more for balls and a 2-1 count. Gonzalez had thrown Swisher three fastballs clocked at 93, 93, and 94, and he went right back to the well for another 94 mph heater, which Swisher promptly deposited into centerfield for a two run single. The Yankees had an early three run lead, and never looked back.

Photo Credit: Ben Margot, AP

Biggest Out: Travis Buck’s 1-3 double play

After the Yankees staked Javy to a three run lead, he did his best to try and hand at least part of it back in the second. With runners on first and third and one out, Travis Buck worked himself into a full count before squaring up a hanging curveball out over the plate. The ball was ticketed for centerfield, but Vazquez stuck his glove out and picked it off as it went by. Mark Ellis was running on the play, so Javy lobbed it over to Teixeira to double him off first for an easy third out.

Combined with A-Rod‘s heads up play to get the lead runner at the plate for the first out, it was one of the best escape jobs we’ll see all season. When you’ve got men on second and third with no outs, you hope to get out of the inning with just one run scoring. But to get out with the shutout intact? That’s big.

Honorable Mention: Kevin Kouzmanoff’s strikeout

The Yankees seemed to be in control of this one of this one all game long, but it almost got away from them for a bit in the 7th. Boone Logan, making his Yankee debut, recording two quick outs before a poor throw by Jeter extended the inning. Barton followed up with a single to right, and Logan couldn’t put the lefty swinging Ryan Sweeney away, loaded the bases on a free pass, all with two outs.

Out came Joe Girardi from the dugout, and in came Joba Chamberlain from the bullpen to face Kouzmanoff, the A’s cleanup hitter. Joba started him off with a slider off the plate for ball one, but he picked up two strikes when Kouz fouled off a fastball and another slider. The fourth pitch was yet another slider, the third of the at-bat, though the A’s third basemen couldn’t hold up in time and went down on a check swing strikeout. Obviously a grand slam is the worst case scenario, but even if Joba had allowed a ball to get into the gap, all of a sudden we’re looking at a one run game with seven outs to go.

Vazquez grinds it out

Photo Credit: Ben Margot, AP

With the memory of his two first starts fresh in everyone’s minds, Javy Vazquez went out tonight trying to pick up not just a win for the team, but also a win for his confidence. Staked to a three run lead before he even threw a pitch, Javy fired off four shutout innings before serving up garbage time homers to Travis Buck and Kurt Suzuki, but more on that later.

It was clear from the start that Vazquez didn’t have his best stuff, and he struggled to put hitters away all night. Sixteen of the 23 batters he faced saw at least four pitches in their plate appearances, and ten saw at least five. The A’s are a patient team, but it’s not a lineup that should require just under a hundred pitches for five innings of work.

Vazquez threw 107 pitches on the night, mixing it up with 51 fastballs, 24 curveballs, 19 changeups, and 13 sliders. His fastball didn’t start to crack 90 mph with regularity until the third inning, and he put at least one batter on base in every inning he pitched. Vazquez helped himself out with some fine defense, starting a pair of double plays while adding a nice play on a comebacker that hit him in the leg to record an out.

That two run homer to Suzuki to cap off Javy’s night makes his pitching line (5.1 IP, 6 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 3 BB, 6 K) look worse than it should be, but overall he battled throughout the game and made some big pitches when he had too. It’s nothing to write home about, but I’m sure he feels good and now has something to build off of.

Happy Moments

That first inning was a treat. After Jeter and Johnson made those first two outs on five pitches, the guys behind them proceeded to load the bases, push three runs across, and force Gonzalez to throw another 31 pitches in the frame before recording the last out. Also, Javy getting out of that second and third with no outs jam in the 2nd. It wasn’t textbook, but it worked. Disaster was imminent, but the A’s got nothing out of it. Alex just never seems to make a bad decision on the field, the guy is a baseball robot.

Photo Credit: Ben Margot, AP

Speaking of A-Rod, holy schnikees was that a bomb off Craig Breslow in the 5th. It was one of those homers that he didn’t even bother to watch in flight, he knew it was gone as soon as it left the bat. A-Rod’s now one homer behind Frank Robinson for seventh place on the all time list.

Patience. The Yankees’ lineup is just devastating if the opposing starter does anything less than pound the zone; only once in the last five games has a starter completed at least five against against the Yanks. They scored seven runs on just five hits tonight, coaxing ten walks out of A’s pitching. Even Cano got in on the act, drawing three walks to bring his season total to five. Overall, the Yankees have scored at least three runs in every game this season, and at least five runs in ten of the 13 games. That’s getting it done with the stick.

Joba looked fantastic tonight. PitchFX had him topping out at 96 with the fastball, and overall he just looked very sharp. Best he’s looked all season, and probably the best he’s looked since 2008.

Oh, and hey look, it’s Edwar! Glad to see he hasn’t changed one bit.

Annoying Moments

That two run homer by Kurt Suzuki in the 6th. Not so much the homer, but the non-play on the lazy fly ball to shallow center before that. Someone has to make that play, and it’s on Curtis Granderson and Robbie Cano for failing to communicate. The homer to Buck in the 5th didn’t bother me. Vazquez had a six run lead and full count on the leadoff batter, just throw a fastball over the plate and hope this is part of the 65% of the time or so that Buck makes an out.

I know injuries are a serious thing, but damn. Home plate ump Ed Rapuano takes a foul ball off the face mask, staggers around for a bit, stays in the game, then has to leave a few batters later. Logan got up in the bullpen, warmed up, came into the game, threw his warmup pitches, then makes one pitch to Mark Ellis before he has to wait out a 13-minute delay after Rapuano leaves. I mean, come on. Could’ve timed it a little better.

WPA Graph

You can find individual player breakdowns at FanGraphs’ box score.

Up Next

Another late West Coast game tomorrow, as these two teams are back at it for game two of the series. Phil Hughes vs. Ben Sheets. Should be a good one.

Game 13: Streakin’

Photo Credit: Marcio Jose Sanchez, AP

The Yankees have won their last four games, and start the first of three 2010 West Coast trips tonight against the A’s in the rather bland Oakland Coliseum. Their second West Coast trip goes through Arizona and Los Angeles as part of the interleague schedule, and the final one comes right before the All Star Break. It’s good to get them over with in the first half, no one likes those September trips across the country.

On the bump for the A’s is Gio Gonzalez, who, frankly, should get his brains beat in. His strikeout rate is very good at 9.67 K/9 career (143.1 IP), but he’s thrown just 46% of his pitches in the strikezeone, which is not going to get it done against this offense. Then again, the Yanks are prone of being shutdown by these young lefties for no reason, so who knows.

Here’s the lineup…

Jeter, SS
Johnson, DH
Teixeira, 1B
A-Rod, 3B
Cano, 2B
Posada, C
Swisher, RF
Granderson, CF
Gardner, LF – glad to see him in there against the lefty

And on the mound, a guy who could really use a win, Javy Vazquez.

First pitch is scheduled for 10:05pm ET and can be seen on YES. Enjoy the game if you’re staying up for it. Oh, and don’t miss tonight’s DotF.

Montero goes deep again as Scranton falls

Kevin Goldstein called Jesus Montero the best hitter in the minors today, and rated him as the second base prospect in the minor behind Stephen Strasburg. Praise doesn’t get much higher.

Triple-A Scranton (11-7 loss to Buffalo)
Kevin Russo, 2B-3B: 2 for 5, 1 R, 1 K, 1 SB
Eduardo Nunez, SS: 3 for 5, 1 R, 1 2B, 1 RBI, 1 SB – 8 for his last 14 (.571)
Juan Miranda, 1B: 1 for 3, 2 BB
David Winfree, DH: 1 for 3, 2 R, 1 RBI, 1 BB
Jesus Montero, C: 1 for 4, 1 R, 1 HR, 3 RBI, 1 BB, 1 K – 7 for his last 21 (.333) with a double & two jacks … w00t
Chad Huffman, LF, Colin Curtis, RF & Robby Hammock, 3B: all 1 for 4 – Huffman got hit by a pitch, hit a two run jack & K’ed … Curtis got plunked & K’ed
Greg Golson, CF: 1 for 5, 1 R, 1 K
Romulo Sanchez: 6 IP, 6 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 3 BB, 2 K, 1 WP, 11-5 GB/FB – 50 of 83 pitches were strikes (50.2%) … 11 BB & 9 K on the year … that’s not going to get it done
Zack Segovia: 0.1 IP, 5 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 0 BB, 0 K, 1-0 GB/FB – 16 of 27 pitches were strikes (59.3%) … that’s 19 baserunners & 10 runs allowed in six innings … yikes
Kevin Whelan: 1.2 IP, 2 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 2 BB, 1 K, 1 WP – 18 of 32 pitches were strikes (56.3%)

[Read more…]