Phil Hughes: Good & Lucky

I don’t think even the most diehard of fans expected fifth starter suddenly turned third starter Phil Hughes to be as good as he has been through four starts. He’s allowed just nine singles and one homer through 25 innings, which mean the league is hitting just .124 off the 23-year-old. However, as Eno at Bloomberg Sports points out, Hughes has also been really lucky. That ultra-low average is backed up by a a microscopic .162 BABIP, and he’s also stranded 87.4% of the batters than have reached base against him. As those two regress back to normalcy, his 1.44 ERA will start to look more like his 4.23 xFIP, which is still pretty damn good.

The article isn’t all doom-and-gloom, Eno definitely gives Hughes props for the improvements he’s made and the natural progression of a young starter. Make sure you check it out, it covers both ends of the spectrum.

Injury info points towards DL stint for Pettitte

In today’s Under The Knife column (subs. req’d), Will Carroll mentions that based on what we know right now, Andy Pettitte is likely headed towards a stint on the disabled list, even if it’s nothing more than precautionary. “Pettitte’s elbow issue is not near the flexor tendon, where he had previous problems,” says Carroll, “but instead seems to be in the ‘back’ of the arm, near the triceps and could indicate some UCL issue. Joe Girardi indicated that Pettitte had some forearm issues earlier this season, so this could be some sort of cascade or a mechanical issue that’s translating toward whatever the weakest point of the arm is at any moment.”

It’s scary anytime the UCL gets mentioned, but remember that part is just Carroll speculating. As for a DL stint, I wouldn’t be surprised by one at all. They could stick him on the 15-day retroactive to yesterday, which would mean he’s eligible to come off on the 20th. If Pettitte’s injury is minor and he’s able to return after two weeks, then you’re looking at just two Sergio Mitre starts (the 11th and 16th). It’ll also allow the Yanks to bring up an extra reliever instead of carrying a dead roster spot. We’ll know more in the coming days, but as I said this morning, it’s better to be safe than sorry at this point of the season.

Yanks return to Boston with one thing in mind

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP

Yankees-Red Sox series always come with an excessive amount of hype, which is understandable because it’s great baseball theater. This weekend will be no different, as the Sox come off outscoring the lowly Angels 25-10 during a three game sweep while the Yankees are winners of six of their last seven. The three games over the weekend will garner much media attention, but in the end the series has very little significance. The best Boston can do is crawl to within three games of the division lead and two games of the Yanks. It’s a big series everywhere but reality.

The Yankees go back to Fenway this weekend with one thing on their mind: get out alive. Over the last week, five of the team’s most important players have dealt with injuries of varying severity, and at this point the team really can’t afford to see another player hit the shelf. Curtis Granderson‘s injury stretches the team’s already thin outfield depth, and Andy Pettitte‘s forearm will likely push Sergio Mitre into the rotation for at least one turn. Frankie Cervelli has filled in admirably while Jorge Posada has dealt with knee and calf ailments, ditto Joba Chamberlain and Mariano Rivera‘s tight flank. As much of a pick-me-up as they’ve been, the team is clearly better off with Posada and Mo healthy enough to do their jobs.

Alex Rodriguez‘s knee cost him just one game and one baserunning experience, and appears to have been the least severe of this latest rash of injuries. The drop off from him to his replacement (Ramiro Pena) is the widest gap on the team, so right now the focus has to be on keeping his body fresh and health with this knee issue is in the not too distant past, even if it means extra days off. He hasn’t been hitting all that much (just a .331 wOBA), but the more time he misses with an injury, the longer it’s going to take him to get his bat going. An extra day or rest here or there, even if it seems excessive to us outsiders, is going to be worth the reward.

But beyond those already hobbling, the Yankees have to be careful with the other players that have managed to stayed in the lineup. Derek Jeter is a 35-year-old shortstop and isn’t indestructible just because he’s Derek Jeter. Robbie Cano, Nick Swisher, and Mark Teixeira have proven to be extremely durable players in recent years and are in their physical primes, so their health outlook is good. However, the same could have been said of Curtis Granderson.

Fluke injuries happen, and there’s nothing you can do about it. That’s why they’re flukes. Anyone could have come up lame rounding second like Granderson did over the weekend. It’s the injuries that just pop – Mo’s flank, A-Rod‘s knee, Andy’s elbow, Jorge’s calf – that have to be managed carefully. Losses to the Red Sox always sting a little bit more, but getting out of this weekend’s series with everyone healthy should be the biggest thing on everyone’s mind.

Swisher and Gardner adjusting their approaches

How does a team go 19-8 when their two best hitters have mostly struggled most of that time? By getting production from some unexpected places. Robinson Cano, Nick Swisher, and Brett Gardner have carried the Yankees’ offense, compensating for the slow start by Mark Teixeira and the recent woes for Alex Rodriguez. All three appear in the AL wOBA leader board, with Cano ranking fourth, Gardner ninth, and Swisher 12th. They’ll eventually cool off, but by that time Rodriguez and Teixeira could be back to their baseball bashing ways. Teixeira is already mostly there.

The high production from Gardner and Swisher won’t stay at this level all season — .380 and .378 BABIPs are hard to maintain — but both have displayed approaches that could portend future success. Gardner has continued his selective ways, taking even more pitches than he did last season. Conversely, Swisher is swinging the bat far more often than ever before in his career. Both approaches, by their current results, have worked.

Photo credit: Bill Kostroun/AP

The most striking of Swisher’s 2009 numbers is his strikeout percentage. At 18.9 percent, it represents his lowest rate since his 71-PA debut in 2004. He’s actually chasing more pitches out of the zone, 28.1 percent against 17.4 percent last year, but is also swinging at more pitches in the zone, 69.3 percent against 56.7 percent. All those extra swings have led to him making more contact, 83.3 percent of his swings. This has led to more solid contact, which shows up in his batted ball numbers. Of the 74 balls Swisher has put in play, 18 have been line drives, 24.3 percent.

The trade-off for Swisher has been noticeable. In 2009 he saw 4.27 pitches per plate appearance, which ranked second in the American League. That led to the highest walk rate in his career, 16 percent. This year Swisher has seen 4.06 pitches per plate appearance. While that’s still a solid number, it ranks just 25th in the AL. Strangely, the only hitter who saw more pitches last season, Kevin Youkilis, again ranks directly above Swisher (though has the same P/PA number). The approach has helped with men on base. While Swisher hit a respectable .246/.403/.453 with men on in 2009, he’s hit .340/.415/.596 in those situations this year. The extra hits mean more RBI and more advanced runners, which has boosted the Yanks offense.

Photo credit: Henry Ray Abrams/AP

Gardner has made up for Swisher’s reduced number of pitches seen. He has seen 4.5 pitches per plate appearances, second in the AL. This is an improvement of nearly half a pitch per plate appearance over last season. This has led to a higher walk rate, 11.7 percent, compared to 9.2 percent last season. Yet it doesn’t appear Gardner is being more selective. He has swung at 19.2 percent of pitches outside the zone against 17.2 percent last season. The main difference comes on pitches inside the zone. He has swung at 40.3 percent of those, against 50.7 percent last season. In other words, he sees more pitches, but also takes more strikes.

What has allowed Gardner to stay productive this year is his success when swinging in the zone. Not only does he mostly avoid swinging at pitches out of the zone, but he also apparently lays off pitches in the zone that he knows he can’t handle. To that end, he has made contact with 98.8 percent of pitches he has swung at inside the zone. In fact, his first miss of the season came yesterday. This has boosted his contact rate, which is excellent for a hitter of Gardner’s style. He has also performed superbly with two strikes. He has seen such a count in 62 of his 94 PA, and has hit .339/.403/.393.

I have no idea if Gardner and Swisher can sustain anything resembling the success they’ve realized in the first month. What we can see, though, is that they’re both taking a definite approach at the plate. Swisher is swinging earlier in counts and is making a ton more contact, leading to a higher batting average and more power. Gardner is taking everything he doesn’t like, even if the ump calls it a strike. That has worked, though, because he’s able to compensate by hitting well with two strikes. It has worked so far, and I don’t think we’ll see a shift in strategy any time soon.

Yanks sweep O’s, improve to 19-8

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

After the Yanks got through seven innings with a 6-1 lead, I thought I’d rest my eyes for the last couple of innings. Unfortunately, the speculation about Andy Pettitte‘s early exit raged, and it kept my attention. I was both glad that I saw the action, but enraged because the Yanks bullpen let Baltimore back into the game. When Al Aceves recorded the final out the O’s had the tying run on base.

Pettitte will likely miss his next start with inflammation in his left elbow, though no one appears to think it’s that serious. Look for the Sergio Mitre Experience on Tuesday against Detroit.

Biggest Hit: Johnson gets it started

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

In a game where one team takes a big lead early, we typically don’t see much fluctuation on the WPA leader board. There was no definitive play in this game, no at-bat that turned things around. The Yanks’ offense got going from the beginning, and Nick Johnson started it all. He got all of David Hernandez’s second offering, sending it all the way into the second deck. The ball left in a hurry, too. It might have been the hardest hit ball by any Yankee this year.

Johnson went 3 for 3 on the day while drawing two walks. He got thrown out at the plate on a close play in the third, but did score in the fourth on Mark Teixeira‘s two-RBI double. It’s too early to say that Johnson has shed his slump, but a day like this can be nothing but encouraging.

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

Honorable Mentions: Swisher’s jack, Teixeira’s double

While Nick Johnson wasted no time in pulverizing a Hernandez pitch, the other half of the New York Nicks characteristically took his time. He watched the first four pitches, leading to a 3-1 count. Hernandez threw a fastball on the outside edge, but Swisher got all of it, rocketing it into the right field seats for the Yankees second run of the game.

Mark Hendrickson came in to relieve Hernandez with two outs in the fourth, which flipped Teixeira to the right side. Hendrickson opened with a curveball that missed high, and then threw another one that crossed the middle of the plate. Tex crushed it to right center, out of the range of fill-in center fielder Lou Montanez. Since there were two outs both Jeter and Johnson scored, which put the Yanks ahead 6-1. At that point they had scored in each of the first four innings.

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

Biggest Pitch: Pettitte walks in a run

Elbow issues can wreak havoc on a pitcher’s control. Only 46 of Pettitte’s 77 pitches were strikes, 60 percent. That’s below where usually sits. It resulted in only two walks, though they both proved costly. With one out in the fourth Pettitte battled through an at-bat with Garrett Atkins, throwing seven pitches. The last was a misplaced cutter for ball four. That loaded the bases. It was the first time in 2010 that Pettitte faced a bases loaded situation.

Pettitte then went to work on Matt Wieters, dropping a curve on the low-outside corner for strike one. He then came back with an inside fastball which Wieters fouled off, putting him in an 0-2 hole. After a fastball out of the zone and a fouled-off cutter, Pettitte delivered a fastball up and in, and Wieters couldn’t hold up. Like Burnett the night before, Pettitte had struck out a batter at a crucial moment, with a runner on third and less than two outs.

Nolan Reimold then came to the plate, and Pettitte started him off the same way as Wieters, with a curveball on the low-outside corner for a called strike one. He missed with his next two pitches, both fastballs, before getting a called strike on a low and away fastball. After a foul on and up and in fastball, Pettitte missed low with his next two pitches, a cutter then a fastball, to walk in the Orioles first run. He came right back to finish the Orioles there, and then induced a ground ball double play to end the fifth. He might have been a bit off, but it didn’t seem like anything serious…

Gardner just keeps hitting

Heading into the season many were uneasy with the prospect of Brett Gardner starting in left field. That tends to happen with small guys who don’t hit for power. We’ve seen so many of them flop that we’ve come to expect it. I can’t tell you how many emails I got this winter saying that Gardner was nothing more than a fourth outfielder, and he’d be lucky to stick in that role for a few years. So far, though, Gardner has done nothing but silence his critics.

After his 1 for 3 performance today, which included a walk, Gardner is hitting .346/.430/.432. Of the 40 times he’s been on base he’s attempted 14 steals and has been successful 13 times. He’s cut down on his strikeouts, a good sign for a guy who was overpowered at times last year, and is walking more. He won’t keep hitting at this level, but even if he cools off a bit he’ll be an immensely valuable player for the Yankees this season.

Oh, and he leads AL left fielders in wOBA.

Bullpen meltdown averted

The worst part of this game, clearly, came at the end, when the Yankees’ bullpen allowed four runs in the final two innings. Sergio Mitre, in his third inning of work, left two sinkers up in the zone, and Ty Wigginton crushed the second for a two-run homer. That’ll happen. Mitre isn’t exactly stretched out at this point, at least in terms of endurance. That happens when the pitching staff rarely needs a long man. The damage was minimal, though. Girardi immediately changed pitchers. Marte and Robertson finished off the inning.

Robertson came out to start the ninth, a move I applauded at the time. He hasn’t gotten a chance for consistent work this season, and it shows in the results. With a 7-3 lead and just three outs to go, it seemed like a perfect situation. He retired Garrett Atkins on three pitches to start the inning, but then came trouble. With Matt Wieters batting from his strong side, Robertson delivered six straight fastballs. Why he didn’t go with a breaking ball at any point I have no idea. The last one was thigh high across the middle of the plate, so of course Wieters deposited it in the second deck in right.

The next batter, Nolan Reimold, saw six pitches, five of which were fastballs. The lone curveball was actually a decent offering, dropping low and outside but just below the zone. Robertson then got Reimold to chase a high-inside pitch for strike two, missed high with a fastball for ball three, and then actually ran a pitch off the plate inside. Reimold got out in front of it, though, and crushed it off the foul pole in left. That was it for Robertson, but Al Aceves came on to finish the game.

WPA Graph

Were you worried? The graph says we shouldn’t have been worried. I was worried for a bit, though.

Next Up

The team gets an off-day tomorrow before heading up to Boston. Who the hell approves these schedules? First, second, and last Yanks-Sox series are in Boston. Anyway, it’ll be on YES at 7 p.m. Friday evening. Phil Hughes vs. Josh Beckett.

Stoneburner dominant yet again in Charleston win

Greg at Pending Pinstripes posted some statistical leaderboards for Yankee prospects. Who had Eduardo Nunez leading the system with a 7.6% strikeout rate?

Triple-A Scranton had a scheduled off day, as did the rest of the International League.

Double-A Trenton (5-2 loss to Akron)
Austin Krum, CF: 1 for 3, 1 R, 1 BB
Dan Brewer, LF & Luis Nunez, SS: both 0 for 3 – Brewer got hit by a pitch & K’ed
David Adams, 2B: 2 for 4, 1 R – 11 for his last 27 (.407)
Austin Romine, C: 1 for 4, 1 RBI, 1 K – hitting streak is up to 16 games
Brandon Laird, 3B & Reid Gorecki, RF: both 1 for 4 – Laird drove in a run … Gorecki stole a bag
Edwar Gonzalez, DH & Marcos Vechionacci, 1B: both 0 for 4, 2 K
Ryan Pope: 5.2 IP, 6 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 2 BB, 1 K, 1 HB, 6-9 GB/FB – meh
Josh Schmidt: 0.1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 0 K, 1-0 GB/FB
Wilkins Arias: 1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 1 K, 1-1 GB/FB
Grant Duff: 1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 2 K, 0-1 GB/FB – 23-4 K/BB ratio in 13.2 IP

[Read more…]

Open Thread: The strike zone is slightly amorphous

David Biderman at the Wall Street Journal posted a look at the strike zones called for each player on the Mets and Yankees, and to no one’s surprise, star players get star treatment. Well, except for Alex Rodriguez. Apparently some umps are out to get him, because strike zone is the third largest on the team. One of these days we’ll have robot umps and laser traced strike zones and everything will be nice and uniform. Until then … the human element!

Anyway, here’s tonight’s open thread. For the latest on Andy Pettitte, see our injury update post. In sports, you’ve got NBA and NHL playoff action, plus the Cardinals and Phillies are on ESPN (Penny vs. Kendrick). You know the routine, so have at it.