The RAB Radio Show: February 14, 2011

It’s pitchers and catchers day, which means that we get to invent some news. A few items swirled around camp on the first day, including bits about CC Sabathia and Joba Chamberlain. We look at that and a few other items of note.

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Looking at Phil Hughes’ changeup curveball

Changeup! (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Last year was really a tale of two seasons for Phil Hughes. He was brilliant early on, striking out close to a batter per inning (8.1 K/9) and earning a trip to the All-Star Game. Things started to come apart down the stretch, as his strikeout rate fell (6.6 K/9) and he suddenly become homer prone. Opponents had just a .295 wOBA (.138 ISO) off Hughes in the first half (which exactly matches Jeff Francoeur’s 2010 mark, for perspective) compared to a .330 wOBA (.181 ISO) in the second. Although most of our focus was on Phil’s changeup, perhaps we should have been paying attention to one of his other pitches.

For the most part, Hughes is a three-pitch guy. He throws a regular old four-seam fastball that sat right in the 92-94 mph range all season, a sneaky little cutter in the high 80’s, and a big breaking over-the-top curveball. That last one is the offering we’re going to focus on. The table on the right shows how often Hughes threw his curve, plus how often the batter swung at it and how often they swung and missed, broken down between the two halves of the season.

The first thing that (should have) jumped out at you was the whiff rate. Hitters swung and missed at Hughes’ curve 8.6% of the time in the first half, but that fell all the way down to 3.4% in the second half. That 5.2% drop is drastic, and it’s compounded by the fact that he started throwing the pitch a whole lot more often down the stretch. Turning to PitchFX, we can see that the vertical break of the curve was fairly consistent throughout the season, but the pitch was drifting all over the place horizontally…

Click the image for a larger view or better yet, look at this gif of the two graphs overlaid onto each other. It’s easier to compare them that way. The curve is the splotch of blue in the lower right quadrant.

The majority of Phil’s second half curves ended up about three or four pitches from the center of the plate to his glove side, which for all intents and purposes is right down the middle. In the first half it was more like five to seven inches off center, a pretty big difference. Hughes’ bender was was just far enough away from righties and too far inside on lefties for them to do any major damage in the first half, but they had a little easier time getting to it after the break.

Not only was Hughes’ curve finding the heart of the plate with more regularity in the second half, but he also lost about two miles an hour off the pitch. Hitters had that much more time to react to a pitch over the plate, a straight up bad combination. A power curve that generated swings and misses becamee a little more loopy down the stretch and simply wasn’t missing any bats. The decline of the curveball (theoretically) explains the decline in Hughes’ whiff rate, which in turn explains the decline in his overall strikeout rate.

There’s two things I should mention because they seem relevant enough. First of all, the All-Star break is right around when Hughes eclipsed his innings total from the previous year. He threw 105.1 total innings in 2009, and following his first start after the break in 2010, he was already at 106 IP. Could be a coincidence, could be meaningful (fatigue?). The other thing is that his release point changed, raising about six inches from the first half to the second. Here’s a gif comparing before and after. Again, it could mean something, it could mean nothing.

The changeup is undoubtedly going to be priority number one for the Yankees’ young hurler in 2011, but getting the curveball back to where it was in the first half will be key as well. Hopefully it’s nothing more than a fatigue issue and an offseason of rest does the trick. If it’s a mechanical issue, well those can be a pain in the ass.

Big ups to Texas Leaguers for PitchFX data and graphs.

Camp Notes: Rotation, Burnett, Jeter, CC, More

(Photo Credit: Yankees PR Dept.)

Spring Training has officially begun. Pitchers and catchers reported to the team’s complex in Tampa today, and Joe Girardi held an opening “welcome to 2011″ press conference. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that he didn’t really say anything groundbreaking, it was all pretty standard staff. But still, hooray for baseball.

With some help from the unparalleled beat writing crew, let’s recap the presser. Just about every link goes to Twitter, so in all seriousness you don’t have to click them. I’m just giving credit where it’s due …

  • “I feel good about the guys we have in that clubhouse,” said Girardi, with regards to his questionable rotation. “They can get it done.” I wonder if he said that with a straight face. (Mark Feinsand)
  • “[We’re] going to look at everyone in camp,” added the skipper, referring to the fourth and fifth starter’s spot. He called that it an “open competition.” (Erik Boland)
  • Unsurprisingly, Girardi feels good about A.J. Burnett‘s ability to rebound from 2010. “I just have a feeling in my gut that he’s going to have a good year … I know how much A.J. cares.” That and $2.50 will get him on the subway. (Feinsand & Boland)
  • In his second full year as a starter, Phil Hughes will be free of innings limitations. “It’s kind of nice,” said Girardi. I figured Hughes is good for about 200-210 innings last week. (Bryan Hoch & Boland)
  • Girardi was very explicit about who will hit atop the order this year. “[We] signed [Jeter] to be our shortstop and our leadoff hitter.” Surprised? You shouldn’t be. (Ben Shpigel)
  • Girardi danced around a question about CC Sabathia‘s opt-out clause, simply saying that “right now he’s a New York Yankee.” (Hoch)
  • Frankie Cervelli is not guaranteed the backup catcher’s job, supposedly. “That’s going to be a competition,” and Girardi acknowledged that kids like Jesus Montero and Austin Romine are “knocking on door.” Montero, sure, not so sure about Romine. (Boland)
  • Brett Gardner played hurt in the second half last year (wrist), which we knew already. (Boland)
  • “We wouldn’t come to Spring Training if we didn’t expect to win the division.” Amen, championships are not won in February. Yankees fans are far too familiar with that. (Hoch)

Here’s a few miscellaneous notes from throughout the morning…

  • Rumors of Sabathia’s weight loss have been confirmed; just about every reporter in camp said he was noticeably slimmer. “I’m 290, so I’m actually what it says on the back of my card,” said the lefty, who officially dropped 25 lbs and will probably lose another five to ten in camp. “I stopped eating Cap’n Crunch every day … I used to eat that stuff by the box.” CC added that he hopes to play another eight or ten years. (Hoch, Hoch, Feinsand & Boland)
  • Guest instructors this year include Yogi Berra, Tino Martinez, Lee Mazzilli, David Wells, Reggie Jackson, Goose Gossage and Ron Guidry. Boomer and Mazzilli are the first-timers. (Hoch & Marc Carig)
  • Last, but certainly not least, we have new uniform numbers. Eric Chavez gets 12, Andruw Jones 18, Mark Prior 22, Ronnie Belliard 26, Rafael Soriano 29, Pedro Feliciano 31, Freddy Garcia 36, Bartolo Colon 40, and Russell Martin 55. Cervelli now rocks number 17. How dare they disrespect Chris Basak like that! (Feinsand & Hoch)

CC not sounding as decisive about not opting out

(Paul Sancya/AP)

The first day of camp often functions as a frequently asked questions session. In years past we’ve heard reporters ask about the relationship between Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez and other similarly banal issues. This year they wasted no time in finding CC Sabathia and asking him about the clause in his contract that allows him to opt out after this season.

This topic gained some prominence earlier this winter, while the Yankees were still in pursuit of Cliff Lee. At first Sabathia kept his statements ambiguous, saying that he’s “not going anywhere.” During a TV appearance at Madison Square Garden CC was a bit more concrete in his language. Interviewer Jill Marting opened by asking him why he decided not to opt out of his contract. CC accepted the premise of the question, saying that, “that was an easy decision.” Case closed, right? Of course not. It won’t be closed until after the season ends. That means the question remains open, and that reporters will question Sabathia about it.

This morning Sabathia held court. When asked about the opt out, he again walked the tightrope. According to Joel Sherman, Sabathia said that he wouldn’t exercise the opt-out, without actually saying the words. This is exactly what we’ve heard from him in the past. “I’m here,” he said repeatedly. But we know that: Reporters made it clear this morning when they noted the weight he lost this winter, around 25 pounds. What we’re all wondering is whether he’ll be here next year, and the year after. That question remained unanswered, and by Sabathia’s indications it will remain unanswered. He won’t speak about the issue for the rest of the season.

Yet he did speak to the New York Post after his press session. In that interview he came across as a many willing to explore his options. “Anything is possible,” he said. Later he said that he’s “not thinking about anything beyond Opening Day.” Those don’t sound like the words of a man committed to remaining in New York under the current terms of his contract. That isn’t to say that he’s going to leave or even that he’s going to opt out. It does mean that he’s going to wait on that decision and make it based on what’s best for him at the time.

There are indications that Sabathia will stick around beyond this season. He has established his family here, buying a house and making it his year-round residence. His kids go to school here, and apparently he has asked about high schools for his son, who is currently seven years old. But he could exercise his considerable leverage in order to work out a new deal with the Yankees after this season. Conceivably, he could go as high as Cliff Lee’s current contract. Sabahtia has a longer track record of success than Lee, and he’ll be a year younger than Lee when the latter reached free agency. After all, Sabathia did say that he wanted to pitch another eight to ten years.

I have confidence that Sabathia will remain a Yankee for the forseeable future. I can even see him retiring in pinstripes. But I do not think that he will play the 2012 through 2015 seasons under the original terms of his contract. The Yankees need him, and they have the resources to pay him. Thankfully, as with most hot stove issues, we can put this behind us until November. He won’t talk about it, so we can forget about it for the time being and enjoy his performances every five days. It’s just another sign that baseball is that much closer.

Fan Confidence Poll: February 14th, 2011

Season Record: 95-67 (859 RS, 693 RA, 98-64 Pythag. record), finished one game back in AL East, won Wild Card, lost in ALCS

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