Phil Hughes and the need to pitch downhill

Phil Hughes made his first start in nearly three months last night, dancing around danger for five innings and allowing just two first inning runs. He gave up six hits (all singles), two walks, and two hit batters, throwing 87 pitches and getting just two swings and misses.  “People are going to say it’s a good outing, but we know that he can be better,” said Joe Girardi afterwards. “We know that he can be downhill more …  I talked about with the extra days off and the first outing, my concern was that he would be up a little bit. That’s what we saw.” And up he was…

That heat map comes courtesy of David Golebiewski at Baseball Analytics and shows the location of Hughes’ fastballs last night. Everything is up in the zone, and a fair amount of it is towards the middle of the plate. There’s nothing wrong with pitching up in the zone if you have enough fastball to get away with it, but right now Hughes doesn’t. He sat mostly 91-92 mph last night with a few 93’s mixed in, up from earlier in the year but still down from last season, when he’d routinely flirt with 94-95.

Hughes is a big dude, listed at 6-foot-5 and 240 lbs. on the official site, but he’s so not outrageously tall that driving the ball down into the bottom third of the zone should be that difficult. He’s a fly ball pitcher (just 35.2% grounders for his career) because he’s up in the zone so, and that’s why he had so much trouble with homers in the second half last season. It sounds easy, but it only is in theory: Hughes has to pitch down in the zone given his present stuff. Pitching upstairs consistently just won’t work like it did in the first half of last year.

Of course, one start doesn’t tell us much. Perhaps he was just amped up and overthrowing, leading to pitches up in the zone. Did Phil look better than he did in April? Obviously yes, it would have been tough to look any worse. But he still had the same problem with putting guys away, so instead of trying to strike everyone out, it might be time to switch to (ugh) pitch-to-contact mode, even if it’s just temporary. Getting the ball down in the zone will help that, and maybe dabbling a two-seam grip would be worth a try as well.

Scouting the Trade Market: Tim Byrdak

(From Flickr user slgckgc via Creative Commons license.)

The Yankees don’t have too many needs as the deadline approaches, but we’ve heard time and again that they seek left-handed pitching. Specifically, they’d like a lefty reliever to go with, or perhaps replace, Boone Logan. Many teams seek similar help, and it complicates the market. No one wants to pay that much for a guy who comes in to face just one or two batters, but no team wants to be left without such a guy. Most of the time, that means few are available. This year is no different, though there’s an intriguing name pitching across town: Tim Byrdak. Via MLB Trade Rumors, the Mets will look to move him this month, so let’s size him up.

The Pros

  • He has absolutely mowed down lefties this year, striking out 19 of 55 he has faced (13.50 per nine, or 35% of all lefties faced). He has walked only three of those 55, thanks to a 67 percent strike rate. In other words, he’s probably not going to go all Logan and walk the guys he’s charged with retiring. The rate doesn’t hold up through his entire career, but he still has struck out more than a lefty per inning (26 percent) since 2005.
  • He’s struck out nine of 40 righties he’s faced (9 IP), good for a 23 percent rate. He’s not great against them, as he’s walked six (one intentional), but he can hold his own if he needs to face a righty sandwiched between two lefties.
  • He has held inherited runners at bay this season, allowing just five of 27 to score. That’s huge for a LOOGY, since he’ll often enter a game with men on in a big spot.
  • Speaking of big spots, he’s faced 17 men in high leverage situations this year and has allowed just three hits. He has walked three, though one was intentional, while striking out six. He’s also struck out 13 of the 32 men he’s faced with runners in scoring position, and 18 of 51 with men on base.
  • Most importantly, he throws with his left arm and is potentially better than Logan. That seems to be the main criteria for the Yankees this deadline.

The Cons

  • The rates listed above are in the small sample that is 2011. His walk rate against righties for his career is over 6.00, and it’s still around 6 when you take out the intentional walks. In other words, he could turn into a pumpkin real quickly.
  • Another reason to dislike is his 1.34 WHIP against lefties this year. It’s great that he’s sitting plenty down via the strikeout, but the ones who make contact are faring very well. Maybe his .387 BABIP against lefties is a fluke and will come down, or maybe it’s a sign that he’s fooling some of them but not others.
  • While he’s stranded runners aplenty this year, his career rate is a pretty standard 33 percent. If he’s going to regress back to his career average, it’s going to mean a lot of inherited runners scoring in the second half.
  • Similarly, his career performance in high leverage situations is fairly pedestrian. That 1.67 WHIP, which includes a 6.00 BB/9 rate, does not look pretty.

If the Yankees do attempt to acquire Byrdak, they have to do so with the hope that a change of leagues — he hasn’t pitched in the AL since 2007 — helps him keep going with the high strikeout rate. It’s really all he offers. If that rate regresses, he’s of even less use. So while they’d be essentially bidding on a prayer with Byrdak, they’d also have to expect the worst, since that’s the nature of relievers. That means not parting ways with anything of remotely significant value. But since he’s a lefty and has a high strikeout rate, there is probably a team willing to up the bidding on him. I just hope the Yankees don’t bite. Given the state of the bullpen I wouldn’t mind seeing Byrdak added, but only at the right price. If it costs them anything from their top 15 or so prospects, it’s probably too much.

Series Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

(Photo Credit: Flickr user Keith Allison via Creative Commons license)

It’s July 7th, but somehow the Yankees and Rays have only played two games so far. That was back in mid-May, when the Yankees were in the middle of that ugly six-game losing streak. They dropped the first game but rebounded behind Ivan Nova to win the second, and that’s it. These two teams are going to see a lot of each other in the second half, I guess.

What Have The Rays Done Lately?

Tampa has won just four of their last nine games, and they needed an Alex Burnett (who?) meltdown to avoid being swept by the Twins yesterday. They’ve been playing just a touch better than .500 ball for about a month now, but they do have the third best record (48-39) and fourth best run differential (+35) in the American League.

Rays On Offense

(Photo Credit: Flickr user Keith Allison via Creative Commons license)

Luckily for the Yankees, two of the Rays’ most important offensive players are battling injuries. Johnny Damon is expected to miss a few days with a left hand contusion after Francisco Liriano hit him with not one, but two pitches yesterday, and his .279/.327/.426 batting line will likely be replaced by Sam Fuld (.243/.304/.357) and/or Justin Ruggiano (.284/.308/.486 in limited action). Evan Longoria is playing with a nerve issue in his left foot, which is part of the reason why his season line sits at a pedestrian .243/.329/.471. No one likes to see anyone get hurt, but the fact of the matter is that those injuries have a tangible impact on the game.

Tampa’s offense has generally been reliant on two guys this season. Ben Zobrist is hitting .265/.349/.461 with the fourth most extra base hits (41) in the American League. We could see him play second or right or both in this series. Matt Joyce has a nifty .291/.352/.510 batting line, but that’s propped up by an early season hot streak and he’s hit just .160/.219/.298 since June 1st. A nagging shoulder issue has contributed to that somewhat. Casey Kotchman has been the mother of all surprises, sporting a .343/.401/.464 batting line while playing against both righties and lefties. B.J. Upton is the only other constant in the lineup, and he’s at .231/.318/.405.

The other lineup spots are one big revolving door. Sean Rodriguez (.323/.413/.585 vs. LHP) will platoon against southpaws, usually at second base with Zobrist shifting to the outfield. Elliot Johnson (.250/.388/.300 vs. LHP) will get some time at short as the offensively incompetent Reid Brignac (.187/.233/.217 overall) sees more and more time on the bench. John Jaso (.234/.288/.361 vs. RHP) and Kelly Shoppach (.222/.329/.333 vs. LHP) platoon behind the plate. As usual, Tampa will augment their offense with stolen bases, and the main culprits are Upton (20), Fuld (16), and Zobrist (eight). Damon (seven) will also run if he’s healthy enough to play.

Rays On The Mound

Thursday, RHP Jeff Niemann (vs. Bartolo Colon): The big (6-foot-9) right-hander just returned from the disabled list, missing just about all of May and most of June with a back issue. He’s been good (six shutout innings), bad (five runs in three innings), and good again (one run in six innings) in his three starts back, though all those games came against National League teams. Niemann’s fastballs (two and four-seamer) both sit in the low-90’s, mostly 91, and he backs them up with a curveball, a slider, and a little splitter-changeup hybrid thing that he’ll break out from time to time. The Yankees are familiar enough with Niemann and he’s a good matchup for them because he’s a big-time fly ball guy (39.9% grounders) and doesn’t miss many bats (5.63 K/9).

Friday, RHP Jeremy Hellickson (vs. Freddy Garcia): The rookie sensation has been more rookie than sensation so far. His shiny 3.21 ERA is backed up by underwhelming peripherals: 5.90 K/9, 3.39 BB/9, 33.1% grounders, a 4.29 FIP, and a 4.45 xFIP. Hellboy will sit right around 90 mph with a two and four-seamer, and his go-to secondary pitch is a low-80’s changeup that fades down and away from left-handers. He’ll also mix in a curveball. Hellickson has given up seven homers total in his last five starts, during which he’s pitching to a 4.50 ERA. The Yankees have seen him before but not really: just 3.2 IP across a pair of relief appearances last season. That might be a problem.

(Photo Credit: Flickr user Keith Allison via Creative Commons license)

Saturday, LHP David Price (vs. A.J. Burnett): Because he wasn’t good enough last year, Price has gone ahead and knocked close to two full walks off his walk rate while increasing his strikeout rate this year. He’s the opposite of Hellickson in that his ERA (3.56) doesn’t do his underlying performance justice: 8.85 K/9, 1.67 BB/9, 42.7% grounders, a 2.73 FIP, and a 2.86 xFIP. Price lives of his fastball, legitimately sitting in the mid-90’s, and he’ll throw it straight, with some sink, or with some cut in on righties. A low-80’s changeup has become his top secondary weapon, but he’ll also show a curveball and a wipe-out slider. The Yankees have faced him once already this year (five runs in five innings) and have seen him several times over the last few years, but Price is one of those guys where it might not matter. It’s frontline stuff and if he’s on, he can beat anyone.

Sunday, RHP Jamie Shields (vs. CC Sabathia): Shields is in the middle of his best season ever, backing up his 2.47 ERA with a 3.07 FIP and 2.87 xFIP. He leads the league with six complete games, and he’s managed to get a handle on last year’s homerun trouble by upping his ground ball rate (45.3%). The improvement has to do with his curveball, which he’s throwing more than ever (21.1%) and in any count. Shields’ four and two-seamer still sits in the low-90’s, and of course he has that great changeup. The Yankees have seen plenty of Shields over the years and have already beaten him once this year (four runs in seven innings), but he’s certainly a tough assignment.

Bullpen: As unit, the Rays are middle of the pack in bullpen ERA (3.65) but bottom ten in FIP (4.10) and next-to-last in xFIP (4.30). Kyle Farnsworth has been very good in the ninth inning (2.08 ERA and 2.81 FIP) but he doesn’t strike out nearly as many batters as he once did (5.97 K/9). Joel Peralta has been solid as the setup man (3.63 ERA, 3.51 FIP) and J.P. Howell (8.56 ERA and 5.59 FIP in limited action) is working his way back into things after missing more than a year with shoulder surgery. Juan Cruz has been surprisingly solid in the middle innings (3.13 ERA and 3.40 FIP).

The rest of the bullpen isn’t anything to write home about. Lefty Cesar Ramos has a 4.05 ERA (4.94 FIP) and a reverse split, and big Adam Russell (6-foot-8, 255 lbs.) has just 12 strikeouts against 18 walks in 31 IP. He lives off his 53.8% ground ball rate. Long man Andy Sonnanstine (3.31 ERA, 4.42 FIP) never really pitches. He’s thrown just 16.1 IP this year and has appeared in only four games (one spot start) since June 1st. Tampa is okay in the late innings, but the middle innings could get interesting if the Yankees knock their starters out early enough.

Recommended Rays Reading: The Process Report and DRays Bay

Rally falls short in Hughes return to rotation

The story coming into Wednesday night’s game was Phil Hughes‘ return to the rotation, and the story at the end of the night was the Yankees’ third loss in their last four games. Hughes was adequate at best, but the offense couldn’t muster a damn thing until it was too late.

Pitched from the stretch way too much.

Hughes’ Return

For the most part, Hughes looked like 2010 second half version of himself. He had no trouble getting strike one or even strike two, but strike three proved rather elusive. The Indians fouled off 25 of his 87 pitches, and only twice did they swing and miss. Phil’s fastball velocity was fine (mostly 91-93 mph) and held it pretty well throughout the start, but his location was awful (seemed like everything was in the middle of the plate) and his curveball had more tumble than bite. Again, basically the same thing we saw after the All-Star break last year.

The first inning was pretty messy, especially when you include Russell Martin throwing the ball into left field on a steal attempt of third, and Hughes allowed the leadoff man to reach in four of five innings. He didn’t have a single 1-2-3 inning but did a fine job of pitching around trouble after that first inning, when the two runs scored. Five innings and two runs probably would have been five innings and four or five runs against a better team, but at least Hughes settled down after that ugly first and can build on those last four innings. He really needs to improve that location though, that was the ginormous red flag.

Mastered, Son

Of course, what Hughes did was of little consequence to the outcome of the game because the Yankees had no answer for Justin Masterson. They wouldn’t have score a run off him if the had five outs per inning. Masterson’s sinker was running all over the plate and touching at high as 97, harder than I ever remember him throwing before. The Yankees had men on first and second with no outs in the second but didn’t get another runner past first base until the eighth inning. He dominated them, no other way to put it.

Pretty much the only highlight for New York.

Too Little, Too Late

The Yankees did manage to push three runs across in the ninth inning, but it was just a little too late. The low-leverage dream team of Boone Logan (gave up a solo homer to a lefty) and Sergio Mitre (walked the bases loaded, then walked in a run) allowed Cleveland to score a pair of insurance runs in the seventh and eighth innings, which were ultimately the deciding runs. Nick Swisher was the only player to consistently hit the ball hard, falling victim to great plays by Matt LaPorta (diving on a ball down the line) and Grady Sizemore (jumping at the wall) before his ninth inning double dropped in over Michael Brantley’s head. The three runs will help the Pythag. record, but that’s pretty much it.


Nothing nice, Boone.

Derek Jeter doubled to right in the ninth eighth, his 2,997th career hit. Hopefully the milestone hit comes Friday, when I’ll be in the stands. If he doesn’t do it then, then just get it during the homestand so we can all move on.

Mark Teixeira went hitless in four at-bats and is down to a .243 batting average with a .347 OBP. That’s not exactly $180M contract, three-hole hitter on a World Series contender production. Alex Rodriguez had two hits and fantastic diving stop to help Logan escape a jam in the sixth inning. Robinson Cano and Martin also had hits, but that’s pretty much it offensively.

The trio of Logan, Mitre, and Luis Ayala combined to put eight men on base in three innings, all while Hector Noesi warmed up and twiddling his thumbs in the bullpen. The kid needs to go down and pitch regularly as a starter, because his role on the team is undefined and his usage is completely erratic. That whole situation is moronic, it’s like they’re going out of their way to devalue an asset. Then they’ll trade him and he’ll perform well, and they’ll wonder why he didn’t pitch like that in pinstripes.

The microphones in the booth picked up no fewer than three cans of (presumably) soda being opened, by my count. One for each run, I guess. The Yankees lost their first series since being swept by Boston seven series ago. Seven out of eight ain’t bad.

WPA Graph & Box Score has the box score and video, FanGraphs everything else.

Up Next

One more series before the All-Star break, and it’s a four gamer against the Rays at home. Bartolo Colon will start things off against Jeff Niemann on Thursday night. Jeter’s chase for 3,000 has ticket prices through the roof, but RAB Tickets can get you there (relatively) cheap.

Montero hits the disabled list, SWB loses

Jesus Montero was placed on the seven-day disabled list retroactive to Monday with that minor back issue. Mike Lamb was placed on the disabled list as well. Shaeffer Hall and Ryan Pope are going back down to Double-A Trenton. Seems like Hall was only up for the one spot start. P.J. Pilittere was activated off the phantom disabled list to fill one of the roster spots.

Triple-A Scranton (7-5 loss to Buffalo)
Chris Dickerson, CF: 1 for 5, 1 R, 2 K
Greg Golson, RF, Terry Tiffee, DH & Gus Molina, C: all 1 for 4 – Golson hit a solo jack, walked, and scored another run … Tiffee doubled and came around to score … Gus drove in a run and whiffed twice
Jorge Vazquez, 1B: 0 for 3, 1 BB, 3 K – one hit in ten at-bats since coming off the disabled list, with five strikeouts
Brandon Laird, 3B: 3 for 4, 1 2B, 3 RBI – six hits in his last 12 at-bats
Jordan Parraz, LF: 1 for 3, 1 K
Luis Nunez, 2B & Doug Bernier, SS: both 0 for 4, 1 K
Adam Warren, RHP: 5 IP, 9 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 0 BB, 3 K, 6-3 GB/FB – 68 of 107 pitches strikes were strikes (63.6%) … scattered the hits, I guess
George Kontos, RHP: 1 IP, 4 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 1 K, 1-0 GB/FB – 24 of 37 pitches were strikes (64.9%)
Eric Wordekemper, RHP: 1 IP, zeroes, 0-3 GB/FB – five of eight pitches were strikes
Andrew Brackman, RHP: 1 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 0 K, 3-0 GB/FB – 12 of 23 pitches were strikes (52.2%)
Buddy Carlyle, RHP: 1 IP, zeroes, 2-1 GB/FB – nine of 13 pitches were strikes

[Read more…]

Injury Updates: Feliciano, Soriano, Marte

Got some injury updates, courtesy of Chad Jennings. Pedro Feliciano has been shut down for a week with soreness in his throwing shoulder. He had been making light tosses off a mound as he rehabs from a torn shoulder capsule. Rafael Soriano is on his way back, throwing a bullpen yesterday and reporting no problems. He’ll throw another one tomorrow. Damaso Marte (remember him?) threw a bullpen today, though it’s unclear how long and with how much effort. Either way, good news for him and Soriano.

Game 85: Hughes Returns

(Photo Credit: Flickr user Anna Moony via Creative Commons license)

It’s been nearly three months since Phil Hughes started a game for the Yankees, but he makes his return from what was ultimately described as shoulder inflammation tonight against the Indians. He sandwiched two strong rehab outings around a so-so- one, but the results really don’t matter. His fastball was reportedly back and the brain trust decided Hughes at his present state was a better option than Ivan Nova. I’m just happy he’s back. Phil’s always been a personal fave, but I didn’t need to tell you that. Here’s the starting nine…

Derek Jeter, SS
Curtis Granderson, CF
Mark Teixeira, 1B
Alex Rodriguez, 3B
Robinson Cano, 2B
Nick Swisher, RF
Jorge Posada, DH
Russell Martin, C
Brett Gardner, LF

Phil Hughes, SP

First pitch is scheduled for a little after 7pm ET and can be seen on YES locally and ESPN nationally. Enjoy.

Notes: Mariano Rivera will get today off, but he told reporters that he will “definitely” be ready to go tomorrow … The Tribe activated Matt LaPorta from the disabled list today, but Asdrubal Cabrera is out of the lineup after rolling his ankle last night. Net gain for the Yankees.

Site News: We’re working on fixing some database bugs, so the site might be a little sketchy tonight, in that it might go down periodically. Just a heads up.