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Sunday: The Yankees are indeed using tomorrow’s off-day to skip the Hughes/Huff spot. It’ll be Kuroda, Sabathia, and Nova against the Rays next week while Hughes/Huff get the ball sometime next weekend against the Astros. No-brainer move.

Saturday: Prior to today’s game, Joe Girardi said the Yankees are considering using Monday’s off-day to rearrange their rotation for the final week of the season. Nothing is set in stone yet. “It’s something we have discussed and we have to make a decision pretty quick about what we’re going to do,” said the skipper.

Most likely, the Yankees will use the off-day to push the Phil Hughes/David Huff tandem back to next weekend. That would line up Hiroki Kuroda, CC Sabathia, and Ivan Nova for the series with the Rays next week. It would also allow Sabathia to start a potential tiebreaker game next Monday, if the Yankees manage to get that far. Hughes/Huff currently line up for that game. So yeah, the change will be announced pretty soon.

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Via Chad Jennings: Ivan Nova believes he was tipping his pitches during his two recent and ineffective starts against the Red Sox. “Sometimes you put [the glove] like this (sideways), sometimes you put it like that (straight up and down),” said Nova. “You don’t try to stay in one position. I don’t know if that was the problem, but I was watching the video and sometimes I do [change the glove] a little bit.”

Chris Stewart agreed Nova could have been tipping his pitches, but yesterday’s complete-game shutout was more about attacking hitters than anything else. “Could have been (tipping pitches in Boston),” said the backstop. “They were spitting on some good pitches. But he also threw a lot more strikes today, it felt like, and he was attacking the hitter a lot more. I think that was the difference … Whether they knew what was coming in Boston or not, who knows, but hopefully we get a chance to play them in the playoffs and he gets a chance to redeem himself.”

Nova, 26, has a 3.13 ERA and 3.42 FIP in 132.1 innings this season while battling an on-and-off triceps issue. It certainly seems plausible that he was tipping his pitches against Boston based on the at-bats they were having against him. As I said in the game recap two weeks ago, they did such a good job laying off his curveball that it seemed like they knew it was coming. Turns out they might actually have. Hopefully Nova and pitching coach Larry Rothschild cleaned up the sloppiness and it won’t be an issue going forward.

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Half a rotation spot. (Jim McIsaac/Getty)

Half a rotation spot. (Jim McIsaac/Getty)

For the first four or five months of the season, the pitching staff carried the Yankees. The offense was nonexistent and the guys on the mound had to do all the heavy lifting. That same pitching staff has faltered in recent weeks — Chad Jennings did a great job breaking down the rotation’s recent performance yesterday — perhaps because they’re running out of gas after having so little margin for error earlier in the year. I imagine having to throw something close to a shutout every five days can wear on a pitcher.

The Yankees did not acquire a starter at the trade deadline — they did try to acquire Dan Haren last weekend, but to no avail — so they have had to improvise down the stretch. Since CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, and Andy Pettitte are locked into starting spots no matter what and Ivan Nova pitched more than well enough in July and August to remain in the rotation, Phil Hughes was the odd man out. And deservedly so, he’s been terrible all year.

Unfortunately, the alternatives weren’t all that great. David Phelps (forearm), Vidal Nuno (groin), and Michael Pineda (shoulder) were all hurt, leaving David Huff as the only option. He pitched well in a handful of long relief appearances against last place teams but got destroyed by the Red Sox in his only start, so the Yankees opted to put Hughes back in the rotation with a twist — he and Huff would work in tandem. We saw it against the Orioles last week and Joe Girardi indicated over the weekend the tandem would remain intact.

The whole idea of a tandem starter system is to limit each guy’s exposure. The Yankees are cool with Hughes and Huff going through the lineup once (or once and a half), but the second and third times through are a concern. This calls for some obligatory stats, so here is what Hughes has done each time through the order:

Split G PA R H 2B 3B HR BB SO SO/BB BA OBP SLG BAbip tOPS+
1st PA in G, as SP 130 1168 107 268 64 6 27 89 250 2.81 .254 .312 .402 .305 92
2nd PA in G, as SP 128 1116 144 270 53 3 44 83 204 2.46 .269 .329 .459 .294 110
3rd PA in G, as SP 119 765 116 196 41 1 38 54 124 2.30 .282 .334 .507 .292 123
4th+ PA in G, as SP 22 37 0 5 0 0 0 0 4 .135 .135 .135 .152 -26
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/17/2013.

Now here is what Huff has done each time through the order:

Split G PA R H 2B 3B HR BB SO SO/BB BA OBP SLG BAbip tOPS+
1st PA in G, as SP 53 481 52 125 24 2 16 38 57 1.50 .287 .342 .462 .297 93
2nd PA in G, as SP 53 465 69 128 38 6 10 32 57 1.78 .303 .354 .492 .328 103
3rd PA in G, as SP 48 314 55 91 29 0 15 22 35 1.59 .314 .364 .569 .317 122
4th+ PA in G, as SP 7 20 3 5 0 0 2 4 2 0.50 .313 .450 .688 .250 171
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/17/2013.

This isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison statistically. Going through the lineup the first time as a starter is different than doing it as a tandem starter. As a starter, you need to hold something back — usually the pitcher’s third pitch — to get through the lineup the second and third time. As a tandem starter, you can go all-out right out of the chute. There’s no reason to hold anything back because the other guy is coming out of the bullpen in an inning or two. It’s more of a reliever mentality and that would improve a guy’s performance, at least in theory.

The tandem starter idea sounds great on paper but it’s difficult to pull off most of the season because roster spots are limited. Using two pitchers to fill one rotation spot means either the bullpen or bench is going to be short. That isn’t an issue for the Yankees now because rosters are expanded, so Hughes and Huff can tag-team the fifth starter’s spot without leaving any other part of the team shorthanded. Girardi used each guy for three innings in Baltimore last week and the result was six combined innings of two-run ball, better than anything either Hughes or Huff could do on their own.

Now, the danger of using a tandem starter system is that you may be replacing an effective pitcher with an ineffective pitcher for no good reason. Who knows, maybe Hughes would have fired off five more scoreless innings had he stayed in the game against the Orioles. The more relievers you use in a game, the more likely you are to run into someone who just doesn’t have it that day, and that could be very costly. Same thing with the tandem starter system; the guy coming out of the ‘pen might be less effective than the guy who just left the game. That’s the risk.

Even though the Yankees were off yesterday and are off again next Monday, they can’t use the schedule to skip the Hughes/Huff rotation spot. If they could, I’m sure they would. The best they can do is push it back a day or two, but at this point they’re better off keeping everyone on turn to give the three veteran guys get an extra day of rest late in the season. By themselves, Hughes and Huff are obviously below-average big league starters. When smushed together in tandem system, they might actually be pretty good because they won’t have to go through a lineup multiple times. Considering the alternatives, it’s the best option the Yankees have.

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(Elsa/Getty)

(Elsa/Getty)

It’s no secret that this has been pretty much a disaster season for CC Sabathia, who owns a 4.90 ERA (4.13 FIP) in 204 innings across 31 starts. He’s going to set career worsts in several categories unless he closes out the year with an insanely strong finish. Sabathia is a big reason why the Yankees are on the outside of the playoff picture looking in with 13 games to play.

There are no shortage of theories why CC has been so terrible this year. He lost too much weight, he had offseason elbow surgery, the workload is catching up to him … all of that and more could be a factor. Here’s what a scout told Baseball Prospectus (subs. req’d) recently:

“More than anything, he just looks dead tired to me and, when you consider his workload since he left Cleveland and how little recovery time he has, I think that makes sense. His arm slot is lower than it has been in the past and he doesn’t keep his delivery together as well when he gets deep into the game, which are indicators that he is wearing down. There’s no denying that his fastball has lost some juice, and I think that has actually hurt his changeup more than anything else, as hitters don’t have to be so concerned with gearing up for the plus fastball. When he had a bigger fastball, hitters had to honor it, but there is less fear there now. However, he still gives it everything he’s got in every start and goes deep into ball games, he’s just not the front-line ace.”

Sabathia’s fastball as actually ticked up as the season progressed and he’s now sitting regularly in the 92-94 mph range each time out. That’s still down just a bit from the last few years, but it’s plenty good enough to succeed. Learning how to succeed with it isn’t easy though, and I think the scout’s point about the changeup is a really good one. A changeup is not a mutually exclusive pitch, so to speak. It’s thrown with the same arm action as the fastball and the difference in velocity is what does the trick. A changeup without a setup fastball is just a batting practice fastball.

Last season, Sabathia averaged 92.4 mph with his fastball and 86.0 mph with his changeup, a 6.4 mph difference. This year he’s at 91.3 mph with the fastball and 84.8 mph with the changeup, a 6.5 mph difference. Basically the same separation between the two pitches. However, it’s easier to sit back on a 91.3 mph heater than it is a 92.4 mph fastball or a 93.9 mph fastball (2011 velocity). Being able to wait a little longer on the fastball also impacts the effectiveness of the changeup. Sabathia’s changeup saved 1.94 runs per 100 thrown last year according to PitchFX. This year? Negative-1.70 runs per 100 thrown. That’s a swing of 3.64 runs saved per 100 changeups thrown. That’s a huge difference.

Unless Sabathia and pitching coach Larry Rothschild make some kind of magic mechanical adjustment, the fastball isn’t coming back. That’s not how it works for 33-year-old hurlers with nearly 3,000 innings on their arm. The solution may be working on the changeup to get even more separation from the fastball. Choke it back further in the hand, alter the grip, whatever. Something to turn that 6.5 mph separation into something like an 8-10 mph separation, which is where Andy Pettitte is living these days. Changeup masters Cole Hamels and Jamie Shields are also in that 8-10 mph range. This is much easier said than done obviously, but it’s something Sabathia will have to do to improve his performance going forward, both this year and next.

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Phil Hughes will start in place of David Huff tomorrow, Joe Girardi announced. Huff got clobbered by the Red Sox last time out, but I think the free-swinging Orioles would be a much better matchup for him. Either way, I’m sure Girardi will have a really short leash. He should, anyway.

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2012 is on the left, 2013 on the right.

Nova’s fastball location in 2012 (left) vs. 2013 (right).

Ivan Nova was a punching bag last season. I think that’s a fair way to put it. He allowed an MLB-high 87 extra-base hits despite only throwing the 83rd most innings (170.1) in baseball, and opponents tagged him for a .288/.349/.511 batting line. Nova turned every hitter he faced last summer into someone resembling 2010 Nick Swisher (.288/.359/.511). He was terrible.

Things have been much different this year, particularly of late. Nova was just named the AL Pitcher of the Month for August and has a 2.06 ERA in 74.1 innings and ten starts since officially rejoining the rotation in July. Opponents have hit .224/.297/.294 against him during those ten starts, which is slightly better than 2013 Chris Stewart (.215/.288/.280). He’s been a rotation godsend.

As David Golebiewski at Baseball Analytics showed today, Nova’s success this year stems from his ability to keep his fastball down. Scrapping his slider in favor of a curveball helped as well, but keeping the fastball down — the heat maps above show how much his location has improved — has been crucial in limiting extra-base hits. Opponents slugged .597 (!) off his heater in 2012, but this year that sits at just .397. The league average for starting pitchers is .443, according to Golebiewski.

The Red Sox are one of the better low fastball hitting teams in the baseball — slugging an MLB-best .505 against low heaters according to Golebiewski — so the key for Nova in tonight’s start is going to be that curveball. Breaking out his rarely used changeup and possibly showing some sliders as a change of pace pitch could be in order as well. Nova is excelling because he’s keeping his fastball down and the Red Sox are mashing because they hit those low fastballs. The Yankees will have to adjust accordingly in tonight’s opener.

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Left-hander David Huff will start against the Red Sox on Saturday, Joe Girardi announced. Phil Hughes is moving to the bullpen and could be available as soon as tomorrow. Clearly the right move based on this morning’s poll.

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Via Chad Jennings: Hiroki Kuroda skipped his usual between-starts bullpen session on Saturday. “Sometimes guys just skip their bullpens,” said Joe Girardi, which is actually true. This is noteworthy, however, because Kuroda stopped throwing bullpens between his starts all together last September due to fatigue. He modified his offseason routine in an effort to stay fresh later into the season.

Kuroda, 38, has been outstanding overall this season, pitching to a 2.89 ERA and 3.50 FIP in 171.1 innings across 27 starts. He was brutal in August though, with a 5.12 ERA and 4.04 FIP in five starts and 31.2 innings. Fatigue set in late last year and Kuroda’s performance similarly slipped down the stretch — he did bounce back and was outstanding in the postseason — so it’s fair to wonder if he’s going through the same thing now. The Yankees will have a very hard time making a serious run at a wildcard spot if Kuroda is anything less than an ace, so hopefully this is just a bump in the road and little rest does the trick.

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(Rich Schultz/Getty)

(Rich Schultz/Getty)

For the third time in the last two weeks or so, left-hander David Huff came out of the bullpen to give the Yankees a quality long relief appearance yesterday. He’s been so effective — one run on six hits and five walks with ten strikeouts in 14 innings across three extended outings — the team should consider putting him in the rotation over the generally ineffective Phil Hughes. Like seriously consider it. Not think about it for two seconds and maintain the status quo.

“I haven’t made any decisions about changing the rotation,” said Joe Girardi to Brian Heyman after yesterday’s win, which isn’t surprising because the Yankees rarely announce a rotation change after a game. That’s something they tend to announce the next day after sleeping on it and talking to everyone involved. Starters only pitch once every five days, so there’s no reason to rush into a decision like that.

The 29-year-old Huff is pretty much a known commodity at this point. He spent parts of three seasons in the Indians’ rotation and pitched to a 5.50 ERA and 4.93 FIP in 258.2 innings. That’s awful. Actually worse than Hughes has been this year. That said, Huff has pitched pretty well of late and sometimes that’s enough of a reason to make a change. Replacing the guy who has been pitching poorly with the guy who has been pitching well isn’t crazy idea, especially when both have track records of being below-average pitchers. Maybe the other guys throws the month of his life. Who knows?

Given the weirdness of yesterday’s game with the rain delay and everything, I see the Yankees having three options with Hughes, Huff, and the rotation. Let’s break ‘em down before we vote on which is best.

Option One: Do Nothing
The easiest option and one that always exists. The Yankees could simply leave Hughes in the rotation and start him Saturday against the Red Sox as scheduled. Huff remains in the bullpen and that’s that. Nothing changes. It’s boring and probably a bad idea, but it is a justifiable option given Huff’s career performance as a starter.

(Rich Schultz/Getty)

(Rich Schultz/Getty)

Option Two: Replace Hughes with Huff
The second option is pretty straight forward. Take Hughes out of the rotation and replace him with Huff. Simple. Phil joins the middle relief crew — he’s never not been awesome in the bullpen, which would hopefully continue — and Huff gets the ball every five days with a short leash. He was stretched out as a starter with Triple-A Scranton, but it has been a while and he was pretty clearly starting to run out of gas around 55 pitches yesterday (he threw 62 total). That could be because he threw eight pitches on Sunday.

The Yankees won’t get a full 100+ pitches out of Huff, at least not right away, but it’s not like Hughes was giving them much length anyway. He failed to complete five innings of work in four of his last six starts prior to yesterday’s rain-shortened outing. Either way, Girardi & Co. would have to plan to use their bullpen heavily whenever this rotation spot comes up. Thank goodness for September call-ups.

Option Three: Start Hughes on Wednesday
People like the word creative, so let’s call this the creative solution. Because he only threw 20 low-stress pitches before the rain yesterday, the Yankees could start Hughes tomorrow and have his rotation spot avoid the upcoming four-game Red Sox series. The long-term concerns are nil — Phil is almost certainly a goner after the season — and with expanded rosters, there are plenty of extra arms to soak up whatever innings are leftover. Hughes might not be able to give the team a full 100-pitch start on what amounts to one day of rest, but it’s not like he was pitching deep into games anyway.

By starting Hughes against the White Sox on Wednesday, they would push CC Sabathia back to Thursday and let him start against Boston with an extra day of rest. Sabathia has not been good against the Red Sox this year (or anyone else for that matter), but I don’t think I’m alone in saying I’d rather see him out there against Boston than Hughes or Huff. Having the worst starter face a last place team instead of a first place team is the best case scenario.

* * *

Long relievers are like backup quarterbacks in the sense that it always seems like the guy on the bench could do a better job. In reality, there’s usually a very good reason they’re on the bench, or, in this case, the bullpen. Huff’s track record says he would really stink in the rotation, but so does Hughes’. The Yankees are picking between two grenades and hoping they get the one that hasn’t had the pin pulled.

What should the Yankees do with their fifth starter's spot?

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Thanks to yesterday’s off-day, the Yankees have pushed Phil Hughes‘ next start back from Sunday to Monday. That allows him to start against the last place White Sox rather than the wildcard rival Orioles. Andy Pettitte, who was scheduled to start Monday, will instead start against Baltimore on Sunday on normal rest. Not surprising at all. The Yankees can’t run Hughes out there against a good team and expect to win.

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