Archive for Pitching

(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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(Jim Rogash/Getty)

(Jim Rogash/Getty)

Later today, the Yankees will send their ace to the mound in the rubber game against the last place Blue Jays. It won’t be CC Sabathia. He’s pitched his way out of ace-hood this year. It’ll instead be Hiroki Kuroda, the All-Star snub who led the AL in ERA up until a few starts ago. The veteran right-hander heads into tonight’s game with a stellar 2.71 ERA and 3.45 FIP in 26 starts. Excellent numbers no matter how you slice ‘em.

Lately though, the 38-year-old Kuroda has been something less than an ace. He gave up seven runs and a career-high four homers against the Rays last time out, and in his start before that he surrendered a career-high eleven hits to the Red Sox. Every pitcher has a bump in the road at some point, it’s inevitable during the 162-game season, but seeing Kuroda go through it is a little unsettling. He isn’t exactly young and the Yankees need every win possible. If he suddenly became ineffective, their playoff hopes would be crushed.

Kuroda, as you surely remember, was dynamite for the Yankees last season as well. He did run into a wall right around start #25 though, enough of a wall that he stopped throwing his usual between-starts bullpen session in September. That’s a pretty big deal. When a pitcher has to alter his routine to remain fresh and effective, you know he’s running on fumes. Here Hiroki’s pre- and post-wall numbers for reference:

IP/GS ERA FIP K% BB% BABIP Opp. ISO Opp. OPS
Starts 1-25 6.2 2.96 3.60 18.6% 5.7% 0.275 0.144 0.674
Starts 26-33 6.2 4.44 4.48 19.1% 5.9% 0.314 0.198 0.801

Despite the fatigue, Kuroda’s velocity did not drop off down the stretch. You can see his start-by-start fastball velocity graph right here. No decline at all. Instead, the fatigue showed up in a BABIP and power spike. Not every increase (or decrease) in BABIP is luck-related. Kuroda may have been more hittable down the stretch because he was gassed and hitters were able to get better swings against him. Tired pitchers tend to make more mistakes, and more mistakes usually result in more hits allowed. That’s typically how it works.

“It was really strange; [Kuroda] just didn’t have his stuff tonight,” said Joe Girardi to Mark Feinsand following the team’s loss to the Rays on Friday. “He kept trying to find it and find it, but I didn’t think his slider was extremely sharp and I didn’t think he had the great command of his fastball tonight.”

Stuff that wasn’t as crisp as usual could be a sign of fatigue, but we really don’t know. After all, two subpar starts against the Red Sox and Rays shouldn’t be all that surprising. Those are two of the five best offenses in baseball. That said, Kuroda’s age and the fact that he hit a wall around this time last year make his performance something worth monitoring going forward. That’s obvious, right? If he starts to stink every five days, it’s a problem.

The Yankees were in much better shape at this time last year because Sabathia and Phil Hughes were pitching anywhere from good to great. Nowadays they’re getting pounded every five days and Kuroda’s importance to the team is much greater. He has to be the stopper, the guy that extends winning streaks and ends losing streaks. If he runs out of gas these last few weeks like he did last season — for what it’s worth, Kuroda did rebound and was excellent in the postseason, including one start on three days’ rest — the Yankees playoff odds will go from tiny to zero. They need their ace to bounce back in a big way against the lowly Blue Jays tonight.

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(AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Frank Gunn))

(AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Frank Gunn)

In what became an unfortunate running theme for this season, Phil Hughes did not complete five innings of work nor did he give the Yankees a reasonable chance to win on Monday night. His latest dud featured five runs (three earned) and ten base-runners in just 4.2 innings against a Blue Jays team without Jose Bautista or any other member of their starting outfield. Some guys named Ryan Goins, Moises Sierra, and Kevin Pillar went a combined 3-for-5 with a walk, a sac bunt, and a sac fly though. Think about that.

That performance has Phil sitting on a 4.91 ERA — that ranks 80th out of 85 qualified starting pitchers, by the way — and 4.55 FIP in 135.2 innings across 25 starts, an average of just 5.1 innings per start. This isn’t a stretch of four or five bad starts, Hughes has been awful all year. Easily the weak link in the rotation, which is hard to believe when CC Sabathia ranks 78th (!) out of those 85 qualifiers with a 4.81 ERA. I really hate what Sabathia has become this year, but I digress.

“It’s been very difficult,” said Hughes to Bryan Hoch following last night’s game. “Every time I feel like I make some progress the last couple times out, it seems like you have these hiccups and it’s the way the whole season has gone. It’s been difficult, it’s been a struggle. I guess every time you have one of these outings I try and look at the positive. I still have the opportunity to pitch in big games where it really matters and that’s all I can do. I can’t get down on myself or negative all the time. I just have to stay confident and aggressive every time they give me the ball.”

Therein lies the rub: the Yankees shouldn’t give Hughes the ball anymore, at least not as a starter. Not if they’re serious about winning and making a run to the postseason. They’re five games behind the Athletics for the second wildcard spot in the loss column and have a 7.8% chance of making the playoffs according to Baseball Prospectus. There are only 31 games left in the season and no margin for error, at least not enough of one to continue running Hughes out there every fifth day. A change has to be made if they want to have a chance.

“Right now [Hughes is] in our rotation,” said Joe Girardi to Hoch. “We haven’t talked about taking him out of our rotation. I think he had a walk that scored; a couple walks hurt him today. We didn’t make the play behind him and it looks a lot different if it’s three runs in five innings.”

Replacing Hughes will have to be an outside-the-organization thing because the team’s sixth (David Phelps), seventh (Vidal Nuno), and eighth (Michael Pineda) starters are all hurt. Adam Warren has been solid overall (3.69 ERA and 4.80 FIP), but he has a 5.30 ERA and 5.85 FIP since mid-May. That’s rough. As bad as Hughes has been, I find it hard to believe Warren would be a rotation upgrade. David Huff has been impressive in two long relief outings against the lowly Blue Jays but otherwise has a 5.25 ERA and 4.74 FIP in almost 300 career innings. He’s the best in-house option and that really, really bites.

Joe has already written about trading for Dan Haren, and yesterday Derrick Goold said the Nationals want “a group of prospects” for the right-hander. Who knows what that means. Haren has been awesome in nine starts (and one relief appearance) since coming off DL (2.53 ERA and 3.09 FIP) and is almost certainly the best starter the Yankees will find on the market at this time of year. Edinson Volquez? Erik Bedard? Joe Saunders? Volquez (6.01 ERA) and Joe Saunders (4.91 ERA) have been as bad or worse than Hughes despite pitching in much more favorable ballparks. Bedard has made no secret of his dislike of big cities. There isn’t much help out there.

At the very least, the Yankees should use Thursday’s off-day to rearrange the rotation and make sure Hughes does not face the Orioles this coming weekend. They can push him back to the White Sox series next week. That has to happen, the series against Baltimore is way too important. The team needs to figure out a way to replace Hughes for the rest of the season — I thought they should have done that prior to the trade deadline — if they want to have a chance at making the playoffs in Mariano Rivera‘s final season. Phil is out of rope. Things need to change.

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Adam Warren will start Wednesday night’s game, Joe Girardi announced. The Yankees will need to use a spot starter at some point in these next four days because of the doubleheader, so they’ll get it out of the way tomorrow. Andy Pettitte will pitch Thursday, pushing Hiroki Kuroda back to Friday’s series opener against the Rays.

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