Archive for Phil Hughes
Six questions and five answers today, so we’ve got a good mailbag this week. Remember to use the Submit A Tip box to send us questions throughout the week.
Vinny and many others ask: If the Angels are serious about not picking up Dan Haren’s option, should the Yankees be all over that?
Earlier this week there was a report indicating that the Angels plan to decline Haren’s (and Ervin Santana’s) club option for next season and instead pursue a monster extension with Zach Greinke. Haren, 32, is nearing the end of his worst full season as a big leaguer, pitching to a 4.32 ERA (4.30 FIP) in 29 starts and 170.2 innings. He’ll fail to make 33 starts or crack 210 innings for the first time since 2004, when he was with the Cardinals. Blame the lower back stiffness that led to his first career DL stint.
Based on Twitter these last few days, fans of every single team want their club to pursue Haren if the Angels do indeed decline his $15.5M option. Haren is from Southern California and has made it no secret that he prefers playing on the West Coast, so right away the Yankees are at a disadvantage. It’s also worth noting that his strikeout rate is in the middle of a three-year decline, and his fastball velocity has been heading in the wrong direction for years now. That second link is particularly scary. The back issue scares me as well, especially if the Halos do cut him loose. It’s the whole “what do they know that we don’t?” thing. Haren has been a great pitcher for a long time, and that alone makes him worth looking into. There are a number of red flags however, so any team interested in signing him will have to really do their homework.
Travis asks: Is it safe to assume that if we only carry three starters on the post season roster, Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova will have a role on the team out of the bullpen? I’m also assuming the three starters go to CC, Hirok!, and Dandy Andy.
The new playoff system and schedule really discourages the use of three-man rotations, since everyone would have to pitch on three days’ rest after Games One, Two, and Three to get away with it. CC Sabathia can do that (assuming the Yankees actually get into the postseason), but I’m not sure Hiroki Kuroda or Andy Pettitte could. I expect the Yankees to use four starters throughout the postseason, and right now the number four guy is clearly Hughes. Nova pitched himself out of the job these last two months or so.
Now does that mean Nova would automatically go to the bullpen? I don’t think that’s a given. Assuming the Yankees only carry eleven pitchers into the postseason (they could get away with ten, but I doubt it happens), four will be the starters and four other spots are accounted for: Rafael Soriano, David Robertson, Joba Chamberlain, and Boone Logan. That leaves three spots, one of which I assume will go to Clay Rapada. The candidates for the final two spots would be Nova, David Phelps, Cody Eppley, and I guess Derek Lowe (veteran presents!). Phelps seems like a given in this situation, then you’ve got your pick of the other three. I guess that decisions comes down to who throws the best the rest of the way, but frankly I would rather see the Yankees carry an extra position player in that situation, especially if Mark Teixeira‘s calf remains an issue.
Ben asks: Don’t you think Chris Dickerson needs to figure into the Yankees big league plans in 2013? At least as a 4th outfielder? This guy is a great fielder and base runner and had a useful bat. Much rather have him over another Andruw Jones-type. What say you?
Might as well lump these two together. If the Yankees do make the playoffs and use an 11-man pitching staff, they’ll have room for an extra bench player. That spot tends to go to a speedy pinch-runner type (think Freddy Guzman in 2009), a job for which both Gardner and Dickerson are qualified. Gardner is the better player, but he also is physically unable to hit right now. I have a hard time thinking the Yankees will carry someone on the postseason roster that can’t even swing the bat in case of an emergency. Maybe that changes and Brett is cleared to take his hacks at some point in the next six days, but that doesn’t seem likely based on everything we heard for the last four months.
As for next year, Dickerson’s situation depends largely on what happens with Nick Swisher. If they let him walk, then the outfield need will be greater and they should hold onto him. If they bring Swisher back, having a left-handed outfielder on the bench doesn’t make a ton of sense. I’m probably the biggest Chris Dickerson fan you’ll find, but he is just a platoon player at the plate. More of a high-end fourth outfielder than an everyday corner guy on a contender. As much as I would like him to see him stick with the club going forward, Dickerson isn’t a great fit for the roster right now.
Shaun asks: Hey Mike, do you know who would have home field if the Yankees and Rangers tied for the best record? Thanks.
The Yankees are currently two games back of Texas for the best record in the AL, and New York would get the nod as the top team in the circuit if they tie because they won the season series 4-3. They won’t play a tiebreaker game or anything like that, that only happens when the division title or a playoff spot in general is on the line. So yeah, the only thing the Yankees would have to do to secure home field advantage in both the ALDS and ALCS would be to finish with the same record as the Rangers, nothing more.
Steven asks: Mike, not sure if you’re aware, but Mike Trout is good at baseball. I was wondering, hypothetically speaking of course, if the Angels were to make him available, what sort of haul would he bring? Do you see his value getting any higher than it is right now? And, finally, what sort of package would the Yankees have to piece together to get these hypothetical talks started?
I don’t think any player in baseball has as much trade value as Trout. You’re talking about a just-turned-21 kid who has already shown he can play at a superstar level. He hits homers, steals bases, hits for average, gets on-base, and plays great defense at a premium position. Plus he remains under the team control for five more seasons, the next two at the league minimum. It’s impossible to top that, and I don’t think he could possibly increase his trade stock unless he agrees to like, a ten-year contract worth $25M or something ridiculous.
There’s no way for the Yankees to acquire Trout even if he was available. What do you start the package with, four years of CC Sabathia and one year of Robinson Cano while offering to pick up the bulk of the money? I wouldn’t take that for Trout. Offer me Mason Williams, Gary Sanchez, Tyler Austin, and a guaranteed to be healthy Michael Pineda and I still would say no if I were the Angels. If the Giants come calling and put both Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner on the table, then yeah that catches my attention. The Yankees don’t have anything to get a trade done, I just don’t see how it would be possible. I don’t think Trout can replicate this season (or even improve on it) year after year, but he’s going to be great for a long-time. At his age and with that much cost-control remaining, he’s the single most valuable asset in the game.
When Phil Hughes throws his first pitch tonight, he’ll set all sorts of new career-highs. In fact, pretty much everything he does from here on out will represent some kind of new personal best. Phil has already set career-highs in starts (30), innings (180), batters faced (764), pitches thrown (3,027), strikeouts (157), and yes, homers allowed (34) this year. The various WAR metrics ding him hard for the homers, but I still feel comfortable saying this season is better than his 2010 campaign.
With all of these new career-highs comes a lot of uncertainty. If Hughes manages to throw at least six innings in each of his final two regular seasons starts — something he’s been able to do in five of his last seven outings — he’ll have thrown as many innings this season as he did in the 2010 regular season and postseason combined. The workload has started to manifest itself in Phil’s fastball velocity, which has gradually declined from 93-95 earlier in the year to 91-93 nowadays…
Fastball velocity isn’t everything, far from it, but it sure is a nice thing to have in your back pocket. You’re more likely to get away with mistakes throwing mid-90s than you are low-90s. Hughes still isn’t walking anyone (2.15 BB/9 and 5.6 BB%), so he hasn’t shield away from the strike zone as the season has progressed. In fact, his pitches per batter faced has dropped from the 4.0-4.2 range in April and May to around 3.9 in August and September. Not a huge drop, but it actually runs counter to what I expected. It feels like he’s needed more pitches per batter lately, not fewer.
Hughes is one of only two starters to remain in the rotation all season, and the Yankees haven’t babied him at all. Sure, they have given him an extra day of rest here and there just like they have everyone else, but he hasn’t had a start skipped or anything like that. Hughes isn’t a kid anymore at age 26, but it’s still fair to wonder how well he’ll hold up now that he has more single-season mileage on his arm than ever before. Tonight’s start is important not just in the standings, but also as a sort of check-up on Phil and how he’s throwing the ball this late in the season.
Earlier this season when the Yankees went on the big midseason run that gave them that once-comfortable ten-game lead in the AL East, they were winning consistently because of their pitching. Every night their starter was pitching not just well, but also going deep into the game. From May 22nd through July 18th, when they went on that 36-13 run, the rotation pitched to a 3.19 ERA (3.55 FIP) while averaging 6.5 innings per start. The starters were dynamite, day after day.
That hasn’t been the case of late. Andy Pettitte got hurt, CC Sabathia got hurt (twice), Ivan Nova cratered before getting hurt, and the Yankees lost their big division lead. From July 19th — the start of the four game series in Oakland — through today, the rotation has pitched to a 4.22 ERA (4.15 FIP) with an average of 6.25 innings per start. I don’t think it was reasonable to expect to the starting staff to continue pitching that well all season, but the drop-off has been quite drastic.
The Yankees have won six of their last seven games and nine of 13 overall, though the rotation as a whole hasn’t stood out during that stretch. They’ve pitch to a 4.06 ERA (3.81 FIP) during those 13 games, which is fine but not great. Better than they had been, I guess is the best way to put it. Maybe serviceable, I don’t know. The offense has scored just enough runs and the bullpen has protected just enough leads to turn those performances into wins, and frankly that’s all that matters at this point. Every win is important, no matter how ugly it is.
Anyway, what does stand out during that 13-game stretch is the performance of the club’s three non-Pettitte homegrown starters, meaning Phil Hughes, David Phelps, and Ivan Nova. They’ve started six of those 13 games and have pitched to a combined 2.70 ERA (3.40 FIP) in 36.2 innings, with the Yankees winning five of the six games. The one loss was when Phelps got rocked in Baltimore, a game the offense actually battled back to tie before the bullpen blew it in the late innings. That one stung.
The club’s veteran starters (Sabathia, Pettitte, Hiroki Kuroda, Freddy Garcia) have pitched to a 5.35 ERA (4.20 FIP) in 38.2 innings in their seven starts during this 13-game stretch. It’s not all on Freddy either, he only made one of those seven starts (three runs in 3.1 innings). Pettitte was superb yesterday, but Kuroda and Sabathia allowed at least four earned runs in four of their five total starts. The vets have combined to throw just two more innings than the kids in one more start, so they haven’t been as effective nor gone as deep into the game.
The Yankees catch a lot of grief for their inability to develop starting pitching and deservedly so, but the team’s three young homegrown starters have picked up the pitching slack in a big way these last two weeks. The veteran guys did most of the heavy lifting earlier in the season and now Hughes, Nova, and Phelps are carrying the torch. That’s usually how these things go, not everyone clicks at once, but not many times in the last few seasons have the young pitchers carried New York. Hughes has allowed more than two earned runs just once in his last six outings, and tonight he’ll look to continue this recent stretch of strong performances from the homegrown arms against the Blue Jays in the series finale.
It has been fascinating, and at times frustrating, to watch Phil Hughes develop from a prospect into a rotation mainstay. At the time he was drafted, Hughes was a big kid who projected to have solid fastball velocity and a good slider. Within a year or two, he developed a true plus curveball after being forced to shelve his slider, and used the hook along with impressive fastball command to carve up his minor league opposition. His ability to develop the curveball into a dominant pitch after not using the pitch much in high school was impressive, and indicative that he had a good feel for pitching (whatever that means).
After a dominant minor league career, Hughes made his major league debut at the tender age of 20, and tantalized Yankee fans in his second start with 6 1/3 no-hit innings against the Texas Rangers. In that outing, Hughes looked like the future ace many of us hoped he could become. He commanded his fastball well, and made good use of his curveball and changeup to keep hitters off balance. In particular, I remember him making future teammate Mark Teixeira look silly on several breaking balls. Then of course came the infamous, possibly career-altering injury. After striding too far in an attempt to get a little more oomph on a curveball, Hughes badly injured his hamstring, limped off the field, and never really achieved that degree of dominance again.
The rest of Hughes’ Major League career has been consistent only in its inconsistency. His velocity and weight fluctuated, he suffered several injuries, and otherwise struggled to fulfill his potential. His curveball regressed, becoming a loopy creampuff instead of a snappy strikeout pitch. The changeup didn’t really develop as hoped, leaving Hughes primarily as a two-pitch pitcher. Consequently, Hughes faced countless long at-bats as hitters were able to sit on his fastball and foul off pitch after pitch, driving up his pitch count and tiring him out. He also frequently pitched up in the zone, causing him to allow fly balls at a high rate. Particularly in hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium, these fly balls had a high probability of turning into home runs, and this problem has plagued Phil in recent years. He also tried to add a cutter to give left-handed batters a different look, but it never became an effective out-pitch for him.
Despite the inconsistency, Hughes has been an important fixture in the Yankee rotation over the last few years. He has had his successes, including a sparkling stint in the bullpen in 2009, an All Star appearance in 2010, and truth be told a pretty solid 2012 (even though his FIP and xFIP are less impressive than his 4.02 ERA). 2012 has been an interesting season for him because he got off to a rocky start, giving up four or more runs in three of his first five starts. Thereafter, Hughes has only given up more than three runs four times. While he may have tired a bit as his innings count rose, he has been a fairly reliable piece in a rotation that suffered injuries to three starters.
It is interesting to see how Phil has tinkered with his approach throughout the season, rather than just sticking with his regular repertoire and hoping that things will fix themselves. Michael Eder of The Yankee Analysts has some great posts (complete with gifs) documenting this transformation. Early in the season, Hughes scrapped the ineffective cutter and began featuring the changeup more prominently. He started making use of a sharper 11-5 curveball that featured more horizontal movement, resulting from a lower arm slot. And just in his last start, he resurrected the mythical slider, which served as an effective weapon against same-sided batters (who have been giving Phil trouble this year).
There are certainly positive and negative spins that one could put on Hughes’ constant changes to his repertoire. On the negative side, one could point to the inconsistency of his secondary pitches, and his inability to develop any one of them into a reliable above-average offering. The fact that he has to keep tinkering is evidence that his regular repertoire is not good enough to be a consistently effective big league starter. The flip side of this is that Phil is hard-working and resourceful enough to constantly add to and modify his repertoire, which gives us hope that he may continue to make adjustments in the future.
Hughes is still somewhat of an enigma, but I think at this point in his career Yankee fans know what to expect from him. He is a solid #3-#4 starter who can eat innings, is capable of the occasional awful outing if his fly balls are leaving the yard, strike batters out at a respectable clip (about 7.5/9 this season), and keep them off base by limiting his walks. While he is unlikely to morph into the ace we dreamed he would become, it is nice to hear that he is still working to hone his craft, and try to become the best pitcher that he possibly can. Considering he is only under contract for one more season after this one, it will be in the Yankees’ interest to track Hughes’ evolution closely, to see if he can find a mix of pitches that will allow for more consistent effectiveness.
The Yankees won last night’s game over the Blue Jays thanks primarily to their pitching staff, as David Robertson and Rafael Soriano combined for two dominant innings at the end of the game even though both were pitching for the third consecutive day. Phil Hughes stepped up and handled the first seven innings, allowing just one run on four hits. It was his thirth straight start of at least seven innings and no more than two earned runs, continuing a stretch of really strong pitching that started back in mid-May (3.44 ERA and 4.46 FIP in 128.1 innings).
That stretch started when Hughes decided to scrap his cutter, a pitch that helped him earlier in his career but had essentially transformed into a batting practice fastball. He started varying the break on his curveball soon thereafter to give hitters a look at two different breaking pitches, and in his two starts prior to last night, he really started emphasized his changeup. Last night against the Blue Jays, Hughes broke out another pitch, this one a little slider.
“I was working on a little cutter/slider hybrid deal in the bullpen and I figured this would be a good team to use it against because they have a lot of right-handed bats in that lineup,” said Hughes after last night’s game. “I was just kind of messing around with it during catch, threw a few at the end of a bullpen one time and it was decent, so I just kind of started to mix it a little more in. In our scouting report meetings before today’s game, [pitching coach Larry Rothschild] said, ‘Do you feel comfortable going to it if you need to? Not a whole lot obviously, but just something?’ I said, yeah. The first one was a 3-2 to (Yorvit Torrealba) that I threw. After that, (Russell Martin) and I found a few more spots to use it.”
According to the PitchFX data at Brooks Baseball, Hughes threw this cutter/slider hybrid thing about ten times against Toronto. Six of the ten went for strikes, including a trio of swings and misses. It has slider velocity in the low-80s, with more break than a cutter but less than a slider. I’ve heard of these being called “loaded cutters,” which are thrown with the fingers more off to the side of the ball and with less velocity by design. It’s a baby slider more than a cutter, really. Regular old cutters are thrown just like a fastball with a slightly different grip and finger pressure, but I digress.
Hughes threw all ten of his cutter/sliders to right-handed batters as you’d expect, and the pitch helped him hold the Blue Jays’ righties to four hits and two walks in 22 plate appearances. Same-side hitters went into last night’s game with a .327/.359/.622 batting line (.415 wOBA) against Phil, so he was doing something right against Toronto. The fact that half their regulars are injured and that this is a one-start sample certainly work in his favor, so we’re stuck in wait-and-see mode as far as whether this new pitch can actually help against righties.
Although he has been maddeningly homer-prone this season, Hughes has remained effective because he does a good job of limiting the damage to solo shots. He’s struggled against left-handed hitters in the past but for whatever reason that platoon split has been reversed this summer, so hopefully this new cutter/slider thing will help even it out. Phil seemed to make it clear after last night’s outing that it will remain his third or fourth offering, not something he’ll rely on heavily for the time being. He did throw a slider in high school, so this isn’t an entirely new experience, and working the pitch into game situations will be the next challenge.
It seemed like we got an awful lot of questions this week, but I picked just four for the mailbag. Keep sending them in though, one of these weeks I’ll do a rapid fire mailbag with like, 12-15 questions. Please use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to send us anything at anytime.
J.R. and several others asked: With the bullpen not looking great, would Juan Cruz make sense?
I started thinking about this as soon as I saw that the Pirates had designated Cruz for assignment (he was officially released yesterday). The 33-year-old missed just about a month with shoulder inflammation but otherwise has pitched to a 2.78 ERA (4.19 FIP) in 35.2 innings for Pittsburgh this season. His strikeout (8.33 K/9 and 20.4 K%) rate was fine and his walk rate (4.79 BB/9 and 11.7 BB%) was high, just like every other season of his career. That’s actually his lowest BB% since 2006, if you can believe it. The fastball isn’t what it used to be, but PitchFX says he’s still running it up there in the 92-94 mph range.
Cruz has struck out just one batter in his last nine appearances (7.1 IP and 36 batters faced), which includes three appearances before the DL stint and six after. He’s struggled a little bit of late but nothing crazy. You do have to be skeptical anytime a team releases a reliever in favor of Chad Qualls, so perhaps the reason why he’s available is something we just don’t know as outsiders. The Yankees don’t have much bullpen help coming in September, so signing Cruz to a minor league pact with the promise of a September 1st call-up sure seems to make sense from where I sit. I guess it depends on the medicals more than anything.
This was sent in before Nova was placed on the DL, so let’s remove him from the discussion. The easy answer is that Phelps would have to pitch phenomenally well the rest of the season, and I don’t mean slightly out-pitch Hughes or Garcia. Those guys have track records and will get the benefit of the doubt. Phelps would have to pitch like Hiroki Kuroda has been of late, I mean completely dominating each time out. That’s not easy to do.
Obviously a lot depends on the ALDS schedule and who the Yankees would be playing in a potential playoff series, but right now I would lean towards Garcia as my Game Four starter. Both Hughes and Phelps have shown not just that they can pitch in relief, but that they can be true weapons out of the bullpen. As an added bonus, both would be in position to contribute multiple innings in relief. The fourth starter is marginalized in the postseason — quick hooks, starting only when absolutely necessary — and I would rather let Freddy be that guy.
Donny asks: I doubt I am the first to bring up this idea, but with everyone working under the assumption that Nick Swisher is not re-signed, doesn’t Ichiro Suzuki make sense? I would think a one year deal worth $6-8 million would work with some kind of team option for 2014, no?
A few people asked this as well and I’m not really a fan of bringing Ichiro back. Maybe if they trade Brett Gardner this winter it would make more sense, but I doubt that happens. I’m not a fan of powerless corner outfielders — the Yankees would be lucky to get ten total homers out of Gardner and Ichiro next season if they’re both starters — no matter how much contact they make or how great their defense and base-running is. Having one guy like that in the outfield is fine, but two is really pushing it. If the Yankees let Nick Swisher walk, they’ll need to replace him with someone who can hit for some power, particularly against left-handers. That ain’t Ichiro.
Kevin asks: With all of the recent talk of Derek Jeter possibly breaking Pete Rose’s hit record, which do you think is more likely to happen at this point: Alex Rodriguez passing Barry Bonds or Jeter passing Rose?
Jeter is currently 999 hits behind Rose, so he’ll need another five or six really good years to become the all-time hit king. I’m talking 180+ hits a year on average until he turns 43 or 44. A-Rod, on the other hand, is 118 homers behind Bonds, which works out to another five or six really good years (20+ homers per season). Both seem improbable at this point but not impossible. I know which one I think is more likely to happen, but this question is screaming for a poll…
A usable changeup has long been Phil Hughes‘ white whale, that reliable third pitch he’s been unable to develop to help take his game to the next level. Outside of his injury-plagued 2011 season, Phil’s fastball-curveball combination has been strong enough to allow him to survive as a league average starter in the AL East. The kind of guy you’ll take towards the back of the rotation but will leave you wanting more.
Hughes, not so young anymore at 26, has ridden his fastball and two curveballs to a 4.15 ERA and 4.70 FIP in 149.2 innings this year. He’s maddeningly homer prone, but outside of a disastrous April — how stupid does this look in retrospect? — he’s pitching to a 3.70 ERA and 4.46 FIP in his last 21 starts (133.2 IP). Last night’s outing against the White Sox was about as it good as it gets, seven innings of two-run ball against a club with the sixth-highest runs per game average in baseball. The Yankees lost, but not because of their starter.
Against the ChiSox, Phil threw that white whale changeup a total of 17 times out of 98 pitches according to PitchFX. A dozen of those 17 changeups were strikes, including a pair of swings and misses. The last batter he faced, former Yankee Dewayne Wise, saw nothing but changeups in a five-pitch at-bat. Five of those 17 changeups were thrown to right-handed batters, which is notable because Hughes threw a total of four changeups to right-handers in 12 starts from mid-June through mid-August according to Will Cohen.
This isn’t a one-start blip either. Against the Red Sox last week he threw a whopping 29 changeups (106 total pitches), the most he’s ever thrown in a single outing during the PitchFX era. Nineteen of those 29 were strikes and six were thrown to righties. As a result, Hughes threw just seven curveballs. Last night it was a much more normal 18 curveballs. Perhaps all these changeups is an adjustment he’s made after getting shellacked by the Tigers and Blue Jays in back-to-back starts two weeks ago, when just seven of his 182 total pitches were changeups.
Hughes doesn’t need a knockout changeup, just a serviceable third offering that will keep hitters off the fastball and curveball. I feel like I’ve been saying that for five years now. He has really emphasized the pitch these last two times out, and not just against left-handers either. Whether he continues to use the pitch this much in the future remains to be seen, but the fact that he’s been able to use it this heavily and remain effective against good offenses these last two times out is encouraging.
This has been a very … unique season for Phil Hughes. I really don’t know how else to describe it. The 26-year-old right-hander is coming off a disastrous and injury-plagued 2011 campaign, one that spurred him to (finally?) take his conditioning more seriously during the winter. Hughes looked like the best Yankees’ pitcher in Spring Training by no small margin, but he opened the season with a dud April before settling into a grove in May.
Since the calendar has flipped over to May, Phil has pitched to a 3.58 ERA (4.44 FIP) in 18 starts and 115.2 innings. The elephant in the room is his propensity to give up the long ball, though he’s managed to curtail that ever so slightly as the season has progressed. Still, I (and I’m sure many of you) get uncomfortable watching his starts — especially close games — just because I know a homerun could be coming at any moment. It’s a very uneasy feeling, like you’re watching a game while walking on eggshells or something.
Anyway, Hughes had one of his worst starts in quite some time last night, laboring particularly in the fourth and fifth innings. It was the first time he allowed more than three earned runs in a start since late-June and in 34 starts since coming off the DL last year, he’s allowed more than two earned runs just 12 times. That’s getting the job done, but I do want to focus on this year and not so much last year. Here is a month-by-month breakdown of Phil’s core statistics…
HR/CON is homers per plate appearances with contact, so HR/(TBF-BB-K-HBP). That’s a far more accurate way to measure a pitcher’s ability to limit dingers than something like regular old HR/9. The AL average this season is 4.0% HR/CON.
Other that the decision to essentially cut his changeup usage in half at the outset of June, Hughes hasn’t changed his pitch selection much this season. His walk rate has dropped considerably since April and as I mentioned this morning, the strikeout rate has been trending downward a bit as well outside of that June spike (interleague play!). Obviously the August numbers are a tiny two-start sample, so don’t spend too much time focusing on them. The progress in the homerun department is encouraging, but again we’re still talking about someone giving up dingers at ~150% of the league average rate. At least it’s not almost 230% like it was in April.
Other than the homers, my one big concern going forward is durability. I don’t mean injuries or anything like that, I’m talking about Hughes getting fatigued down the stretch. He threw just 91 total innings last year (Majors plus minors plus playoffs) and is already at 131.2 innings this year. This is only the third time in his career that Hughes has exceeded the 130-inning plateau, joining 2006 (146 IP) and 2010 (192 IP). Coming off the shoulder issue last year, I think it’s fair to be concerned about his ability to remain effective through the end of the regular season and into the postseason. For what it’s worth, his fastball velocity has held relatively steady so far this summer, though that isn’t exactly definitive proof of anything.
Assuming the Yankees get their collective heads out of their behinds at some point and get back to winning games consistently, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to give Hughes a little rest in September. Maybe skip a start or two just for a late-season breather. Of course that depends on Andy Pettitte coming back healthy and Ivan Nova not pitching like one of the least effective hurlers in the league. The Yankees showed a little faith in Hughes by installing him as the number three starter and they remained patient through April, and for the most part he has rewarded them with three strong months at midseason. Staying effective through the end of the season and potentially into the playoffs is the next challenge.
David Laurila of FanGraphs recently chatted with Phil Hughes … well, it was a really one-sided chat. Laurila asked Hughes about his repertoire and the adjustments he’s made through the years, and Phil basically went on to talk about his evolution as a pitcher since high school. Interestingly enough, he mentioned that his stride and other mechanical nuances haven’t been the same since blowing out his hamstring in 2007. Arm injuries are obviously the major concern for pitchers, but we often write off the long-term of leg injuries. Anyway, make sure you check it out. It’s well worth your time.
Mercifully, the All-Star break is over and Yankee baseball is back. It has been a tumultuous season so far, featuring serious injuries to several important contributors and maddening underperformance with runners in scoring position, but also plenty of pleasant surprises. Despite everything that has gone poorly for the Yankees this season, they are in great position to make a playoff run. At 53-33, the Yankees own the best record in the majors, despite playing in a division where no team is below .500, and they are eight games up on their nearest competitor. They lead the league in home runs and wRC+, though they are only 6th in runs scored. Despite injuries to Michael Pineda, Andy Pettitte, and CC Sabathia, they are 2nd in the league with a 3.71 xFIP, largely driven by the pitching staff’s 8.45 strikeouts per 9 innings. With this strong first half in the books, I figured I would take a look at some of the storylines to watch for the second half, which will play an important role in determining if the Yankees can hold on to their division lead.
MVP candidate Cano
Robinson Cano is having a monster season for the Yankees so far, and is well on pace to eclipse his career highs in a number of offensive categories. He has slugged 20 home runs with a wRC+ of 150, and his fielding is significantly improved according to UZR (small sample size warnings apply). All this combines to make Cano the 7th in the majors with 4.3 fWAR at the midway point. If the season were to end today, Cano would be a strong candidate for AL MVP, along with usual suspects Josh Hamilton and David Ortiz, and rookie phenom Mike Trout. Cano’s 2012 production has been very impressive, and it will be interesting to see if he can sustain this form going forward. Recent history suggests that it is difficult for a Yankee player to win the award unless he is far superior statistically to his competition, and right now, Cano is not in that position. Nonetheless, if Cano continues to mash and some of his competition begins to fall off (such as Trout) or get hurt (Hamilton), Robbie would be in good position to win his first MVP.
Coming into the season, significant questions abounded about Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova, and whether they would be able to stick in the rotation as consistent contributors. Michael Pineda’s Spring Training shoulder injury weakened the Yankees’ rotation depth, and put increased pressure at least one of the Hughes-Nova duo to emerge as a solid mid-rotation starter. Hughes got off to a poor start to the season, and both players have had serious problems surrendering the long ball, but of late, both have settled in. They’ve shown the ability to strike batters out (8.31/9 for Hughes, 8.16 for Nova) and limit walks (2.08 for Hughes, 2.69 for Nova) a combination that limits the numbers of runners on base when the inevitable longball comes. Both have been able to pitch deep into the game, which is important for keeping the Yankee bullpen well-rested and effective. Hughes and Nova have shown that they can pitch in the low-4 ERA range, and with the Yankee offense, they will win a lot of games. However, it remains to be seen if they can improve their statistics by cutting down on the home runs. They were surrendering them at an unsustainable pace earlier in the year, but have improved in that area recently (particularly Hughes). While both have looked very good of late, Hughes in particular has teased Yankee fans throughout his career with strong performances only to regress significantly, and hopefully he can avoid that outcome.
What will Joba bring to the table?
While most of us gave up on Joba Chamberlain being a 2012 contributor after his awful trampoline-related ankle injury, his impressively quick recovery has him in position to return to the Yankees sometime in August. Chamberlain, looking noticeably svelte, was recently clocked as high as 97 in his first outing in the Gulf Coast League, a sign that his velocity has returned following Tommy John Surgery. The velocity bodes well for his ability to be a successful bullpen contributor this year, but command could be a big question. Joba never had pinpoint control to start with, and it is often said that command is the last thing that comes back to a pitcher who has had Tommy John. Joba’s willingness and ability to use his devastating slider is another question that he will have to answer. The pitch is his primary 2-strike weapon to earn strikeouts, but often pitchers who have Tommy John will cut down on their slider usage, to avoid putting additional strain on their elbow. If Joba does have to throw fewer sliders, he may need to have another offering to flash so hitters can’t just sit on the fastball. I don’t expect Joba to be back to his old self right away, but the good news is that in a bullpen with Rafael Soriano and David Robertson, he won’t be relied upon to pitch in high-leverage situations immediately. If he earns those innings with his performance, great, but if he has some struggles as expected, they will hopefully be in fairly low-pressure situations.
Is Russell Martin this bad?
Russell Martin’s offensive production has fallen off across the board compared to 2011, and he is currently batting below the Mendoza line with an anemic .181 average. After being exactly league average in 2011 (100 wRC+), Martin has fallen to being 20% worse than the average hitter (80 wRC+). Outside of a strong couple of games against the Mets, Martin really hasn’t put together a strong stretch this season that might give hope that he is starting to come out of it. The unfortunate sign is that Martin’s struggles have actually lasted longer than this season. He started strong in 2011, but his numbers dipped dramatically after the first two months. When we see a player struggle for this long, there is always concern about whether the player is in decline or injured. While the 29 year-old Martin seems too young to be over the hill, the physical toll of catching every day could accelerate this decline. I am hopeful that Martin can improve, but not optimistic that he will. If there is any consolation here, it is that his contract is up at the end of the 2012 season, and the Yankees caught a break by having Martin turn down their 3-year extension offer in the offseason. This also means that the Yankees will likely be in search of a new catcher for the 2013 season.