Has Phil Hughes Finally Begun to Live Up To His Potential?

July 5, 2012

Well, he is at it again, that Phil Hughes. He is throwing the ball well and winning games for the New York Yankees. 

And despite an extremely shaky outing by Adam Warren in his major league debut last Friday night, the Yankee starting rotation hasn’t missed a beat since losing both CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte last Wednesday afternoon.

One of the keys has been the transformation of Hughes, once the golden boy of the Yankee farm system since his selection by the Yankees as the 23rd pick in the first round of the 2004 draft*. The expectations have always been high for Hughes, who had worked up to the 2007 No. 2 overall prospect in baseball by Baseball Digest.

*An interesting fact is the Yankees were awarded this pick as compensation for the loss of a free agent by the name of Andy Pettitte, who signed with the Houston Astros after the 2003 season.

With a “dead arm” and reduced velocity over the last couple years (along with less than moderate results), much talk centered on Hughes pitching out of the pen for his Yankee future. However, the Yankee brass always discussed Hughes as a starting pitcher and, to their credit, kept him in the rotation mix over the last several years.

With improved velocity this spring training, and better results, Hughes “won” the fifth starting spot in the rotation. However, after a disastrous start to the 2012 campaign, people promptly wanted Hughes out of the rotation.

I cannot even understand all those Yankee fans who wanted Hughes banished to the bullpen. Don’t people realize that five starts do not make a starting pitcher? Whatever happened to the “small sample size” bullshit we hear about every stinking day? Did that not count for Hughes in April?

Hell, even the great Catfish Hunter had a disastrous start to his Yankee career, losing his first four starts after signing that huge 5 year, $3.2 million free agent contract.

Hughes had issues early on, primarily allowing an inordinate amount of home runs. Of the 19 HRs Hughes has allowed this season, 13 have been solo shots, and almost a third (6), have come in two games, both losses. So, similar to Catfish, despite the large amount of HRs allowed, they haven’t really hurt since the damage was usually one run, or in Hughes’ case were siphoned off in two games*.

*And in one of these games, the June 20th Atlanta game,  the Yankees banged out four home runs, too. That Wednesday afternoon was a hot and humid day just ripe for the long ball.

I remember one time I was telling a scout one time about guy who hit two HRs in a game, real bombs which travelled well over the fence. True no doubters. The scout asked me if any other HRs were hit. I said yes, quite a few and the scout said that the two hit by the kid were nice, but if the ball was flying out like that on that particular day, there were likely other factors invloved which helped the long balls that day.

But then Hughes turned his season around during an innocuous start in Kansas City, where Hughes allowed three earned runs in 6.2 innings, striking out seven and issuing one free pass. He still gave up a HR, but it was two-out, solo shot in the bottom of the 7th. Due to a pitch count of 115, and although the hurler appeared neither gassed nor in trouble of losing the lead, General Joe promptly removed Hughes from that game.

Hughes has then gone on a roll, winning 8 of his last 11 starts, helping form a solid Yankees rotation. Some of the reasons behind Hughes’ surge are his ability to get (and stay) ahead in the count, locate his fastball, throw his curve ball for strikes, and overpower hitters with his fastball. Another huge move was Hughes scrapping his cutter.

While many pitchers are in love with their cutter, I feel this pitch is the latest fad, along the likes of the splitter. Hughes fell in love with his cutter, too, but hitters began to look for it, and pounced. This is a piece I wrote back in 2010 about Hughes getting too predictive with his cut fastball.  Hughes threw it too much and I feel that is one reason why he lost velocity on his fastball and began to get those arm issues. According to FanGraphs, Hughes has thrown the cutter only 4% of the time, if that much.

From what I have noticed, early in games Hughes has gotten ahead most of the time with his fastball, then has used his curveball more often on the first pitch to get ahead later in the games. In his last start against the White Sox, Hughes only got behind on the count 2-0 to two batters, the leadoff guy in the first inning and then to Paul Konerko with two outs in the 8th inning.

While still making a few mistakes here and there (Such as why would Hughes throw a 2-strike curveball to Michael Morse in 3rd inning of his Washington start while he was blowing him away with his fastball the entire at bat), by and large Hughes is pitching smarter and with sustained velocity. Hughes was still popping his fastball up to 94 in the 6th inning of his most recent start and in that Washington game a few starts earlier.

That is progress which the Yankees wanted to see from their young pitcher.

And I do not believe this progress is “small sample size” garbage because it derived from a change in approach and improvement in repertoire. Hughes felt the need to eliminate his cutter and focus on his best pitches, the stuff which advanced him to the major leagues in the first place. This approach allowed him to throw harder and boost confidence enough to challenge hitters, something Hughes shied away from in the past. 

I have seen very good major league hitters fail against Hughes’ fastball late in games when everybody in the world knew it was coming. A perfect example is the 8th inning Kevin Youkilis at bat in Hughes’ last start. This was a massive 8-pitch at bat in a 4-2 game in an inning where most people thought Girardi was going to go to the bullpen and not let Hughes even start the inning.

And Hughes came through with a one, two, three inning against Youkilis, Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko, the heart of the White Sox lineup. It is that inning which necessitated this piece.

What to do with Phil Hughes?

Of course he is going to be a Yankee starting pitcher for the next two years. He has earned that right, even though the Yankees might make him “earn” his spot again next spring. That is just a joke…probably.

But what about after 2013, when Hughes can become a free agent? Still only 26 now, Hughes will be all of 28 when he gets to free agency, and with a solid year or two under his belt, if Hughes reaches free agency, plenty of teams will be calling for his services. Similar to Cole Hamels this off season, Hughes would still be in his “prime” years. And If Hughes continues his stellar pitching through next season, the numbers tossed around might even be too big for the Yankees to handle, especially if they are resigned to their self-imposed $189 million payroll noose.

So, despite the basic team motto of no negotiations during the season, the Yankees should approach Hughes and his agent to talk a long term deal.

Even before Curtis Granderson and even before Robinson Cano. Having a set starting rotation is of utmost importance in today’s game, especially a home grown kid for below market cost.

So, where to begin on numbers? Hughes is already earning $3.2 million this season through arbitration and would likely command $6-10 million next year. Hughes is 26 and a general lookup of 26 year old pitchers who have signed pre free agent deals turned up this one:

Jon Danks, who signed a 5 year/$65 million deal this past off season, then struggled before he was hurt and placed on the DL.

Other guys near Hughes’ age and history who signed long term deals during arbitration include Jon Lester (24, 5 yr/$30M), Johnny Cueto (24, 4 yr/$27M), Josh Johnson (26, 4 yr/$39M), Justin Verlander (26, 5yr/$80M), Jonathan Niese (25, 4 yr/25M).

Lester, Cueto and Niese were all younger and less established than Hughes, while Verlander, Johnson and Jered Weaver (29, 5 yr/$85) and Matt Cain (27, big money) were all established aces of their teams and were paid as such.

Hughes is very similar to Danks, but I believe Danks was paid too much. Danks likely received what he did because his length of work as a starter was established for several years, but I believe Hughes is a better pitcher. Somewhere in the middle of Danks and Cueto/Lester is about right for a probably Hughes deal.

How about offering Hughes a 4 year deal for $40 million with a club option for a fifth year at a slightly higher salary? Work from there and negotiate as the situation permits. That would keep Hughes in pinstripes through his key years and give the Yankees a certainty on a cost structure. If Hughes wants much more and test the free agent waters, then keep him for the two seasons and bid adieu.

But if Hughes rejects a long term deal and wants to test free agency, I would use him for 120 plus pitches each start next season. Let him really earn his free agent money.

As I said earlier, it is a credit to the Yankees brass (Cashman/Girardi) that they had the gumption to stick with Hughes in the rotation. A handful of starts are never a certainty when dealing with young pitchers, but with his new approach, Hughes has clearly turned the corner and has become a more consistent and durable pitcher for the Yankees. From his improved confidence and challenging hitters, Hughes has upped his strikeout rate this season while also lowering his walk rate.

Aren’t we told by the saber guys that this is a predictor of future success?

Sure, Hughes will still have a clunker now and then, but so does every pitcher.

I talked on Mike Silva’s radio show early this spring that the Yankees needed to at least give Hughes the chance to pitch through the All Star break to determine if he had a future in the rotation. I also said if the Yankees continued to jerk Hughes around like they did with Joba, NO WAY Hughes was going to give the Yankees an option regarding free agency. He would walk, and likely walk to the West coast (where he is from) or maybe the Boston Red Sox, his favorite team growing up.

It is time for the Yankees to pony up to keep Hughes in pinstripes. His youth and internal upbringing are keys to the future success of the Yankees rotation. Of course, the team could choose to lean on David Phelps, Adam Warren and DJ Mitchell in 2014 and beyond, or go on a free agent pitcher spending spree.

But it might be wise to combine the two and let Phelps work into the rotation and spend money on guys like Hughes who have already come up through the system and established themselves.

After all the hand wringing over the last couple years, it would a shame for the Yankees to lose their “golden child” of their system after he finally began living up to his potential.


What Happens if Andy Pettitte Falters During his MLB Comeback?

May 13, 2012

Today marks the long anticipated return of New York Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte, who has done his best Michael Jordan impersonation by retiring then un-retiring. His first start back is conveniently against the weakest hitting team in baseball, the Seattle Mariners. They are near the bottom of all the slash categories and near the top in strikeouts.

The Mariners are a good place to start for anybody, but especially a veteran stalwart coming off a year and a half absence and whose stuff in several minor league starts was not all that impressive.

Bet Ivan Nova wishes he were getting the ball today.

Coming back from a long absence is not easy. Some examples of success were Michael Vick’s return after missing two full seasons due to jail time, and running back Paul Hornung’s comeback was successful after he and Alex Karras were suspended for the entire 1963 NFL season for betting on football games. Both cemented their HOF credentials after they returned. Jordan’s comeback to the NBA was good after his stint as a baseball player. It goes to show what a tough sport baseball really is when the best athlete in the world at the time couldn’t cut it on the diamond.

And in baseball there were dozens of former players like Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller and others who successfully came back to the game after serving for years overseas in World War II.

But all of those players weren’t 40 years old.

Pettitte’s last game in pinstripes was in the 2010 ALCS in a Game Four start against the Texas Rangers.  He allowed two runs on five hits over seven innings, suffering the loss in an 8-0 Rangers win. The Rangers were only up 2-0 entering the 9th inning but the Yankee bullpen couldn’t hold them, with David Robertson allowing five runs. It got so bad that Sergio Mitre even pitched!

Pettitte allowed a two-run home run to Josh Hamilton and that was it.

It was a sturdy performance by Andy, and he kept the Rangers hitters off balance all night, mixing his curve and cutter in and out, but rarely breaking 90 MPH.

Now after that long layoff, reports had Pettitte topping out at 87 MPH during his comeback starts, with his fastball generally in the 83-85 range. That might not get it done against major league hitters, especially if he isn’t locating very well. Pettitte hasn’t exactly had good performances against the minor league hitters he has faced, getting knocked around much more as his pitch counts were rising.

His last start a week ago saw him allow eight hits in five innings, allowing five runs, three earned. And his only Double-A start saw Pettitte also allow three earned runs with seven hits in five innings. But strangely, expectations are better for Pettitte while facing much better hitters.

I think all of us probably kind of expect that we’re going to see Andy Pettite (sic), what we’re used to seeing,” Girardi said. “A guy that grinds out starts. That has the ability to get double plays. That doesn’t panic out there. I think you can only go back on what you’ve seen from him. It’s not like he’s trying to reinvent himself. I think his stuff is going to be pretty similar to what he had when he walked away in 2010. That’s kind of what I feel. Will I be right? I hope so, but we’ll find out.”

But what if Pettitte isn’t that guy again, the guy who was 11-3, 3.28 ERA his final season? What if the major league hitters get fat pitches over the middle of the plate, and flat cutters with no bite like the 2012 minor league hitters were seeing? What if Pettitte allows five earned runs today in 2 2/3 innings? It would be easy to demote Phil Hughes back to the pen or David Phelps back to Triple-A if the kids were really bad, but would it be easy to give up on a Yankee icon?

GM Brian Cashman and Girardi will definitely give Andy another start or three, likely many more as it seems his spot in the rotation now is secure.

But what if that type of performance continues where he was the way Hughes started the season, or God forbid, the way Freddy Garcia started? Start after start of getting knocked around, with a good performance here and there for effect? Does Andy get the benefit of the doubt because he is a veteran with 240 career wins?

If Andy falters, my feeling is that Girardi will give Andy as many starts to “right the ship” and “find his stuff” all to the detriment of the Yankee bullpen and record.

When all the Pettitte comeback talk was on back in February, I wrote that the Yankees should be doing this for Pettitte’s October experience. I offered they Yankees should let Pettitte work in slowly, getting in to some game after the All-Star break and working towards a post season start. The team needs to find out how Nova would do in his second season, they needed to find out if Hughes can become the starter everyone expected.

Then Michael Pineda got hurt, Garcia bombed and Hughes was roughed up in his early starts. All hell broke loose in Yankee-land and Pettitte’s time frame was pushed up.

It is not like Hughes has continued his decline or Phelps (2 GS, 8.2 IP, 2 ER, 8 Ks, 4 BB) has been terrible in his time on the mound. These kids have been pretty good so far. Although it is not been reported yet (Girardi never says any concrete until after it happens), but it is likely Phelps will go back to the bullpen, or maybe even Triple-A to “get his innings up” similar to how Eduardo Nunez was sent down to “play SS full-time.”

Pettitte was brought back for his experience but now he is “needed” to solidify what was once perceived to be a formidable rotation. I still believe the rotation is fine as it is, and gives the Yankee kids like Phelps some much needed major league starting experience.

I hope Pettitte does well and helps lead the Yankees to the post season. But the odds are not great for similar success he had in 2010, and if he does not perform well, things could get ugly quickly for the Yankees and one of their icons.


David Phelps Should NOT Be Just a Short Term Solution

May 1, 2012

I was in the midst of writing a “Girardi Needs to Yank Garcia from the Rotation” piece when the Yankees announced Sunday that Freddy Garcia is being removed from the rotation. He will not make his next scheduled start and will remain as the mop up guy* in the bullpen.

  • As opposed to the 9th inning guy (Rivera), the 8th inning guy (Robertson), the 7th inning guy (Soriano), the 6th inning guy (Wade/Logan), the LOOGY (Rapada), and multi-inning guy (Logan/Wade).

In a related transaction, Triple-A starting pitcher D.J. Mitchell, who many feel could be a good, multi-inning reliever, has been promoted with Cody Eppley, who has thrown well since he was recalled last week, was sent down to make room for Mitchell. Since Eppley threw 3 innings yesterday, he was likely not available today or tomorrow, and with Phelps also not likely available due to his three inning stint yesterday, he wasn’t available either.

They still have 13 pitchers on their 25 man roster. That is at least one too many.

With Cory Wade and now Garcia in the bullpen, why the need for Mitchell right now? Did Girardi expect CC Sabathia to get knocked around early today?

The bringing up of Mitchell told me that he will not be the starting pitcher the next Thursday (Garcia’s next scheduled start). And after the game we hear that Phelps will indeed start in Garcia’s stead.

That is a great move, with Phelps GETTING a role in the Yankees starting rotation is long overdue.

I say getting because the way the Yankees have developed their own starting pitching (not good) with ways most other successful teams do develop starting pitching (pretty good) is completely different.

The Yankees force their young pitchers to pitch well in the minor leagues, and then pitch extremely well in spring training to “earn” your spot. After you “earn” your spot, then a Yankee pitching prospect needs to pitch like an ace right off the bat to keep that rotation spot. Then that kid has to pitch well again the NEXT spring training to keep that spot.

What other team (besides the Yank-Mees) in their right mind would force a 16 game winner in the prior season to have to EARN a spot in the rotation for the next season the way the Yankees made Ivan Nova do this spring training. There was serious talk in late March of Nova being sent to minor leagues after his sub-par spring training. The minor leagues! Ship out a kid who won 16 games last year, with an ERA well below 4.00.

And all that might not even get you a sniff of the major leagues, since the Yankees are always seeking to “improve” their rotation each year with the biggest name free agent available.

Teams like the Tampa Bay Rays develop their pitchers. Each of their current starting pitchers were brought up in the middle (or end) of their first major league season to start games when the Rays needed them.  Then that guy was inserted into the starting rotation for the next season, and in several instances veteran starters were traded away to allow these kids that opportunity. Guys like Matt Garza, Edwin Jackson and Jason Hammel (who seems to have turned his career around) were shipped out to allow new starters an opportunity.

Same thing has been done in San Francisco and Texas.

So after a career minor league record of 38-15, 2.61 ERA, Phelps has now been granted an opportunity to start a major league baseball game, AFTER he had to “earn” that spot this spring training to get on the major league roster. I have written about Phelps many times before, most recently here but now people are finally realizing this kid is pretty good.

http://nybaseballdigest.com/2012/03/05/david-phelps-impresses-on-the-mound-what-else-is-new/

He throws strikes with four pitches, moves the ball nicely around the zone and can blow the ball by hitters when he needs to.

However, despite his four quality appearances out of the bullpen, he also had two outings where he allowed three earned runs in each. It was in these two games which Phelps has given up three of his four home runs allowed. In fact, five of his seven runs allowed have been caused by the four long balls.

I am sure that has really destroyed that precious xFIP.

It is these two outings which has many in the blogosphere very nervous. Let me break down these two appearances.

In the Boston game on April 21st, Phelps allowed six hits, three ERs while walking one in four innings. His ERA for that game (6.75) is less than Phil Hughes ERA of 7.88 this season and well below Garcia’s. This game saw Phelps give up a bunch of ground ball singles, a double and a two-run home run to Cody Ross, who he had whiffed in a prior at bat. He also retired Adrian Gonzalez twice including getting him to hit into a double play.

I guess Phelps was just lucky on that grounder.

Anyway, he was ahead of most of the hitters that game as he was in the Texas game. But in the Texas game, Phelps allowed two solo home runs, three walks (2 IBB) in 2.1 innings. He threw good pitches which were hit out, a 1-1 up and in fastball to Mitch Moreland, and a 0-2 low and away fastball to Mike Napoli. Both pitches weren’t exactly where they were supposed to be, but weren’t great fat pitches to hit either. I actually thought he should have bounced a curve ball to Napoli 0-2 after getting ahead on two straight fastballs.

There are times when a pitcher can make the most perfect pitch (and up and in and low and away fastballs are two great pitches), but if a hitter is looking for a particular pitch they can still hit it very hard. That is why it is imperative to get ahead (which Phelps consistently does), which forces many hitters to expand the strike zone.

I am not making excuses for Phelps, but despite two “bad” outings, he didn’t pitch as bad as the numbers suggest.

I saw Phelps throw in his last outing. He moved the ball in and out; throwing the ball very well against a pretty good lineup. Just ask Garcia, he’ll agree. Phelps jammed Miguel Cabrera on and inside fastball on the black and had Prince Fielder pout in front on an outside curveball, which induced the slugger to bounce into a double play. He threw a 3-1 changeup to get Phelps also set up Austin Jackson like he was a little leaguer, striking AJax out on three pitches, finishing him off with a high fastball which Jackson swung through.

It is not practical for the Yankees to not have another young arm in the rotation. Most successful teams continue to produce solid starting pitching, many of whom are not even first round pick. And if the Yankees feel they will sign Cole Hamels or Zack Greinke next year for contracts well over $100 million (the way Hamels is throwing, he might command near $200 million), then they are nuts. As a west coast guy, if Hamels did become a free agent, he will never sign with the Yankees. And after the crap Michael Pineda endured this spring training, Greinke will run far away from the Bronx.

Who else is a possible free agent? A Joe Blanton, Kyle Lohse or Brandon McCarthy? Please.

And what type of Mat Latos or Gio Gonzalez deal are you going to swing now since your biggest trade chip, Jesus Montero, was shipped out to Seattle?

There is a great strong chance Hiroki Kuroda and/or Andy Pettitte will not be around next season due to cost (Kuroda) and effectiveness (Pettitte). And will Phil Hughes begin to fulfill all his promise as a starting pitcher and become a fixture in the Yankee rotation?

The best situation for the Yankees is to develop and use another pitcher from their system in their starting rotation. And that doesn’t include a rehash of the 40 year old Andy Pettitte. Ivan Nova has proven he belongs, and it is time for the Yankees to allow Phelps a similar opportunity. He has been their best minor league starting pitcher since he has entered their system. 

If the choice is between a 25 year old David Phelps with a four pitch arsenal to both sides of the plate or a 40 year old Andy Pettitte who can barely break 86 MPH, and from what I have seen and heard throws many his pitches over the middle of the plate, the choice is very easy.

Phelps has shown he can get out many of the game’s best hitters, and has the composure, confidence and repertoire to succeed at this level. There is no reason why he shouldn’t be GIVEN the balance of starts this season.

David Phelps needs to not be a short term stop gap and become part of the long term solution.


What Does Andy Pettitte’s Return Mean for Young Pitchers in the New York Yankee Organization?

March 21, 2012

Andy Pettitte returned to the New York Yankees spring training camp today, this time for keeps. He will throw batting practice and bullpens again, but throwing pitches with conviction and intent. All reports indicate Andy’s bullpen session on Tuesday went better than expected.

Pettitte is once again a New York Yankee starting pitcher.

And his impact is immediate. The same day Pettitte was back in Yankee camp, pitchers David Phelps, D.J. Mitchell and George Kontos all were optioned to Triple-A Rochester. Three for one! And after the home run hit by Andrew McCutchen off of Michael Pineda last night and Ivan Nova’s latest start, more kids might be on the way to the minor leagues. Although Pineda redeemed himself by finishing strong AND upping his velocity, having Pettitte around now is not good news for any of the kids.

Such is always the case with young pitchers in Yankee-land. Never any patience with one bad start, even if it is only spring training. I once wrote a piece stating that the worst place for a young Yankee pitcher is being on their 40-man roster*.   Once a kid is buried there, they never get that opportunity until they are traded away.

  • It is very interesting that when I wrote that piece three years ago, it was because the Yankees signed a free agent pitcher on January 26, 2009 who took over the 5th rotation spot and would end up sending Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy to Triple-A. That free agent pitcher was Andy Pettitte, who is doing the same thing to the Yankee kid pitchers this season. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Why does Pettitte continue to hurt the chances of young Yankee pitchers, this time the chances of Nova and Pineda, and once again Phil Hughes? It is like Andy wants to be the last successful Yankee home grown starting pitcher.

No matter what you believe regarding Pettitte’s return, he is back and is expected to compete for a starting pitching spot no later than May.

That would be a mistake.

Pettitte and Russell Martin might think Andy will be ready for a major league rotation by May, but the best thing for the Yankees is waiting until after the All-Star break to let Pettitte pitch in games which count. The Yankees need to finally find out what they have with their young guns, especially the new and improved Hughes. Plus, Pettitte was not signed by the Yankees for starts in May and June, but for key starts in October.

With 19 overall victories, Pettitte is the most winning pitcher in post season history. His impressive October record over his last two seasons (2009-2010) of 5-1, 3.23 ERA, 1.076 WHIP, 2.83 K/BB is better than any starting pitcher currently with the Yankees. Better than CC Sabathia (5-1, 3.54 ERA, 1.541 WHIP, 2.42 K/BB) better than Nova, better than Hughes and even better than AJ…oh, wait, no need for his numbers anymore. Hideki Kuroda has mixed results, having two nice starts, but getting bombed (1.1 IP, 6 ER) in his third. Pineda has yet to pitch in the postseason, but that is surely a small sample size.

The Yankees need to see if Pettitte is healthy enough to start and go for a full season, a feat Andy has not done since 2009. Even during his fine 2010 season, Pettitte only made 21 starts. His prior two full seasons of 2008 and 2009, Pettitte was barely above league average. He was a combined 28-22, 4.35 ERA (an ERA+ of only 98 in 2009!), with a 1.400 WHIP over those last two full seasons.

However, he was mostly spectacular during the post season those two seasons, and thus the reason for his signing.

Is Pettitte the future of a Yankees starting rotation? Is he prepared to play this one season only as an ego boost, or is he planning to pitch in 2013 or even 2014? Is this about boosting his chances for the Hall of Fame?

With six current starting pitchers and at least three more ready at Triple A, Pettitte knows of his postseason success and why the Yankees want him. It is not May rotation depth. It is October rotation depth. Who knows how the Yankees pitching will shake out this season? In mid-May of last year, who would have thought that Nova would be the No. 2 starting pitcher in the ALDS?

Instead of coming back mid-season (like his former pal Roger Clemens did), Pettitte is coming back early in the season, and why I believe Pettitte would want to pitch more that this season, for the sake of his legacy. If it was just about the post season, Pettitte could have waited until May or June to announce, and take a month to be ready for a post All-Star break start. That would also have given the Yankees a half season to evaluate their young kids such as Pineda, Nova and Hughes.

And that is what is baffling about the Yankees signing Pettitte so early and wanting to use him so early in the season. His last two full seasons were league average. That is something the three major league 25-and-under-guys could do, too. And probably even Phelps, Mitchell and Adam Warren. Are the Yankees getting the Andy of 2010 and the 2009-2010 postseason, or the Andy of the 2008-2009 regular seasons?

If Andy pitches league average and has a so-so postseason, then would the Yankees sign him again for next season? There are tons of variables here, many of which affect the Yankees in 2014, the season which they want to get under the $189 million luxury tax threshold. This means the Yankees, who have almost $80 million tied up with four guys in 2014 (CC, Alex, Tex, Jeter), and need to re-sign Robinson Cano and/or Curtis Granderson, Russell Martin plus lots of potential free agent pitchers like Joba Chamberlain, David Robertson, Mariano (?) and Hughes. Not to mention arbitration guys like Gardner, Nova and Pineda at that time.

The Yankees would need to see if a couple of these young starting pitchers can do the job long term. They need to find out if Nova, Pineda, Hughes or even the Triple-A kids can get the job done at the major league level. This would help alleviate the need to chase down free agent pitchers on the open market and keep the payroll somewhat near the $189 million mark.

This season would have been a great year to find out if the young kids like Nova, Pineda and Hughes can produce, but the Pettitte signing (just like before the 2009 season) eliminates lots of opportunities for the minor league kids, and possibly the three major league guys, too. Young kids like Phelps (who I feel is similar to Mike Mussina, as was Ian Kennedy), Mitchell or Warren could be traded this year. With the Pettitte signing, most pundits believe Freddy Garcia is the major league odd man out of the rotation spot, and possibly the roster.

I disagree. That person is likely Phil Hughes.

All the shenanigans with Hughes such as the injuries, starting vs. relieving, the 2011 dead arm crap and the constant media pressure of needing to pitch great every game, Hughes is not long for the Yankees. The former first round pick and Yankee savior will definitely be gone when his free agency comes, likely to a more secure environment where a team can just let him pitch. So with a logjam at starting pitcher and the threat early in spring of a minor league demotion (options left, anyone?) or bullpen role again, Hughes is probably already thinking back to the West coast, where he was raised.

With his newfound workout regimen having him looking good in camp, Hughes (and not Garcia) would bring the best value in a potential trade. In addition, Garcia was brought aboard in 2012 to help foster Nova’s second season, a role he admirably performed last year. Freddy also is likely now helping with Pineda, who is overwhelmed by the constant N.Y. media hordes.

If Hughes is doing well early in 2012, I would not be surprised if Hughes was dealt by the All-Star break. With the spring struggles of Raul Ibanez, there is also a real possibility Hughes could headline a package for a bat before the season starts. How about Hughes and Dellin Betances (plus another guy) to Kansas City for Alex Gordon? Or perhaps to the San Francisco Giants as part of a deal for Brandon Belt, who I believe is a very special hitter.

A few weeks ago Brian Cashman said that Hughes “has No. 1 starter potential.” Coupled with a strong start to his 2012 season, Hughes could be like Jesus Montero. A player gets a rave review by the GM, a small sample size period of success, and then traded from a position of strength for an immediate need.

Who knew Andy Pettitte had that much power to limit young pitching…again.


New York Yankees: Can Pitching Coach Larry Rothschild Really Fix A.J. Burnett?

November 26, 2010

All the New York Yankees news the past week or so has been about Derek Jeter and his new deal. How much will Jeter “settle” for and will the Yankees come up from their three-year, $45 million deal. Also, some Mariano Rivera news has popped up. Will the Yankees give him a two-year deal?

But one big story a couple weeks ago was the hiring of new Yankee pitching coach, Larry Rothschild. His big job would need to be “fixing” A.J. Burnett, a bad pitcher locked into an $82.5 million body.

Larry Rothschild really has his work cut out for him.

Tons of articles about how Rothschild needs to find out what is wrong with A.J. Burnett, identify those faults (which are many) and “fix” A.J. Burnett’s mechanics.

That is going to be very difficult.

You see, Burnett is entering the third year of a five-year contract which is paying him $16.5 million per year. Chump change for most of us, but real money to Burnett.

Burnett is also going to be 34 years old in 2011, has a dozen seasons of pitching in the major leagues on his ledger and has thrown 1,770 major league innings. Rothschild has pitched a total of 8.1 innings during his major league career.

Do you really think Burnett is going to scrap the way he has pitched for more than 12 seasons to go along with a guy who doesn’t have enough innings for even one complete game?

I don’t think so, because even though A.J. is deemed “a good guy” by most of the Yankee beat writers, I see Burnett as a guy who cares only about himself.

Burnett has had his share of incidents with the teams he has played. First, he was kicked off the Florida Marlins team in September 2005 for detrimental comments about the manager, Jack McKeon, and the organization.

He was kicked off the team! The Marlins said, “Get lost, we don’t want you around here anymore!”

Burnett also showed up one day this season with a black eye. No one has said what happened, but I would not be surprised if Burnett popped off to someone in the locker room (Jorge Posada?) who took matters into his own fists… I mean, hands.

As I wrote in the past, I would have stayed far away form A.J. Burnett two winters ago. He showed to have a bad attitude and only performed well in arbitration and his walk years. I even had a huge discussion about it on 1050 NY ESPN radio host Michael Kay. His last comment was “that is who the Yankees really want.”

The Yankees should have passed on Burnett. When you look into Burnett’s career, he really hasn’t had one dominant season, not even a few really good seasons. He has always gotten by on the fact that he “has great stuff.” But when you can’t get hitters out on a consistent basis, you don’t have great stuff.

Even Burnett’s “good” 2008 season in Toronto, he was 5-1 with a 2.05 ERA against the Yankees and Boston Red Sox, but only 13-9 with a 4.93 ERA in all other games. Typical Burnett of pitching well in a walk year against two rivals, but not doing well otherwise.

Now Larry Rothschild will be looked upon to save the big (black eye) guy. While it is somewhat easy to recognize pitching faults and work with the pitcher to correct them, it is much more difficult to get past the pitcher’s mental faults.

Burnett has many mental faults and it will be tough to get him to change those to become more confident and to concentrate more on each pitch.

Physical faults can be corrected.  

The biggest issue is that Burnett does not have command of his fastball. How many times do you watch a game and the Yankee catcher is set up on one corner or the other and Burnett throws a fat pitch right down the middle?

Too many times. And when the ball does not travel over the middle, it usually misses way outside or way inside, often hitting the batter. In fact, Burnett led the major league in hit batsmen in 2010 with 19.

No control with or command of the fastball, which is always what you hear manager Joe Girardi say after bad Burnett outings. Burnett’s pitches move too much.

Easiest thing to do to “fix” Burnett is to have him throw his fastball right down the middle. They can first test A.J. to see if maybe he has his A game and can hit the corners. But that rarely happens so move to Plan B is needed.

Since Burnett can not hit a corner on a consistent basis, the thing to do is have the catcher set up for fastballs right over the middle of the plate—every fastball, every time. Then, when A.J. has his movement going, or he is not concentrating, the pitches he throws to the glove will miss to either side and be near or right on the corners.

Tough for hitters to take those pitches and even tougher for them to hit.

We used to do this in college with high velocity guys who could not locate and Davey Johnson convinced this was the way to go with Sid Fernandez back in the 1980s. El Sid was a really good pitcher for the New York Mets during their heyday, allowing precious few hits but tons of free passes.

This tactic couldn’t be any worse than how A.J. performed in 2010. Throwing the ball down the middle could only be better, but the Yankees would never do something as simple as that.

In 2010, A.J. has had his worst statistical season as a full time starting pitcher. Worst strike out rate, worst WHIP, worst HR rate, worst ERA and almost worst walk rate.

That has to be a really bad FIP.

So they will attempt to “fix” Burnett’s mechanics.

Let me help out the new pitching coach with identifying Burnett’s mechanical issues.

Burnett uses a big hip turn where he shows the number of his uniform and his back pocket to the hitter. No need for this as it does two things. This provides no benefit to velocity and actually pulls Burnett away from the forward momentum he should be delivering directly to the plate.

What this big backwards hip turn does is reduce his velocity by creating excess movement during the delivery. Velocity has nothing to do with the strength of your arm, but the power of your core including a powerful hip turn after the front foot lands.

The big hip turn will also usually cause the lead leg to swing out and straighten when the lead leg should remain in a bent position. It is not good when the front leg acts like a swinging gate.  As I said earlier, a big turn of the hips is good after the front leg lands, not before it.

A swinging gate front leg often causes the landing foot to plant in different spots, away from the mid-line to home plate, causing the aforementioned reduced velocity and any concept of control of his pitches 

Add in the fact that Burnett does not concentrate on every pitch and that is a recipe for disaster. A disaster which turned out to be his 2010 season.  

Repeating mechanics is very difficult for Burnett because of so much movement and lack of concentration. Similar to what Dontrelle Willis has been going through since, well, forever.

First step to “fix” Burnett is to eliminate his aggressive backward hip turn and have him bring the lead leg up, down and out. Eliminating all the excess backward movement will increase Burnett’s velocity and improve his control.

As I mentioned earlier, the toughest thing for Rothschild to “fix” is Burnett’s mound demeanor and concentration. Burnett doesn’t seem like he really cares out on the mound. Several pitches in a row look good, then four hits and two walks later, the Yanks are down by three.

Only thing which works on the mental aspect is to treat the player like a child. Take things away, like his spot in the rotation. But that will never happen with all that money being paid to Burnett.

I can’t see Burnett listening much to what Rothschild says. If Burnett proves me incorrect, then it would be great all around for Yankee fans, but I just don’t see it based upon his track record of individualism.

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.

Best thing for the organization is to try and work a trade for A.J., eat lots of cash and let a young kid from the system take his spot. Get rid of the black cloud of having pressure on Rothschild to “fix” Burnett and having constant questions after every one of Burnett’s bad starts.

With Andy Pettitte looking like he will return for one more season and the almost certainty of signing Cliff Lee, the Yankees can afford to take a hit by trading Burnett (limited no trade clause) and using a kid (Ivan Nova, David Phelps?) as the fifth starter.

They couldn’t do any worse than the 10-15, 5.26 ERA and 1.511 WHIP Burnett put up last season.

Biggest way to fix Burnett is to not have him around anymore.


New York Yankees: Looking to Do What the Tampa Bay Rays Could Not

October 18, 2010

Before the pennant races concluded, many people thought, and wrote, that the Yankees did not want to win the American League East because they did not want to to possibly face Cliff Lee twice in a five game series.

Once again, be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.

And the Yankees now have it.

They are in the same situation as the 2010 AL East champion Tampa Bay Rays were: Since they split the first two games in Arlington, they are now in a five game series against the Rangers.

And Cliff Lee is starting Game 1 and, if necessary, will start in Game 5.

Most Yankee fans thought they were getting a break when Lee had to pitch Game 5 in the ALDS and could not start Game 1 in Arlington.

I marvel at all the people who say that the Yankees should be happy that they got a split in Texas, “which is all they really needed, anyway.” Actually, the opposite is true.

When you win the first game on the road, nothing short of winning two should be acceptable.

It seems that Yankees fans (and many in the media) are already throwing in the towel in Game 3, assuming Lee will keep his masterful pitching performances going.

That may be the case, but it also can be far from the truth.

Lee has faced the Yankees three times this season, and is 2-0, 3.09 ERA. In the first game, Lee threw a complete game, allowing four runs while striking out only two hitters.

In his second start against New York, the Yankees rallied late, beating the Rangers in Texas. Although he struck out 11, Lee also gave up four runs this game. In his third start, Lee won 4-1, but walked three, his season high.

Twice in his three starts against the Yankees this year, Lee allowed four runs—so the Yankees have gotten to Lee this season. The issue in all three of those games this season was the Yankee starting pitching was atrocious.

Dustin Moseley, Javier Vazquez and Phil Hughes all were hit around by the opposition.

Even last year during the World Series, the Yankees lost twice to Lee, but after getting dominated in Game 1, they scored five runs off Lee in seven innings in his second start.

Again, by scoring five runs off Lee in Game 5 last year, they should have won the game, but A.J. Burnett was pretty bad that day.

I have all the confidence in Andy Pettitte tonight. The major league’s all-time winningest postseason pitcher is coming off a tremendous performance in the ALDS, but it was 11 days ago.

Unlike CC Sabathia, who has no command after longer rest, as he has gotten older, Pettitte is much better with longer rest between starts. Over the last three years, Andy is 4-2 with a 3.14 ERA on six-plus days rest, better than his overall numbers. 

Looks like a good pitching match-up to me, a game the Yankees can win. In Lee’s 28 starts this year, Lee has allowed four or more runs in 11 games. And in those games, the opposing team was not patient at the plate, working the count, but were aggressive early in the count.

Lee threw primarily fastballs the first time through the order in his two games in the ALDS. In Game 1 at Tampa Bay, he threw only fastballs in the first inning when the Rays loaded the bases.

At that point, the Rays stopped being aggressive and did not score.

If the Yankees are aggressive early, and look to attack the first pitch fastball, they can score runs. You can not “pitch count” Lee out of the game, but need to bang him around and knock him out.

If the Yankees get four runs off Lee, they will win tonight.

Be aggressive early and let Pettitte do his thing.


New York Yankees: A.J. Burnett Needs to Start In The ALCS

October 14, 2010

We now know the New York Yankees roster and their pitching rotation for the ALCS.

A.J. Burnett will start Game Four in Yankee Stadium. And while many people feel it is the wrong move, it is definitely the correct move for the Yankees to make if they want to advance to the World Series.

While many fans want CC Sabathia to throw games One, Four and Seven on three days rest, it would be foolish to heap that much on the big guy. With better performances by Andy Pettitte and Phil Hughes in the ALDS, it would benefit the Yankees if all three of their ALDS starters were scheduled for two games each on regular rest in this series.

I would much rather have all three of the Yankees top starters pitching two games each than CC running out there three times. Overall, the Yankees starters are much better than the Rangers starters, even including Cliff Lee.

And including A.J. Burnett.

Other than Lee and Wilson, the other two Rangers starters are not that good.

Colby Lewis was an All-Star for the first month of the season, but has thrown for almost a full run higher in the second half. Tommy Hunter is two runs higher in the second half, and much better at home than on the road.

He pitches at Yankee Stadium in Game Four, going up against Burnett.

I wrote it was a mistake for the Yankees to keep A.J. on the ALDS roster because he was never going to be used. First, he is not a relief type pitcher as he does not throw consistent strikes, the key ingredient to being a successful relief pitcher.

Second, keeping A.J. off the ALDS roster would allow him to stay fresh by going down to Tampa and pitching in real games down there, keeping himself in pitching shape. It would

The biggest issue for starting pitchers is when they pitch with too many days rest. Their command suffers. A.J. will have had 17 days off from live pitching when he toes the rubber in Game Four Tuesday night.

And Burnett is already having issues with his command now that he back throwing to live hitters.

Sabathia had eight days from his last start of the regular season to his ALDS start. CC lacked command in that start, allowed five hits, walked three and missed his locations all game long.

David Price missed the same amount of days before his first ALDS start and had a similarly outing. His second outing in the ALDS (although he received another loss) was much better command wise.

So, AJ has to many days off. So why should he still get a start in the ALCS?

It will make the other starters better. The time period between their first and second starts will be on normal rest. While I believe Sabathia on nine days rest will struggle again tomorrow night, he will grind through that game, and the Yankees will come out on top.

He could go on three days rest.

And both Hughes, the up and coming young stud, and Pettitte, the aging but still very effective (and oftentimes dominating) lefty, will not be thrown on three days rest. The Yankees will not do that to their No. 2 and No. 3 starters, at least not in the ALCS.

If Hughes and Pettitte were going on three days rest, they would likely be limited in the innings they throw in their first games, probably six. Limited innings would severely put an added emphasis on the back end of the bullpen.

The bullpen has been good over the second half of the season. The Brian Cashman trade for Kerry Wood has solidified an already strong pen, and has appeared to lift the performances of most others back there.

But if Hughes and Pettitte become six inning pitchers, I do not know if the bullpen will be able to get nine outs per game not started by Sabathia. CC’s three day rest start in last season’s ALCS was an eight inning gem, but the other pitchers all had that extra day of rest and went on regular rest.  

No extra day this season. Hughes and Pettitte are not three day rest guys this season.

Not when they have a starting pitcher in Burnett who can possibly go out in Game Four and pitch a good ball game like he did last year in Game Two of the World Series.

But if bad A.J. shows up, hitting the barrels of bats, going deep into counts and walking hitters, Joe Girardi will pull him early in Game Four.

That is why Sergio Mitre is again on the roster, and was pretty good during the season coming in relief. In 13 relief appearancesof more than one inning, Mitre only allowed a run in four of them.

Mitre will likely keep the Yankees in the game if Burnett falters early, but if Burnett is on, the Yankees will have easier access to a second straight World Series.