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.

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A Dominant World Series Performance while on the Mound at Yankee Stadium

October 29, 2009

An in-his-prime Cy Young Award winning pitcher was making the start in Game One of the World Series on the hill at Yankee Stadium (one of the few stadiums left that does not receive money for naming rights). He completely dominates the Bronx Bombers power laden lineup, and out dueled the Yankees ace left handed pitcher.

Having won the prior years World Series, his team was seeking to become the first National League team since the Big Red Machine in 1975-76 to repeat as a World Series Champions. The Yankees meanwhile, had not been to the Series in years and were looking to continue their comeback kid way of the prior playoff series.

However, on this Game One night only the Yankee shortstop and lead off hitter, Derek Jeter, crossed the plate, while a former Boston Red Sox hitter batting second for the Yankees had one of the few hits allowed by this veteran stud pitcher. 

A young slugger for this pitcher’s team hit two home runs, one a mammoth shot whose sound of bat meeting ball reverberated throughout the stadium, that is until the entire stadium went quiet. After the second home run in as many at bats, the way this starter was pitching, it was apparent to Yankee fans knew the game was likely out reach.  

Even this Yankee fan predicted that the Yankees would win Game One.

And on this night, the Yankee bullpen put gasoline on the fire, doing their part to allow that loss to materialize.

This pitcher had the Yankees waving at pitches all night, continuing his utter dominance in the post season. Up to this game, the pitcher started Game One in both prior series, was undefeated with a ridiculously low ERA and WHIP, handily defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers along the way.

His great start and solid offense from his teams lineup gave the Yankees thoughts that the Series might not go as they expected. They knew that even if they won the next couple games, they would have to face this ace once again.

After Game One, a Yankee hitter lamented that the next time his team “might have to beat that guy 1-0 or 2-1 the next time they face him.”

Could the Yankees beat this guy the second time around, likely going head to head again with that lefty Yankee ace on the hill?

Of course they can…and they already did! And that pitching rematch was one of the classic duels in World Series history, and the Yankees went on to win the World Series title.

Cliff Lee and 2009? Hardly.

We are talking about John Smoltz and 1996. He tore through the playoffs that season, and beat the Yankees in Game One , with Andruw Jones smacking the ball over the fence twice. Smoltz and Andy Pettitte both came back again in Game Five with masterful performances, only to see the Yankees win that duel 1-0. 

And that was AFTER the Yankees lost Game Two at home to a magician on the mound named Greg Maddux, similar to a magician the Yankees face tonight in Pedro Martinez.

So, all those prognosticators who think this 2009 Series has already taken a bad turn for the Yankees because of Lee’s dominance should look back at 1996. There was nobody better than Smoltz that season, and the Yankees beat him 1-0 the second time around.

MATSUI’S GAFFE

Anytime a ball is hit in the air within the infield, it is the runners job to get back to the bag. If the ball drops, it is the batter’s job to hustle down the first base line to beat a throw. Do your job and don’t worry about the other guy.

No matter what happened to that mini-pop up hit by Robinson Cano last night, Hideki Matsui should have been on first base immediately after the ball was hit. He never would have been safe on second anyway! Cano hustled down the line and thought he beat the relay throw, but he was actually out on the catch. Matsui needed to be back to the bag (and not on the infield grass!).

And where was the first base coach during all of this? Why was he not yelling to Matsui to come back to first? Stupid play all around and it goes to show that some ballplayers live on talent, and not on brains.

YANKEE HITTERS

Many times last night the Yankee hitters were consumed with home plate umpires Gerry Davis strike zone. Most of the times the strike zone was too tight as Cliff Lee, Phil Hughes and David Robertson were all severely pinched, but Cano and Melky Cabrera showed displeasure when strike calls were made.

Showing disgust toward the ump will get you no sympathy as the umps usually have long memories. As a hitter you will not get many calls your way after complaining.

Disgust on the field also takes the hitter out of his approach at the plate. While now a hitter is thinking about the SOB calling balls and strikes, the hitter should be concentrating on the pitcher and the count.

Don’t ever let the umpire dictate how you approach the at bat. If the zone is bigger than you thought, don’t swing at bad pitches early, but expand the zone with two strikes.

But players need to feel out the umpire and adjust accordingly. I would much rather see hitters voice displeasure than pitchers get squeezed. A bigger zone puts more balls in play. When I first began umpiring (now doing high school and college level baseball), I was told to start out thinking every pitch will be a strike, then after the ball is thrown find a good reason why it should not be.

WORKING THE COUNT – TAKING TOO MANY PITCHES

Rogers Horsnby was the greatest right handed hitter ever . His 1921-1925 seasons were absolutely sick. His first mantra was to GET A GOOD PITCH TO HIT. Ted Williams stuck to this mantra his entire career.

But now the game has changed to taking good pitches to hit. That is a bad move.

The Yankee hitters were taking too many fastballs down the middle early in the game. Do the Yankees really think they are going to pitch count Lee out of the game? This working the count is the biggest crock in baseball, especially the World Series game one. If the game was tight near the end, Charlie Manuel was NEVER going to pull Lee out of the game. He learned that lesson in the NLCS when he pulled Pedro too early and lost Game Two in Los Angeles.

The way to get Lee out of a game like that is to knock him around by spraying balls all round the field. And you do that by going after good pitches to hit early in the count.

You hear the announcers all the time saying, “So and so should be able to go another inning because he has a good pitch count.” Go another inning?

How about demanding to you manager that you will go nine innings and then shove the ball down the oppositions throat. Intimidate the other lineup by letting your ace dominate. Tell the other team, you can’t beat me and I won’t let you ease your minds by allowing the bullpen to come in this game. Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa made that mistake in the NLDS by removing Adam Wainwright after eight brilliant innings against the Dodgers.

UMPIRES

There was almost another umpire mistake on the Cano infield pop up, but the correct call was eventually made. But the real problem is not the lack of umpire knowledge, but that umpires do not like to break that cardinal rule of overruling another umpire, especially a veteran guy.

After the second base umpire called Cano out on Jimmy Rollins’ catch he should have called Matsui out also when he saw Ryan Howard tag out Hideki. He should have rules on the out at first immediately EVEN IF IT IS NOT HIS CALL. he is the only one who clearly saw the catch made, so he should have the say on the first base call, too.

It appears these umps are too timid to make an immediate call, and replay on everything will only make that worse. Umpires should run the game and not worry about feelings or god forbid, worry about the media.

And in the next TV contract negotiations, Major League baseball should tell the networks that the strike zone F/x garbage shown on every pitch should be outlawed. It leads to too many psuedo-baseball fans complaining about every pitch.

AJ BURNETT

I have read many pieces today that all the pressure is on AJ Burnett to live up to that $80 million contract and pitch the Yankees to victory.

Fans at the game should just let the guy pitch tonight without putting more pressure on him. He gets out of whack quickly and fans jumping down his throat will only aggravate the situation.

That is such garbage. Sports contracts are like investments and those disclaimers at the bottom of the prospectus or spoken really fast at the end of a commercial. These disclaimers say that “past performance is not indicative of future results.”

Burnett was paid that money based upon what he did last season, pure and simple. It does not indicate how he will pitch in “big spots” or “pressure games.”

Big contract’s don’t force players to play better. If that was the case, would giving CC Sabathia another $100 million last winter forced him to pitch better last night?

So, before Yankee fans boo every ball out of the strike zone thrown by AJ and boo every out Alex Rodriguez makes, just remember that these guys will be here many more years and as a fan, you are not making it any better or easier.

Let these guys play and leave them alone.

Yankees win tonight 7-3 as Pedro gets knocked around.


Joe Blanton Continues to Win as do the Philadelphia Phillies

September 2, 2009

When the Phillies traded for Oakland’s Joe Blanton at last years trading deadline, many people were suggesting the Phillies didn’t get the right pitcher. Blanton’s good numbers over his career might have been exaggerated in the spacious Oakland ballpark. Pitching in cozy Citizen’s Bank Ballpark was supposed to equalize Blanton’s effectiveness.

But after Blanton became a Phillie, he proceeded to pitch better than ever. He went 4-0 with a 4.20 ERA for the Phillies, and the eventual World Champions would go 9-4 in his 13 starts.

In 2009, after a disastrous April where Blanton went 0-2, 8.41 ERA in four starts, he has responded to go 9-4 the rest of 2009. And Blanton has truly dominated in July and August. In 10 starts since July 1, Blanton is 5-2, 2.15 ERA  with a 1.04 WHIP, and his K:BB ratio over the last two months (only above 2.0 one other season) is an impressive 4:1.

At a time when the media has concentrated on the exploits of the newest Phillie Cliff Lee, the re-emergence of Cole Hamels to ace material, the signing of Pedro Martinez, and the continued development of JA Happ, it has been Blanton who has been at his consistent best since that terrible month of April.

And remember, Met fans, that Blanton could have gone to Flushing before the 2008 season, but Minaya declined that trade.  Or in trading for Blanton at last season’s deadline. How good would Blanton look in spacious CitiField? And it is not the first time Blanton was overlooked by Omar. As a rookie GM in his first draft in 2002, Minaya picked Clint Everts over Blanton, Cole Hamels, Scott Kazmir, Zach Greinke, Joe Saunders, Prince Fielder, Nick Swisher and Matt Cain.

I love pointing out Minaya’s faults–of which there are many.

The Phillie rotation in October is going to be tough to beat, and with the possibility of Brett Myers returning from a hip injury to pitch out of the bullpen, the late innings will be tough to score also. In addition, Pedro could be moved to the bullpen — a little wrinkle Charlie Manuel could throw out there.

It could be long October and November in Philadelphia, and that is in a good way.


Thoughts on Roy Halladay – Forget the Phillies, Angels Need Him More

July 27, 2009

He is the best pitcher in baseball with tremendous mechanics and the ability to throw strikes. Both of those factors allow him to go deep into games, and he is one of the few pitchers who throws complete games. He has four complete games this season, had nine last year and has led the league in that category four of the last six seasons.

It was reported by Jon Heyman of si.com that the Blue Jays want both P Kyle Drabek and J.A. Happ, plus either stud minor league OF Dominic Brown (High A Clearwater) or Michael Taylor at AAA Lehigh Valley.

The Phillies would be crazy to give up those players. Happ is fully cemented in the rotation and has gone 7-1, 2.97 ERA this year and has been a consistent winner with solid ERA’s every season in his pro career. Drabek is a high ceiling pitcher, currently 6-1, 3.12 ERA in Double A Reading. He is viewed as a future #1 starter.

Both Brown and Taylor also have high ceilings and in the cozy Citizen’s Bank Park will hit home runs by the bunches. While not considered the better of the two, Taylor has hit .326 with 17 homers and 70 RBI’s this season in Reading and Lehigh Valley. Brown has held his own in the pitching friendly High A Florida State League.

The Phillies are defending World Series Champions and won that World Series without Roy Halladay. Their team is basically the same as last year except for adding Raul Ibanez and the emergence of Happ. Brett Myers is expected back in August to give the bullpen a needed lift.

I am surprised the Phillies are considering trading Drabek and/or Happ for Halladay. Granted that Halladay improves any team out there, but the Phillies have made their current team through home grown talent. Cole Hamels, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Carlos Ruiz and Brett Myers have all come through their system.

With the two young pitchers, the Phils have the makings of a really good rotation for much more than the 1 plus seasons that Halladay will give them. Also, if the Phillies obtain him, with Doc’s disdain for hitting, he will likely depart to another American League team after next season.

I have no problem trading good prospects for top talent, but I have major issues with trading projected future studs such as Drabek, Happ, Taylor and Brown.

But Heyman also said that the Los Angeles Angels have checked in with Blue Jays for Halladay. The Angels NEED Halladay more than the Phillies do and they also have the players Toronto wants. They have quality major league pitching and solid shortstop propects. The Blue Jays SS this season is Marco Scutaro, who is 33, having a career year and is a free agent after this season.

According to Heyman, the Blue Jays asked for 28 year old LHP Joe Saunders, 21 year old RHP Sean O’Sullivan, SS Erick Aybar and SS/3B Brandon Wood. Saunders and O’Sullivan are currently in the Angels rotation, Aybar is the starting SS and the 24 year old Wood is a promising power hitter.

If that Blue Jays request is real, I make that trade in a heartbeat if I am the Angels GM Tony Reagins.

Getting Halladay without having to give up your best pitcher Jered Weaver is the reason to make the deal. The Angels would then have Halladay, Weaver and John Lackey as a top three–very formidable.

Saunders is serviceable, but doesn’t scare many teams, while O’Sullivan is having a pretty good major league debut. In five starts, he is 3-0 wihth a 3.72 ERA, and despite great success at the lowel levels of the minors, he struggled the last two seasons at the higher levels of the minors.

Aybar is a slick fielder and Wood can definitely hit at the major league level, but both aren’t make or break players.

Getting Halladay is a steal for the Angels based upon those players mentioned, while the Phillies would be better off holding on to thier young talent.

If they don’t cave in for Halladay, in two years the Phillies starting staff will include Drabek, Hamels and Happ along with another former first round pick, Joe Savery, currently 12-3, with a 4.36 ERA in AA Reading. All drafted and developed pitchers, the way the Phillies have  done it before, all the way to a World Series title last season.

And Utley, Rollins and Howard (if re-signed) will still be their later prime years, still good enough to win another World Series.

I have repeatedly said the Angels would end up getting Halladay, because he likes the American League and the Halos need him most. I they do get Halladay, the other AL Playoff teams would face a formidable rotation, and a tough out in a seven game series.

The Angels need to make that trade immediately.