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.

Detroit Tigers Manager Jim Leyland Puts Unnecessary Pitch Count on Justin Verlander

May 8, 2010

He was one of the last of a dying breed, and old school manager who made decisions on his gut instinct more often than the computer printouts. He was always smoking in the hallway leading to the clubhouse and swearing like a sailor would on a three-day weekend pass.

Jim Leyland was a bench coach with Tony LaRussa in Chicago back in the 1980’s before embarking on his own managerial career. After a couple playoff near misses in Pittsburgh, he then won the World Series in 1997 with the Florida Marlins. Leyland got there again in 2006 with the Detroit Tigers (his current team) where he lost the Series to his mentor, LaRussa and the St. Louis Cardinals.

But Leyland is finally gone the route of the namby-pamby skippers.

He has instituted a pitch count for his ace, Justin Verlander. A work-horse type pitcher with a big 6’5″, 225 lb frame, Verlander has taken the ball for 140 starts in the major leagues. He has never missed a start due to an injury, but during his 2006 rookie season the Tigers skipped Verlander two times, once during the All Star break and once in September.

The Tigers had a big lead late that season, and they theorized that since Verlander would pitch in the playoffs, they could limit his innings. OK, sounds good. Limit the workload of your best pitcher, keeping him fresh for the playoffs.

Didn’t quite work out as planned because in four starts during the 2006 post season, Verlander was 1-2 with a 5.82 ERA.

But even after that “heavy workload” season, Verlander has never missed a start for injury, making 32 starts in 2007, 33 in 2008 and a stunning 35 starts last season. Stunning in 2009 only to the fact that since Verlander never went on three days rest, and while even going on five days rest 11 times, he still managed to start 35 games.

He threw 240 innings last year, tops in baseball. He also threw the most pitches in 2009 at 3,937. And when Verlander got off to a bad start in 2010, there was a USA today piece saying his slow start could have been attributable to his 2009 workload.

Old school Leyland was asked about this workload and didn’t buy it, saying Verlander “threw more pitches last year because he pitched better, so he was in games longer.” Verlander also pitches in the American League (AL) and since the pitcher is rarely removed for a pinch hitter, all the top AL pitchers should be at the top of the innings and pitch amounts.

To prove his point to the Detroit writers, Leyland produced a computer printout showing in detail the number of pitches Verlander threw in each of his 35 starts last season, encompassing those 240 innings.

“Justin averaged 112 pitches a game,” Leyland said. “That’s a sneeze. Seven innings at 15 pitches is 105. If 112 pitches is a lot, then I should go home.”

“Justin Verlander is a horse,” Leyland continued. “He was mad at me a lot of times because I took him out last year.

In fact, there has been no velocity change at all for Verlander this season. His last pitch of the day yesterday was a 98 MPH fastball to Brett Gardner.

But after Verlander threw 125 pitches against the Los Angeles Angels on April 22 and 121 pitches (in 5.1 innings) against the Minnesota Twins (a loss with no earned runs), Leyland came out with his new policy on his “horse.”

“I don’t take a chance with anybody,” Leyland said. “I take pride in handling my pitching staff and taking care of them, and I’m not going to change. … Where do you draw the line? He’s a horse, I understand that, but he exerts himself a little bit more than other guys when he gets in certain situations.”

Leyland has twice used the word horse regarding Verlander, but it is plainly obvious that Detroit upper management had a little talk with Leyland about the horse’s steady work.

Without Leyalnd saying the exact number of Verlander’s new pitch count, I believe it is 120 pitches.

Since Leyland’s new stance was made public, Verlander has gone 120 pitches in 8.1 innings against the Angels and 118 in 6.0 innings today versus Cleveland. And in yesterday win over the Yankees, Verlander got a visit to the mound during the Gardner at bat, and the image was beautiful.

Verlander looked at the scoreboard to see what his pitch count was and talked Leyland into staying in the game because he had not yet hit his 120 pitch count.

Leyland has not divulged his limit for Verlander, but it is safe to assume it is 120 pitches.

But while Leyland says Verlander exerts more due to his power pitching stature, he also should realize that Verlander has tremendous mechanics which allows him to throw that hard and also throw many more pitches than other pitchers without feeling tired or putting extra strain on his arm.

And the Tigers hurler is not happy about this new policy. 

“I don’t know if I can put one word to it, maybe overrated. I think it’s incredibly hard to put a stamp on every pitcher in the world and say, this is when you’re tired, this is when your arm is going to fall off. I think everybody’s different.”

Verlander did admit the policy had something to do with his very large guaranteed contract.  He signed a five-year, $80-million extension in the off-season, thereby making his arm the Tigers’ most valuable asset.

“With the amount of dollars in this industry now, you really can’t take a chance,” Verlander said. “Do I wish I could stay out there for 175 pitches? Yeah … but I get a pretty long leash by today’s standards. Which I’m grateful for that, too.”

Leyland said he takes pride in protecting his by when he managed the Pittsburgh Pirates, Doug Drabek regularly went over 120 pitches, once throwing 150 pitches in a game. In 2006, Leyland babied Jeremy Bonderman but he ended up getting hurt.

But Bonderman di not get hurt due to pitching overload, but because Bonderman has crappy pitching mechanics which puts additional strain on his shoulder. Did you know that Bonderman has NEVER thrown 120 or more pitches in a game, yet has had recurring shoulder issues?

How can that be? He has never been pitcher abused with pitch counts, and his biggest increase in the Tom Verducci inspired innings increase garbage has been 45 innings when he went from 189 IP in 2005 to 234 (including post season) in 2006. And that was his fifth professional season.

No, it was Bonderman’s terrible mechanics which caused his arm problems. Look at this image of Bonderman. OUCH! Just try and place your arms in that position. Placing it in that position hurts your shoulder, yet I can’t imagine how it feeels to throw a ball with that arm action.

Verlander, however, has very clean mechanics, and nary an injury.

Justin threw 120 or more pitches 11 times in 2009. In the 10 games after throwing 120+ pitches, he was 7-3 with a 2.93 ERA, 1.005 WHIP and 85 strikeouts in 70.2 innings.

Pretty dominant. In the pennant race last year Verlander won four of his last five starts, pitching into the 8th inning and throwing 120+ pitches in every start. Leyland and the Tigers needed those games and Verlander delivered like a work horse ace should including in the final game on October 4 against the Chicago White Sox. That win allowed the Tigers to play the next day for the division title.  

Why was Verlander allowed to go deeper into those games? Was it because the Tigers needed them? Well, teams need all the games during a season.

In 2009 Verlander was pulled in three games due to pitch counts, the most important was during the 7th inning of a  May 14, a 6-5 loss to those same Twins. With one out and with a 5-0 lead and runners on first and second, Verlander was pulled after 122 pitches. The bullpen blew the game during that 7th inning, allowing six runs to be scored after Verlander left the game.

One thing consistent with pulling dominant starting pitchers out of games due to pitch counts is that many games are then lost due to inferior relievers trying to get important outs which the starter should be getting.

Ask Zach Greinke or Tim Lincecum all about that. In a pennant race in September, those early games which were blown usually come back to haunt those teams. Give me a dominant pitcher for six or seven years throwing lots of pitches and tons of innings, rather than a relatively good one for 12 or more.

I want Sandy Koufax and even the recently departed Robin Roberts on my squad for a dominant group of six or seven seasons before their career declines. I don’t want to lose key games during a specific year, miss the playoffs and possibly not have that great season for the individual or the team. 

So Leyland is now protecting his (and Detroit’s) valuable arm, quite the change from last season and four seasons ago when his Tigers (with a rookie Verlander) were taking on the New York Yankees in the ALDS.

When asked about the rookies (Verlander’s) workload prior to that 2006 series, Leyland said, “Who should it be harder for in September — Justin Verlander or Randy Johnson, who’s 40-something years old? If you can’t pitch the innings, then you don’t belong in the big leagues. Now, do I try to take care of them? Yes. Am I conscious about trying to not get somebody hurt? Absolutely. But I can’t live in this shelter that says, ‘Oh, I’m afraid to pitch my guy, because if he throws too many pitches, the general manager or the fans are going to be ticked off.’ ”

Sounds like Jim Leyland now needs that shelter more than ever, because the Tigers GM has dictated to Leyland to keep Verlander on a leash.

But Verlander’s history and clean pitching mechanics allows him to be treated differently than almost all other pitchers in baseball, with maybe the exception of Roy Halladay, another pitcher with clean mechanics, lots of innings and no history of arm issues. Verlander can go longer than 120 pitches, probably at least 135 to 140, especially when he is still throwing 98 MPH at the 120 pitch mark.

Similar velocity late in a game is a sign of continued strength in a pitcher during the course of a game. It shows good stamina and great leg strength, two key attributes for keeping your mechanics strong deep into games.

Maybe if Verlander was allowed to throw more during last season, especially during that May 14 game mentioned above, Detroit’s last game last year would not have been that October 4th play-in game against the White Sox, which the Tigers LOST in the 12th inning.

It would have been in the post season with Verlander possibly pitching them to the AL Central title.

Sergio Mitre to Start on Weekend

July 16, 2009

It hasn’t been determined which day he will go against the Detroit Tigers, but it appears that Sergio Mitre will get a start. The 28 year old Mitre, who was 3-1, 2.40 ERA in seven starts with AAA Scranton, was a former starting pitcher for the Florida Marlins in 2006 when Joe Girardi was the manager.

Mitre had Tommy John surgery in July 2008 and had been rehabbing in the minors. He also had served a 50 game ban for ingesting andro, a supplement made famous by Mark McGwire.

Mitre is 10-26 with a 5.36 ERA in 78 major league games with the Marlins and Chicago Cubs.

Since Mitre is not on the Yankees 40-man roster, the Yankees would have to release somebody. The Yankees love to stockpile pitchers on their 40 man and I don’t see any pitcher, even Brett Tomko, getting let go.

So, with the emergence of Francisco Cervelli, and a plethora of young signal callers coming up through the Yankee ranks such as Jesus Montero, Austin Romine, Chase Weems and Kyle Higashioka, the released player will likely be AAA catcher Kevin Cash. 

The Yankees use the catcher position like a wild card. They have at least three catchers at each level and move them around like chess pieces. Although it is a position where an extra veteran is always good, extra catchers like Cash are expendable, especially when the Yankees still have veteran Chris Stewart at AAA.

The 40 man change situation is probably why Alfredo Aceves started the one game in Minnesota last week. Not having Mitre start there gave the Yankees more time to decide who they would release from the 40 man roster.

The thing to look out for on Mitre is that he is a strike thrower, or as they say now, “he pounds the zone.” In his 45 AAA innings, he allowed only five walks whiles triking out 35. His peripheral numbers were a .241 BAA, K:BB of 7:1 and GO/FO ratio of 2.96.

Look for Mitre to go Sunday against the Tigers and Justin Verlander. If Mitre struggles, I hope that the Yankees do not pull starts away from Mtre. The Yankees need some stability in the rotation and Mitre is just as good, if not better, than anybodythey have available right now.