Apr 222010

Much was made this spring of Phil Hughes working on improving his changeup. In fact, many referred to him as a two pitch pitcher (fastball and curve) who needed the change to make it through an MLB lineup multiple times. The cutter that Phil used last season was largely ignored as being a major factor in helping Hughes start at this level, likely because it is seen as a fastball variant that is too similar to the fastball to help in that regard. However, through two starts, the cutter is proving to be Phil’s favorite off-speed pitch and has remained just as effective as it was in the bullpen.

As you can see from the table (courtesy of Texas Leaguers), Phil has used the cutter (FC) about 30 percent of the time, and is throwing it for strikes with astounding frequency (69.8%). Batters are swinging and missing at a healthy 12.7% rate, leading to 16 strikeouts to this point. Furthermore, Fangraphs’ pitch type values data shows that the cutter has been Phil’s most effective pitch to this point. What makes it so effective?

I think the similarity to the fastball actually helps in this instance. The pitches are fairly similar in terms of break and velocity, such that the hitter may not pick up the pitch type until it is too late. Essentially, both pitches play up because the hitter is kept guessing. Let’s look at the vertical and horizontal break on the pitches:

The first image shows the horizontal break. Coming out of the hand, the fastball and cutter look the same, but begin to diverge at a point about 25 feet from the hitter, where the cutter begins to break to the left. The second image shows the vertical break, and displays that at that same point, the cutter also drops a bit, such that the hitter needs to react to a pitch that looked like a fastball but is now tailing down and to the left. The cutter is particularly helpful against lefties, as it is coming in at them and tying them up.

The cutter was an effective pitch for Phil as a reliever in 2009, and I see no reason to believe that it will not serve him equally well as a starter in 2010. Phil Hughes now has a third pitch. It is simply not the one everybody expected.

Apr 222010

I hate small sample sizes. You hate small sample sizes. The only thing I dislike more than the samples themselves is when people extrapolate things from SSS’s. Today, I’m going to throw that hate aside and have some fun with the small sample.

Author’s Note: I’m writing this on Wednesday night in the six o’clock hour, before the game against the A’s begins.

Through Tuesday night’s game, the Yankees average homer came in at 401 feet. They’d hit the ball over one mile, 6,817 feet to be exact. Going into yesterday, the average A.L. homer traveled 395.2 feet so the Yankees are outpacing that by a few feet. The longest homers of the season so far have been Curtis Granderson’s Opening Night shot against Josh Beckett (455′) and Alex Rodriguez’s punishment of Craig Breslow from April 20th (452′). Predictably, Jorge Posada’s homer against Josh Beckett that went off the RF foul pole at Fenway has been the shortest Yankee homer of the season (351′).

Staying with the offensive side of things, some Yankees have a few odd peripheral marks. Brett Gardner, without an extra-base hit this season, has an IsoP of .000. Let’s hope Brett’s first gapper comes soon. He’s fast enough that he could turn what would be a double for most into a triple. Nick Johnson’s IsoP of .122 is nothing special, but his .261 IsoD is fantastic. That’s what happens when you walk as many times as every single Houston Astro combined. If Johnson keeps that IsoD as his batting average starts to climb, he could have an almost-Bondsian OBP at season’s end. Robinson Cano is crushing the ball to the tune of a .653 SLG and a .326 IsoP. I’ll repeat that: Robinson Cano has a .326 IsoP. That’s nuts. It’s also worth noting that he’s seeing a (thus far) career high 3.54 pitches per plate appearance (as a team, the Yankees are seeing 4.03 pitches per PA).

Moving to the other side of the ball, the first UZR updates came out this week and boy are they fun. It’s incredible how screwy these numbers can look in the early going, just like some of the offensive numbers (Scott Podsednik batting in the mid-.400’s?! Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?). Two Yankee fielders have been cleaning up this season. One is, as expected, Curtis Granderson. He’s currently sporting an 18.6 UZR/150. He’s looked terrific out there so, let’s hope the stellar play keeps up. The mark won’t stay that high, but it’s nice to see that my eyes and the numbers match up. The other one is Alex Rodriguez, who’s also looked much improved at the hot corner, now that he’s further removed from hip surgery. His UZR/150 is a staggering 24.8. Both Granderson’s and Rodriguez’s numbers are unsustainable. On the other extreme, there’s Marcus Thames, Derek Jeter, and Robinson Cano. Cano and Jeter have marks of -42.5 and -39.8 in the young season. And if those numbers seem comically low, look at Thames’s UZR/150: -148.7. Negative one hundred forty eight point seven. That makes Adam Dunn look like Roberto Clemente. Now, obviously, neither one of these players is going to stay that hot or cold defensively. The only one I’d even remotely expect to stay that high is Curtis Granderson and if he does, he could win the MVP. Like early season batting stats, we should take early season fielding stats with the whole shaker of salt, not just a grain.

In terms of offense, these numbers are no where near stabalized and they’ll definitely fluctuate as the year goes on. The same goes for the defensive stats. While I, and we all, try to avoid making judgments on small sample sizes of data, I will say this…the stats in this post have confirmed one thing: this season has already been a ton of fun and it will definitely continue to be.

I spent much of last night doing the Gameday / Audio combination to watch Phil Hughes start against the Oakland Athletics. Assuming that Gameday’s radar gun is accurate, we’re seeing the best fastball velocity that Phil Hughes has thrown since his hamstring injury. He sat at 93-94 for most of the night, and had his best start in the majors ever. For awhile, I had flashbacks to 2006.

It is really easy to forget how good of a prospect Phil Hughes was. He was by many accounts the #1 pitching prospect in the game. He spent his age-20 season cutting through Double-A batters like a hot chainsaw through butter. His playoff-included statistics that season are staggering: 152 innings, 10.77 K/9, 2.07 BB/9, 2.13 ERA. Looking at the trends, he was even more impressive. In his final 10 Double-A starts, Hughes managed a 13.13 K/9, 2.03 BB/9, and 1.29 ERA.

At the time, I wrote the following about Phil’s fastball:

He is capable of throwing 96-97 mph, but prefers to sit comfortably at 93-94 or 94-95 on a good day in order to command it better. That said, he is capable of reaching back and throwing a located fastball at 97 if the situation commands it. He locates his fastball with the best of them. Think Curt Schilling as a comparison for the fastball.

I wasn’t lying. Hughes was a legitimate power/control pitcher back in the day, but had slowly been losing velocity. A lot of people blamed tentativeness and nerves following his big major league injury. Others thought the Yankees were screwing up his mechanics – which had never been better after the summer of 2006. He got some of his mojo back in the bullpen last season, but Hughes the starter spent most of the past 2 seasons sitting at 90-92 mph with his fastball. This forced him to rely on his great curveball a little too much, and batters learned to take it for balls, and wait for the fastball. As a result, Phil’s plus-plus control evaporated, and Phil had trouble getting major league hitters out, and ran up very high pitch counts.

The Phil Hughes of 2006 never ran up high pitch counts. He used to mow down batters so quickly that he would reach his Yankee-imposed five inning limit far too quickly in starts. During his last 6 starts, Hughes pitched 30 innings and allowed just 16 base runners, and never more than 2 hits.

While he’s a slightly different pitcher than he used to be: Phil worked in quite a few cutters in the middle innings last night, and held back the curve a little bit, and still isn’t topping out at the velocity he had in 2006, I think that its important to grapple with the magnitude of what we’re seeing. While its early, we’re catching a glimpse of “#1 starter Phil Hughes” right now, after being so accustomed to watching “#3 starter Phil Hughes” for a few years now. Its hard not to get excited about that.

Its no coincidence that the last time we saw “#1 starter Phil Hughes”, he was removed in the 7th inning while pitching a no hitter.

Photo Credit: Flickr

There was a pitcher 3 years ago that Yankee fans had heard much about. He was named the #1 prospect by Baseball America. He was reputed to be the complete package as a pitcher. Plus fastball, plus-plus curve, outstanding command and control of both pitches with a mound presence and Baseball IQ that scouts drooled over. His health history was relatively clean, with only some minor, mostly non-arm related injuries that didn’t seem worrisome. In every way that a pitching prospect is measured, Phil Hughes seemed to excel in each category.

He earned himself a quick April 26th call up in 2007, where he pitched a forgettable first game as a Yankee, giving up 4 ER in 4.1 IP. Chalk it up to first start jitters for the 20 year old pitcher. His next start was in Texas, which was far more memorable for both good and bad reasons. On the plus side, he threw 6 1/3 no-hit innings against the young and inexperienced free-swinging Rangers. But in the 7th, he pulled his hamstring on the mound immediately after delivering a pitch, which would be the last he would throw for the Yanks until August 4th of that season. It all seemed to go awry for Phil after that pulled hamstring. He even broke his ankle while rehabbing, getting his spike caught in the grass as he performed drills. Upon his return, the life on the fastball never returned that season, and the confidence and swagger he was known for in the minor leagues seemed to be lost along with it. Even the following year, he pitched poorly in April of 2008 and was found to have a broken rib, shelving him until August. He wouldn’t see a major league roster again until September call up, where he pitched well in a few meaningless late season games. Yankee fans had soured on Phil at this point, and went from viewing him as an exciting prospect to an injury-prone bust.

He got another crack at the rotation in April of 2009. That spring he added a cutter that was supposed to help him facing Lefty batters. But the results were again disappointing and a pattern was emerging with Phil. He’d come out in the 1st inning like a ball of fire, blowing away hitters and challenging them with heat. Then he’d give up a few hits, start appearing tentative on the mound and it invariably would lead to a big inning. It all seemed to come down to confidence with Hughes, and you wondered when or if he would ever find it as a big league pitcher.

Then, he seemed to turn a corner last year working out of the bullpen. Working in short stints he attacked hitters relentlessly, sticking with his two best pitches and adding a few ticks to his velocity. Instead of working at 89-92 with the fastball as a starter, he was now throwing the ball 95-97 as a reliever. He posted a sparkling 1.40 ERA as a reliever, striking out 65 men in 51.1 IP and cut his 1.50 WHIP as a starter almost in half to 0.85. Finally, Yankee fans saw what so many scouts were so excited about back in 2007.

But the Yanks always viewed Phil as a starting pitcher, and the question remained whether Phil could carry the success he had as a reliever to the rotation. On the heels of his impressive performance last week against the Angels, Phil followed that up by dominating a young and inexperienced Oakland A’s team last night. Challenging them to hit a fastball that he painted the corners with all night long, he would then mix in the cutter and curve for that final swing and miss. Hitter after hitter simply looked over matched facing Phil, as he retired 18 batters in a row and struck out 10 for the evening. He pitched a no-hitter into the 8th, until Eric Chavez lined a first pitch fastball that ricocheted off Hughes’ left arm. Phil turned and turned on the mound, but couldn’t find the ball, which lay about 10 feet in front of him. By the time he recovered, Chavez had already reached 1st, ending the no-hit bid.

But a no-hitter would have been icing on the cake. One misplayed ball doesn’t detract from the phenomenal display Hughes put on last night. After the letdown, manager Joe Girardi interestingly left Phil in the game since he was working so efficiently. Instead of letting down after the no-hit bid failed, Phil responded by striking out the next batter in Kevin Kouzmanoff. That may have impressed me even more than the rest of his performance, which was brilliant. That tells me that the young man with a glass jaw has learned how to hang in there. Last night, Mr Hughes announced to the Baseball world that he has arrived, and the Yankee rotation may have just gone from simply outstanding to being scary good.

Apr 222010

Scranton defeats Syracuse, 8-2

  • Eduardo Nunez was 2 for 4 for the Yankees, walking twice, and raising his average on the season to .380.  Nunez has faced high expectations since putting up a .313/.365/.427 line as an 18 year-old in Staten Island in 2005.  Since then, he has largely underachieved, and it wasn’t until his 2009 season (.322/.340/.433 in Trenton) that he began to look like a real prospect again.  With bonus baby Carmen Angelini’s struggles in low-A and Ramiro Pena’s offensive deficiencies, Nunez may be the best internal possibility as a successor to Derek Jeter.  Nunez has struggled defensively in the past, making 33 errors last season in Trenton.  With a strong 2010 season, Nunez could replace Pena as the Yankees’ utilityman (assuming his defense improves), and when Jeter eventually rides off into the sunset (or switches positions), Nunez may be the one with the unenviable task of replacing a legend.  At 23, he still has time to improve on both sides of the ball.

Trenton defeats New Hampshire, 13-3

  • 2b David Adams has gotten off to a hot start for the Thunder, going 2 for 3 tonight with his 2nd homer of the season and 3 walks, for a .388/.455/.633 line thus far.  Adams has been solid but not overly impressive throughout his minor league career.  As a 3rd-round pick out of UVA (and a possible supplemental-round guy prior to a subpar junior season), expectations were that the polished Adams would tear up the lower levels of the minors.  This did not exactly happen, though an .816 OPS with 40 doubles is quite respectable for a middle infield prospect.  If Adams’ hitting ability and power can take a step forward at AA (as it has so far) and he is able to maintain his patient approach, he could establish himself as one of the top 2nd base prospects in the minors.  With Robinson Canó entrenched at that postion in the Bronx, Adams could be trade bait unless he is able to switch to another position, such as the outfield.

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