Game 44: Let’s Go Streaking

With the ups and downs that this team has suffered thus far, it almost seems unfair to pile on injury news on the heels of their first win in what felt like an eternity … but Austin Romine is out until “at least July” due to an inflamed disk in his back. While it does seem like expectations for Romine have cooled significantly over the last year or so, I feel as though this is a significant blow to the team’s fortunes, considering the lack of production from behind the plate thus far (Russell Martin’s hot week notwithstanding). Here’s hoping Romine can get himself healthy, and Martin can continue to heat up along with the weather.

Also of note on the injury front – Robertson may not be the closer upon his return, per Brian Heyman. Girardi is fond of the Proven Closer™, and I am quite certain that Robertson’s shaky ninth inning adventures (as well as Soriano’s ups and downs outside of the final three outs) did little to deter that mindset. This strikes me as news for the sake of news to some degree, though I find it noteworthy as I prefer Robertson in the high-leverage fireman role anyway.

And finally, on the prospecting front, personal muse Angelo Gumbs has bounced back significantly this month, batting .325/.361/.468 with 7 XBH and 14 steals in 16 attempts … and, perhaps more importantly, solid defense at the keystone. The Charleston RiverDogs have been a beacon of positivity on the whole thus far, to boot.

Onto the line-ups:

New York Yankees Kansas City Royals
Derek Jeter, SS Alex Gordon, LF
Curtis Granderson, CF Johnny Giavotella, 2B
Mark Teixeira, 1B Billy Butler, DH
Alex Rodriguez, 3B Jeff Francoeur, RF
Robinson Cano, 2B Mike Moustakas, 3B
Nick Swisher, RF Alcides Escobar, SS
Andruw Jones, DH Eric Hosmer, 1B
Russell Martin, C Humberto Quintero, C
Jayson Nix, LF Mitch Maier, CF
Andy Pettitte, SP Will Smith, SP

The first pitch is scheduled for 7:05 p.m., on the YES Network. Let’s go Yankees!

Buck Has Orioles Flying High, but Can They Rule the Roost? (History Says Yes)

(The following is being syndicated from The Captain’s Blog; follow me on Twitter at@williamnyy23).

It’s been a topsy-turvy year in the A.L. East. After more than a decade of relative stability atop the division, the standings now read as if they were printed up-side down. With stalwarts like the Yankees and Red Sox bringing up the rear, and the Orioles perched above the others, it’s been anything but business as usual. But, how long will this new world order last?

After more than a decade of being kicked around, the Orioles are finally fighting back.

Many Yankees and Red Sox fans, and perhaps members of each organization, have taken solace in the fact that the Baltimore Orioles currently lead the division.  A six game deficit in May would never be cause for panic, but when the team out in front hasn’t had a winning season since 1997, it’s easy to see why the sense of urgency has been racheted down. However, based on history, the rest of the A.L. East shouldn’t take the Orioles too lightly.

Since 1901, 226 other teams (less than 10% of the total) have started the season with a record at least as good as this year’s Baltimore Orioles. Of that group, which collectively posted a winning percentage of .598 in the combined seasons, over half wound up winning the division. Perhaps just as important to an organization like the Orioles, which has been desperate for any sign of progress, nearly 90% of the segment finished no lower than third place and 96% ended up above .500.

Full Season Performance by Teams with At Least 28 Wins in First 44 Games


The 226 teams referenced above include many with records significantly better than Baltimore’s current 28-16, which could skew the findings in favor of Buck Showalter’s birds. However, even when only considering 28-win teams, there are still many encouraging signs for the Orioles. This subset, which includes 73 teams aside from the 2012 O’s, posted a still impressive cumulative winning percentage of .571, while over one-quarter went on to win the division. Once again, that doesn’t exactly guarantee the pennant, but all the indications point to a sustained improvement as nearly 80% of the 28-win segment finished no lower than third and 92% posted more wins than losses.

Full Season Performance by Teams with Exactly 28 Wins in First 44 Games


Are the Orioles now the favorite to win the A.L. East? Probably not, but it does seem as if the franchise has finally turned the corner. Even if Baltimore replicates the worst season record from the original group of 226, the resultant .457 winning percentage would still present the team’s best mark in nearly a decade. They may not be drinking champagne in Baltimore at the end of the season, but, at the very least, it seems as if the Orioles have finally started to take flight.

For Hughes: Regression, or Improvement?

(Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

Phil Hughes is having a tremendous month of May. The 25-year-old, who left April a weak link in a weakening New York rotation, is 3-2 with a 3.45 ERA in five starts over the past three weeks. Hughes has a 4.1 strikeout to walk rate over the past month and batters are hitting just .230 off the righty, giving him a WHIP of 1.12 since May first. That’s a staggering three quarters of a runner fewer per innings in May than in April. Hughes has pitched well enough to avoid demotion upon the return of Andy Pettitte, and has strung together his five best Game Scores of the season in his last five starts, including a six inning, two run, seven strikeout performance against the Royals last night at home.

Despite a strong spring training, and all the optimism in the world heading into the regular season, Hughes’ has gotten off to a rough start. Even over the past month, Phil’s FIP (4.37) remains below league average and his flyball and home run rates remain far too high. His ERA is much worse even than his FIP. In medium and high leverage situations, of which he has faced 96 on the season, Hughes’ has surrendered a wOBA of .385. Derek Jeter has a .377 wOBA on the season. Regardless, his last five starts have been miles better than his first four. He’s going deeper into games, throwing far more strikes, surrendering fewer hits and walks, surrendering fewer home runs, and has an ERA more than four runs lower than his ERA in the month of April.

We are all happy to see Hughes succeed now. The question is whether the adjustments Hughes has made are sustainable. Are we simply seeing the inevitable BABIP and HR/FB correction? Or is there something more here?

Hughes' BABIP after each start, 2010-2012.

The former is eminently possible. Hughes suffered through a .373 BABIP in the month of April. His BABIP in May? A measly .253. His HR/FB rate is still high, but fell from 17.9% to 12.8%, a significant drop. After stranding just over half the batters who reached base against him in April, Hughes has stranded nearly 90% of such batters in May. For the season, Hughes’ “luck” metrics are now within reasonable range. His .297 BABIP is above his career average but in line with Major League average. His strand rate, 72%, is also fairly normal. His HR/FB rate is still quite high, at 14.7%, and that largely explains the difference between his ERA/FIP and xFIP. Yet as the dust settles on two highly volatile months, Hughes’ line is believable, and on the season could look much like his line over the past year and a half.

That would be an accomplishment after how Phil started the season. For all his ups and downs, the Phil Hughes of 2010 was a decent Major League starting pitcher. I think we all believed, at some level, that behind the guy we were watching in April, somewhere, lay the Phil Hughes of 2010, though probably not the Hughes of 2006 or 2007. As his luck has corrected, that pitcher has emerged, volatility intact. Certainly another season like 2010 would be a blessing for the Yankees. It would not belly criticism of Hughes, it would not undermine any “Hughes to the bullpen” case necessarily, but it would provide a degree of value in a difficult time for the team’s pitching.

Still, just as we suffered through a statistically unbelievable degree of failure from Phil in the first month of the season, it’s difficult not to try and draw conclusions from Phil’s success in the second month of the season. Maybe he’s doing something worthy of that 3.45 ERA. Maybe this isn’t just normal volatility and regression. It’s only five starts but Hughes looks different. He has made an adjustment. After throwing his cutter over 12% of the time in April, Hughes has essentially abandoned the pitch in May, throwing more fastballs and breaking balls instead. Our own Eric Schultz documented this shift back on May 8th, after Hughes’ second start of the season without a cutter, his second start of the season pitching at least two outs into the sixth inning.

Phil's BB/9 after each start this season. Arrow indicates adjustment to pitch selection.

Hughes’ cutter had been especially poor in the early going. According to Fangraphs, the pitch has been worth -6.7 runs per 100 throws this season. By abandoning the pitch, establishing his fastball, and relying more heavily on his breaking pitches, Hughes has seen better results. If we believe that the cutter had something to do with Hughes’ high BABIP and HR/FB rate in the first month of the season (that RAR per 100 figure certainly suggests it did), it’s abandonment could well be a catalyst for their regression to better than league average figures. Hughes has also been able to limit his walks, by more than a full walk per nine innings, crucial for a pitcher who’s OPS is 59 points higher with runners on base and who surrenders far more than a home run per nine innings. Perhaps most importantly, Hughes has been more efficient. Before May 1st, Hughes averaged four innings a start. Since then, he’s averaged six and a third innings a start.

I will suggest that Hughes’ recent performance is undoubtably, partially the result of a regression to the mean of his BABIP, HR/FB rate, and other “luck” statistics. Neither his early season, nor recent, BABIP and strand rate figures are within a reasonable range for any but the most extreme of pitchers. Yet the timing of this transition, coinciding with Hughes’ adjusting his pitch selection for a greater degree of control, suggests also that there real improvement here. We aren’t simply seeing the inevitable improvement over the Phil Hughes of April, but a better Hughes than we’ve seen in a while, a Hughes capable of staying in the starting rotation for now should he not fall back on old habits.

Analyzing Hughes’ May Turnaround

In the month of April, Phil Hughes posted a miserable 7.88 ERA, a 6.40 FIP, and allowed a .329/.395/.658 slash. For the impatient fans, the 25 year old’s career as a starter was over despite a gaudy 9.56 K/9. Since then, Hughes has gone 31.1 innings in May with a 3.45 ERA, a 4.37 FIP, a .230/.277/.434 slash, an 8.33 K/9, and a 2.01 BB/9. The immediate focus is on how his ERA has fallen into the 4’s, but even more interesting is how he’s achieved his May turnaround.

He called it a reliever’s mentality in early May, and it’s included more four-seam fastballs challenging hitters, more curveballs, and showcasing the changeup to left handed hitters. For the most part, Hughes has also dissolved the cutter from his repertoire, refraining from a single one in last night’s start against the Royals.

Pitch Type Selection (4/8 – 4/25) Selection (5/1 – 5/22)
Four-seam 60.9% 65.9%
Curveball 14.5% 20.7%
Cutter 12.7% 11.3%
Changeup 11.8% 2.0%

One personal issue I had with Hughes’ month of April was his selection with 2 strikes. He didn’t trust changing speeds in these counts, throwing 81% fastballs 0-2, 85% fastballs 1-2, and 89% fastballs 2-2. I argued that a lack of offspeed pitches allowed hitters to foul off the fastball, be it cutter or four-seam, drive up the pitch count, and wait for him to miss his spot. It would appear that he’s since changed his approach while ahead in the count.

Count Four-seam Cutter Curveball Changeup
0-2 61.0% 0% 31.7% 7.3%
1-2 58.9% 1.8% 37.5% 1.8%
2-2 55.3% 4.3% 23.4% 17.0%

While it looks as if he isn’t throwing his changeup as often as we’ve heard from the broadcasters, the pitch is only used to neutralize left handed hitters. In this situation, the pitch has conjured a 13.89% whiff rate, and induced 8.33% groundballs as opposed to 5.56% flyballs. The results of the changeup against left handed hitters has been encouraging, but I wouldn’t mind seeing him mix it in to right handers more. The cutter is still the 3rd pitch to right handed hitters, and it’s shown Hughes a 3.77% homerun rate and 7.55% line drive rate this season. It’s largely responsible for a reverse platoon split, where Phil has given up a .345/.380/.690 slash to right handed hitters. Mixing in the changeup as the 3rd pitch, and completely dumping the cutter couldn’t hurt considering the current cutter results. Of the 9 changeups he’s throwing to righties in May, he’s already seen 2 whiffs, so I’m not sure why he isn’t testing it more often.

Pitch Type Whiff Rates (4/8 – 4/25) Whiff Rates (5/1 – 5/22)
Four-seam 8.7% 7.9%
Curveball 4.1% 8.9%
Cutter 9.5% 9.1%
Changeup 7.5% 11.5%

The overall whiff rates of the four-seam and cutter haven’t changed much considering the different selection, but now that he’s mixing the offspeed pitches more, the curveball has more than doubled it’s whiff rates along with a spike from the changeup. Although he hasn’t seen big changes on 0-2 or 1-2 year, when he’s 2-2, hitters are whiffing at his curveball 27.3% of the time, and 25.0% on the changeup. With more development and comfort with the changeup, I could see him striking out more righties with the pitch in the near future. Even if the strikeouts don’t come, the increased usage of the curveball and changeup have not only thrown hitters off while behind in the count, but they are inducing more groundballs. For a flyball pitcher in Yankee stadium, it’s important to have the ability to draw a groundball when you need it, and the offspeed pitches are drawing a 2:1 groundball to flyball rate.

Eliminating the cutter has cut down on his ridiculous linedrive rates. As Hughes develops and mixes in more  changeups, I think we can expect bigger and better things from the young righty. Homeruns will always be a problem for a flyball pitcher in Yankee Stadium, but he’s finally learning how to pitch with such problems, and he’s finally looking like the #2 pitcher we’ve been patiently waiting for.

Alex Rodriguez – middle-of-the-road player

In fact, despite his lack of power this season, he is currently tied for sixth among ranking third baseman. That is hardly middle-of-the-road. And last year, in only 99 games, A-Rod was the fourth most valuable third baseman in baseball. I wouldn’t call that middle-of-the-road. Put him down around the fifteenth best, and we could talk. His current wOBA is only twelve points behind Miguel Cabrera. In other words, A-Rod is holding his own and he has not gotten hot yet or started to hit for power. And who is to say he won’t?

Look, I understand that A-Rod will never earn his current contract. So that is not even worth talking about. That was a Yankees’ mistake, not A-Rods. All of us would have signed that puppy. And I also understand that many will never give A-Rod any kind thoughts because of the PED thing. And there is little doubt that until the last couple of years, A-Rod was a bit of a misanthrope. Got it. But let’s get a couple of things straight. First, A-Rod lost a third of his season last year to injuries. Second, a season is a war, not a few battles. You can’t judge any player by where they are after 40+ games. If A-Rod stays healthy and plays 145 games, then talk to me after the season is over. If he finishes the season with a .404 slugging percentage like he has now, then we’ll have a cold beverage and agree with each other. But until then, stating that A-Rod is a middle-of-the-road player is just plain silly.

Who is Will Smith and why is he pitching tonight?

For one thing, Luis Mendoza is the kind of pitcher that drives the Yankees’ batters nuts. He is a ground ball machine with a 2.42 ground ball to fly ball ratio. In other words, he pitches like Derek Jeter hits. As a right-handed pitcher against lefty hitters the Yankees have that like to yank the ball to the right side, Mendoza had a far better shot at succeeding than Will Smith with those ground ball rates. William Michael “Will” Smith is a 22 year old kid from Newnan, Georgia, the Angels signed right out of high school back in 2007. The Angels selected him in the 40th Round of the draft. So it’s not like he was this prized prospect. He is a big guy at six foot, five inches and he weighs 240 pounds. He will have quite a presence on the mound. But is he any good?

Smith has had success in the minors for the Angels and Royals with a .594 winning percentage in five years in the minors for those teams. But he had better results for the Angels in the lower minors than he has for the Royals at the upper levels. His peripherals are not scary. He has good control with a 2.1 walks per nine inning rate but he is not overpowering, with a 6.4 strikeout rate per nine innings in Triple-A. And he gives up a lot of hits. In eighteen Triple-A starts, Smith has allowed 11.3 hits per nine innings. That is higher than his 10.2 hits per nine recorded at the Double-A level. His home run rates are reasonable.

Perhaps the Royals think that since Will Smith is a left-handed thrower, he will have a better chance than Mendoza at Yankee Stadium. But that is actually playing right into the Yankees’ hands. The Yankees have a higher batting average and on-base percentage against left-handed pitchers than they do against those that throw from the right side. The slugging percentage is a little less, but not enough to make it a dramatic split. Derek Jeter is much more effective against lefties and Mark Teixeira and Nick Swisher are more versatile hitters batting from the right side. And of course, Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano have done their share of damage defeating the lefty versus lefty split over the last season and a half.

The way the Yankees have hit lately, they are making every pitcher look great. And there seems to be this hoopla that the Yankees do not hit well against pitchers they have not seen before. Saying all that,  this seems like a strange move for the Royals to make. And perhaps it is just what the Yankees need to kick start their offense.

2012 looking like 2010 for Swisher, excepting the results

In 2010, Nick Swisher came into the year with a narrative in tow. After struggling in the 2009 playoffs, where he hit just .128/.255/.234/.489 with one home run, Swisher decided a new approach was needed. He started swinging at more pitches and going more for contact. Sure enough, the plan worked. He posted a career best batting average of .288 and still managed to have a solid Iso of .223. The overall product, a .377 wOBA, was not much different than the product in 2009 was (.375 wOBA) when Swisher did his usual thing at the plate (low average, high power, lots of walks). 2010 did feature, though, a single digits walk rate and a higher-than-normal O-Swing% for Swisher, proof that he did change his approach a bit. The change in approach led to a high BABIP of .335, just the second time (2007, .301) that Swisher had been above a .300 BABIP. In terms of peripherals, 2012 is looking a like 2010 for Nick, though the results haven’t come yet.

The more aggressive Swisher definitely seems to be back. Before last night, he had a 26.0 O-Swing%, compared to a 25.4 mark in 2010. There are some differences in the pitch profile, though. His swing rates and contact rates are both down by a lot from 2010. So, while he’s taking a similar approach that was once successful, it’s just not working out the same way.

Swisher’s walk rate this year (not including last night’s game) is 7.8%, in single digits like 2010. His strikeout rates are nearly identical at 21.4 this year and 21.9 last year. He’s also hitting for similar power with a .230 Iso in 2012 and the aforementioned .223 Iso in 2010. If we look at the batted ball profile, Swisher’s actually hitting more liners in 2012, with a 22.2% LD rate. In 2010, it was a solid 19.6. His ground ball rate is actually a bit higher this year, 37.0 to 35.5. Line drives and grounders usually become hits, but that’s not happening for Swisher. Going into last night’s game, his BABIP was at .276, the lowest he’s had since his disastrous 2008 (.249). To link this with the swing data, it would seem that Swisher’s running into a combination of bad luck (high line drive rate, low BABIP) and bad contact (high-ish GB%, low BABIP). If he’s going to stick with the more aggressive approach, perhaps Swisher’s going to need to shorten up his swing a bit to make more contact. If not, he’ll need to go back to being the selective player we’re all used to. He’s proven in his Yankee tenure that he can be successful and productive using both approaches and he’s got plenty of time to correct himself.

Offense still thin but Hughes, bullpen win it for Yankees

The offense still remained toothless for the Yankees and the tone was set early. Hochevar has taken his share of lumps from the Yankees over the years and the first inning has been his trouble spot all season. He quickly fell behind Derek Jeter, who led off the bottom of the first, 3-0 and was not close with any of the pitches. But then Hochevar threw three perfect sinkers on the outside corner at the knees to strike Jeter out. Thus, the first batter of the game for the Yankees raises the question of whether the Yankees simply cannot hit or are facing an extraordinary run by the pitchers they face. Jeter’s strikeout was a microcosm of that debate. Hochevar could not have thrown three better pitches.

Hughes had an easy time of it through the first two innings, retiring the side in order in both frames. But he ran into trouble in the top of the third. Irving Falu led off the inning with a single. Humberto Quintero, with Mark Teixeira way off the line at first, hit the ball nicely the opposite way and over the first base bag for a double scoring Falu. But Hughes shut the door there with strikeouts of Jarrod Dyson and Eric Hosmer. Dyson whiffed four times on the night from the lead off spot and earned a golden sombrero. But the Royals were up, 1-0.

Meanwhile, the Yankees had managed to get the lead-off batter on base in the second and third innings but both were erased on double plays. The first by Mark Teixeira and the second by Derek Jeter.

Hughes retired the first two batters in the top of the fourth without a problem, but made his one big mistake of the night and gave Francoeur a fat fastball that Francoeur deposited in the left field bleachers to make it a 2-0 game. The homer was the 55th given up by Yankees’ pitching so far this season and the eleventh allowed by Hughes.

The Yankees got a run back in the bottom of that inning. After Curtis Granderson struck out, Robinson Cano hit a bomb to the Yankees’ bullpen to make it a 2-1 game. Then the runners-in-scoring-position-bug reared its ugly head again. Alex Rodriguez singled and stole second (his fifth this season) and was on second with one out. Raul Ibanez popped out to short and Nick Swisher struck out to fizzle that chance.

Hughes worked around a base runner in the top of the fifth but struck out two in that inning to keep the game at 2-1. The Yankees won the game in the bottom of that inning, but it was not the kind of inning that instilled a great deal of confidence. Mark Teixeira hit a single to right and then took second on a Jeff Franceour fielding error. Russell Martin was hit by a pitch and then Dewayne Wise bunted for a base hit to load the bases with no outs. Derek Jeter came to the plate and Yankee Stadium was an eerily quiet place. The Yankees had been in this same situation the night before and came up empty.

Hochevar battled Jeter with some nasty pitches and had a 2-2 count. He threw a fastball on Jeter’s hands and Jeter got just enough of if off the handle of his bat to dump the ball in right for a single. Teixeira scored to tie the game. Fortunately, Dewayne Wise was on first and can run because Francoeur almost threw him out at second. The bases were still loaded with no outs. Granderson then hit a slow roller to second and Falu’s only play was to first and Martin scored to put the Yankees ahead, 3-2. With men on second and third with one out, the Royals intentionally walked Robinson Cano to load the bases again and face Alex Rodriguez, who has been stuck one grand slam short of Lou Gehrig forever for the all-time record.

He is still stuck one short as Hochevar struck him out with some nasty stuff. You have to hat tip the pitcher there. It appeared that the first pitch was A-Rod’s best pitch to hit and he took it for the first strike. That made it two outs. Raul Ibanez then worked the count to 3-2. A walk would bring in another run. Hochevar threw a slider inside, off the plate and in the dirt and inexplicably, Ibanez swung at it for strike three. A chance to blow the game open went by and it became a nail-biter.

In the top of the sixth, Hughes loaded the bases with two walks and a single wrapped around two fly outs. But he got Falu to fly out to end the threat.

The Yankees would not get another base runner the rest of the game. Hochevar was perfect in the sixth and got the first two outs of the seventh. Jose Mijares threw a perfect inning and a third to finish out the seventh and the eighth.

Cory Wade relieved Hughes to start the top of the seventh and got two quick and easy ground balls for the first two outs. Joe Girardi then went with Boone Logan to face the lefty-swinging, Dyson who struck out to end the inning.

Girardi then went into La Russa-like overdrive in the eighth as he started the inning with Boone Logan. Logan got Eric Hosmer to ground to Teixeira at first, but Logan forgot to cover the bag. Oops. Girardi then popped out of the dugout to get Cody Eppley. Eppley just barely kept Billy Butler in the park with a fly to right. Girardi then brought in Clay Rapada to face Mike Moustakas. Moustakas drilled a line drive toward the first base bag, but Teixeira was standing right there and snagged it and stepped on the bag to get the double-play. Rapada will get credit for two-thirds of an inning and only made one pitch. It was a BABIP moment that smiled upon the Yankees.

Rafael Soriano had his first save opportunity in what seems like forever. Soriano got Francoeur to fly out to deep center. Then Alex Gordon ripped a ground rule double to right that dinged off the foul pole on a bounce. A ground ball to Jeter by Falu got Gordon to third but the Royals were down to their last out. Soriano and the Yankees got very fortunate after that. A-Rod was playing shallow at third for Alcides Escobar. Escobar hit a bouncer to third and A-Rod had to retreat a little to get it. Escobar can really get down the line. A-Rod knew he had to hurry and threw the ball as quickly and as hard as he could to first. The throw just barely beat Escobar to first as the ball hit Teixeira’s glove just as Escobar’s foot was about to hit the bag.

The game was a nail-biter that should not have been. But the Yankees won the game and are back over .500 for the season.

Royal Crowns:

Phil Hughes: Hughes got a quality start and while he didn’t lower his astronomical homers per nine inning rate, he did strike out seven and earned the win.

Derek Jeter: The Captain did not have a strong night at the plate, but his little bloop hit to tie the game was as close to a clutch hit as the Yankees have seen in a long while.

The bullpen: Other than Logan’s bonehead mental mistake, the bullpen was terrific and are holding things together without Rivera and Robertson.  They never make it look easy, but they threw zeroes.

Robinson Cano: The homer was nice to see.

Royal Pains in the patooty:

Nick Swisher: Another bad night at the plate for Swish. He is now down to .239 and again struck out with a runner in scoring position.

Raul Ibanez: That strikeout with the bases loaded on what was clearly ball four is enough reason to put him here.

Up Next:

The Yankees and Royals will play the rubber match of the series as Luis Mendoza will face Andy Pettitte at 7:05.