Thursday, April 15, 2010

2010, Game 9: Rangers at Yankees (postgame)

That was nice. I mean, Hughes wasn't as efficient as you'd want him to be--108 pitches didn't even get him a single out in the sixth--and the five walks were a downer, though it looked like the home plate ump was squeezing the strike zone a bit. Otherwise, his fastball had good life in the 92-94 MPH range that's his norm as a starter. The curve was gorgeous, the cutter effective.

But where was the changeup? Wasn't that all the hype coming out of Spring Training, Phil Hughes's new changeup? Al Leiter said he saw a couple of them; Pitch FX only identified one: the fourth pitch to Bobby Abreu in the third inning, a pitch well out of the strike zone.

The Spring Training changeup is often a phantasm. You always hear the stories out of the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues of this or that guy who's been working on his change, and just you wait until this devastating new pitch is unleashed on the world in games that count! But when March turns into April, that's exactly what fans wind up doing: waiting, and waiting, and waiting. Maybe the new miracle pitch makes an isolated appearance during the first two weeks of the season, then is quietly shelved. Sometimes, it doesn't even get that much play.

Now, it takes cojones to incorporate the changeup in your repertoire mid-career. A misfired breaking pitch can be embarrassing, but a poorly-located changeup can make you look like an idiot, speeding up the opponent's bat and making a slap-hitting backup catcher look like Babe Ruth. You can understand why so many pitchers flirt with the pitch, and why many of those flirtations turn out to just be Spring flings.

I hope that Hughes's changeup is for real. With or without it, he's the key person in the Yankee starting rotation--the person from whom we're most likely to see upside. Pettitte and Burnett are long shots to improve on their 2009 performances, and might have a hard time matching them. CC could improve, but he was operating at a pretty high level to begin with. The number four starter...well, we'll talk about him in a second. There's a lot resting on Hughes's shoulders--if nothing else, he's the living indication of what, if anything, Dave Eiland and Co. learned from the Joba fiasco last year. Here's hoping the start against the Angels was something to build on.


So, eight games in, the Yanks have three losses, two attributable to Javy Vazquez. The first loss, in which Vazquez pitched three nice innings before giving up eight runs in Tampa, was greeted with panic; yesterday's loss, a more mundane four runs in five and a third innings against the Angels, inspired boos. Not the best way to re-introduce yourself to the fans after that whole 2004 season experience, where Javy went from coveted object of desire, to joyous acquisition, to All-Star, to not entirely trusted, and from there to ALCS Game 7 batting practice pitcher, and victim of a "let's forget this ever happened" trade, when he was passed along to the Arizona Diamondbacks for Randy Johnson.

[ASIDE: Off the top of my head, I can think of two other times that the Yankees immediately cut ties with an acquisition after one season, as if admitting that the whole thing had been a terrible mistake best forgotten. Dave Collins spent a fitful 1982 season with the club, after the Yankees had signed him to a three-year contract to play first base--even though he was an outfielder who'd only played ten games at first in his entire career. It was a bad, bad idea, based on an idiotic concept--that the Yankees should become a NL-style speed-and-average outfit. Collins was basically replaced Reggie Jackson on the roster--small shoes to fill, right?--and that turned out about as well as you'd think it would. After the season, the Yanks compounded their mistake by sending the two years remaining on Collins's contract, along with Mike Morgan and Fred Friggin' McGriff, to the Toronto Blue Jays for Dale Murray. Then, in 1988, Jack Clark was a Yankee for roughly ten months. Again, Clark was coming in without a position--he was a first baseman and so was Don Mattingly--but at least this time the Yankees were celebrating the end of collusion, and Clark was coming off a season where he led the NL in OBP and slugging percentage. He didn't have a horrible season, but he wasn't a good fit, either. Shortly after the World Series, the Yanks dealt Clark to the Padres, where he made Tony Gwynn's life miserable, and received a bunch of guys I dare anyone to name without looking it up. That's the company Javier Vazquez is in.]

It's early. Really early. No one should panic when a veteran pitcher has back-to-back bad starts, unless he's injured. But there's the Javy Vazquez history--that slide from arguably the ace of the staff to being kicked out of the starting rotation in the ALCS and you have to wonder. Vazquez was always regarded as a cerebral pitcher--when the Yanks first acquired him, he was considered Greg Maddux's heir--and you have to wonder if those failures are still in his head. That sounds like mainstream media drama-building, since he performed well enough once he was out of Dodge, and you have to hope that there's a mundane explanation, like he's still building arm strength. After all, last year, in his best season since he left Montreal, Vazquez's started his preparations early to pitch in the World Baseball Classic. So maybe once he gets some more innings under his belt, he'll improve.

Right now, however, the only reasonable thing to do is put him on the mound every fifth day, and hope that eventually he gives us reason not to boo.


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