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Archive for April 15th, 2011

(In addition to appearing at The Captain’s Blog, this post is also being syndicated at TheYankeeAnalysts.)

Over any 10-game stretch, even the most accomplished hitter can experience a dry spell. For the most part, such slumps pass by unnoticed, but when they occur at the beginning of the season, there is usually much more scrutiny.

Contact has been hard to come by for Brett Gardner.

For established players in their prime, the early panic is usually unwarranted. However, for aging veterans and younger players without a proven track record, each new season brings with it justifiable skepticism. This year, the Yankees have three hitters who fall into that category.

Derek Jeter’s 2010 was such a deviation from the norm, that it’s only natural to wonder if the great Yankees’ short stop is in the midst of a drastic decline. Unfortunately, the first 11 games of the season have done little to dispel that fear. In almost 50 plate appearances, Jeter has only one extra base hit, resulting in the 13th lowest slugging percentage among qualified batters in the American League. The biggest reason for his lack of power has been an inability to drive the ball in the air. To this point, a whopping 79% of Jeter’s at bats have resulted in a ground ball. What’s more, 25% of his fly balls haven’t let the infield. In other words, Jeter’s .256 BABIP doesn’t point to bad luck, but rather bad contact.

Derek Jeter’s Contact Profile, 2002-2011

Source: fangraphs.com

Amid all the bad omens, there are two positive signs that one can take away from Jeter’s early performance. The first is he has avoided swinging at, and making contact with, pitches outside of the zone. In 2010, Jeter recorded career highs in both categories, but this season, his rates have returned to more normal levels. As a result, Jeter’s walk rate has risen back over 10%, which is where it has been during his best seasons. Another silver lining is the Yankees have mostly faced right handed pitchers. Even in his best years, the Captain has greatly preferred facing lefties (he has a .445 wOBA in 10 plate appearances against lefties this season), so the lack of such opportunities has likely been a drag on his performance.

If you give Jeter an allowance for adjusting to his new batting stance (or reverting back to the old one), and then take into account the way the schedule has broken down, there’s still reason to hold out hope that the future Hall of Famer can at least return to being an above average offensive short stop.

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When Phil Hughes walked off the mound to a smattering of boos in the fifth inning, a walk off victory for the Yankees didn’t seem likely. However, thanks to some late clutch hitting and strong relief, pie was back on the menu by the end of the game.

Nick Swisher celebrates the Yankees first walk off victory with a taste of pie (Photo: Getty Images).

In his first two innings, Hughes looked as if he had recovered some of the lost velocity that plagued his previous two starts. However, after topping out at 92 mph in the early going, Hughes’ velocity quickly dissipated and then his command betrayed him shortly thereafter. The signature pitch took place in the third inning, when the struggling right hander left a cutter over the middle of the plate to Nick Markakis, who planted it into the right field stands.  From that point forward, Hughes seemed unable to command the inside corner, and the Orioles took advantage by building a 5-0 lead over the next three innings.

Although there is likely to be some speculation about Hughes’ hold on his spot in the rotation, the Yankees really have no choice but to keep running Hughes out to the mound every fifth day with the hope that he’ll find his missing velocity. Bartolo Colon has pitched well as Hughes’ designated mop-up man, but it would be terribly short sighted for the Yankees to reverse those roles based only three games. Of course, winning helps facilitate rational decisions, so perhaps in some respects, the Yankees comeback saved Hughes more than just a loss.

Phil Hughes’ Pitch Breakdown

Pitch Type Avg Speed Max Speed Count Strikes/% Swinging Strikes/%
FF (FourSeam Fastball) 89.05 90.9 46 32 / 69.57% 2 / 4.35%
CH (Changeup) 80.9 82 6 5 / 83.33% 0 / 0.00%
CU (Curveball) 70.5 72.2 11 8 / 72.73% 2 / 18.18%
FC (Cutter) 84.91 86.3 7 6 / 85.71% 0 / 0.00%

Source: http://www.brooksbaseball.net

Three shutout innings from Colon gave the Yankees a chances to slowly chip away at the Orioles lead, but a defensive play by Joba Chamberlain in the seventh proved to be the real turning point. Upon entering the game with one out and runners on first and third, Chamberlain threw an errant pitch to Mark Reynolds that skipped past Russell Martin. Pinch runner Felix Pie bolted for the plate, but the ball kicked back to the Yankee catcher. As Pie and Chamberlain converged at home, the right hander received the throw from Martin and blocked Pie from the plate with his right leg. After recording the out at home, Chamberlain then struck out Reynolds with a 96 mph fastball to escape the jam.

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