If Brian Cashman said yes during the winter of 2008, Phil Hughes might have been wearing the colors of the Minnesota Twins and answering questions about why his team can’t beat the Yankees in a postseason series.
If Cashman pulled the trigger on sending Hughes to Minnesota, Johan Santana might be answering questions (assuming he doesn’t have the same health problems as he does with the Mets) about how the Yankees dominate the Twins in the postseason.
It was a move that some took the Yankees to task because the year they did not make the playoffs and settled for finishing with 89 wins.
The move already looks good because of what has become of Hughes and Santana.
Hughes was the eighth-inning guy on a championship team, a role so vital that Jorge Posada thought was among the more valuable components of the team.
When healthy, Santana is the ace of a team that has really lost its way since getting within one game of the World Series four years ago.
While those rumors were ongoing, the Yankees were a team transitioning from Joe Torre to Joe Girardi. In Orange County California, Hughes was a pitcher who was called up in late-April to fill in a rotation void and finished with five wins and a 4.46 ERA in 13 starts. He also was the last pitcher to win a playoff game for Torre.
He also did not know about the rumors.
"My family was actually remodeling the house in California when that was going down," he said. "So I had no TV or no internet. That helped a little bit. It’s funny looking back at that now how kind of how far things have come in the last year and a half, two years."
Helping Hughes now is the changeup.
Though he was a prolific winner, the pitch rarely appeared in his arsenal, getting thrown just 53 times from April 4-Sept 5. Sept. 5 was when the Blue Jays hammered him for three home runs and six runs and seven hits in six innings.
During the rest of the regular season, Hughes made three good starts and two relief appearances. He threw 348 pitches and 28 or eight percent of those pitches were changeups. He also threw that pitch for a strike 60.7 percent of the time, up from 37.7 percent in five months.
It still remains a pitch that is progressing for Hughes but if it continues to get thrown effectively it could be a key component for the Yankees.
"It’s another weapon, especially in this ballpark to left-handers you need something soft and going down and away from it," pitching coach Dave Eiland said. "He has also used it effectively against right-handers as well. It’s been a big pitch for him and we knew it would be. That’s why we hammered it home so hard during spring training."
Hughes also gave up 20 home runs at home, which tied Scott Sanderson’s 1992 mark for in a single season. That is not a big deal for Eiland since this stadium is rather hitter-friendly.
While a changeup helped Hughes get better results, a mechanical tweak aided Kerry Wood and contributed to two months’ worth of outstanding performances.
The numbers for Wood were not pretty, a 6.30 ERA in 23 relief appearances for the Indians.
The transformation with the Yankees was though. When next year’s baseball cards are released, the Yankee portion will say things like 0.69 ERA in 24 appearances, 31 strikeouts in 24 innings.
Obviously Wood has the stuff to make that transformation since you don’t stay in the big leagues for over a decade but when the Yankees obtained him something was missing from a mechanical standpoint.
Here’s how Eiland described the mechanical adjustment from August 1 to now:
"Stand taller to the rubber and raise his arm a little bit. He was letting his arm drift towards the plate and his arm slot was off. So we kept him back and taller and raised his arm slot a little bit.
"It gave him a better angle on his fastball and greater depth on his curveball. So he’s throwing downhill now."
To get a better understanding of what that means, examine the differences between the curveball from when Wood was in Cleveland and from the two months in New York.
Curveball: thrown for a strike 46.4 percent, with a vertical break of -6.84, averaged 80.5 while being a swing and miss 12.5 percent.
With New York: thrown for a strike 58.4 percent, with a vertical break of -9.24, averaged 76.6 while being a swing and miss 14.3 percent.
And to gain a better grasp, talk to the pitcher and wait out the generic playoff questions that are good for television filler. The text below is what Wood said to me about that adjustment:
Q: Did you even notice you were doing it?
"It’s not something I would even notice on tape. I feel a difference. It was a small adjustment but it has been a huge adjustment for me. So I picked it up pretty quick, felt comfortable with it and I’ve had success.
"I was aware that I lowered it (the arm angle) and I lowered it on purpose to try and get a better feel for a pitch. Actually I tried all kinds of different things. Lowering it a little bit was the last thing I tried before I got over here and it was the first thing they fixed when I got over here.
"Normally you don’t want to lower your arm any more on breaking balls, but I was trying everything over there."
Q: Did they notice it and tell you before the trade?
"I think they had already seen it before I got over here. I think Dave had looked at video and already seen that. I came in the first day in Tampa and I had only been in the clubhouse for about an hour before the game started, so he didn’t adjust it there.
"We got home the next day and we went out and threw a bullpen and he actually didn’t say anything… But I stopped after I got loose and said ‘here’s the deal, my breaking ball is terrible, this is what’s going on - so I need to work on it.” He was already ahead of me on that page and had the answer for me and we worked on it right then on Day 2 and I just try to stay on top of it ever since."
Q: Why does it even happen?
"We create bad habits. As pitchers and especially when we’re not pitching consistently, we have a tendency to create bad habits and it was just not being out there consistently. I think the consistency of getting out there and being able to feel it and get that muscle memory has helped."
Q: How long did it take for the adjustment to click?
"It took me probably four, five or six games to get out there and feel the difference and know when I didn’t do it I could feel it and know when I did it why it was good."
Q: Was there a specific outing or at-bat that you first sensed it was working?
"It was probably more of a pitch than at-bat. I threw my curveball for the first time and felt good. That’s probably where everything clicked because I had that pitch back."
Wood did not necessarily expect to be here at the July 31 deadline. He thought if anything he would be traded in a waiver deal but the thrill of being in the same bullpen as Mariano Rivera is surreal.
Rivera is one of the calmest guys in the business and for Wood a similar comparison is Greg Maddux’s demeanor. What makes those guys so calm is they know what they can and what they need to do.
Moving on, Joba Chamberlain has yet to pitch in the series but considering that he is eight years younger than Wood, it is still a little weird for him to see Wood wearing 39 and not 34, which he wore when he struck out 20 Astros in 1998.
In the Twins’ post, the Nebraska connection between Chamberlain and Duensing was touched upon.
"He kind of did everything for us,” Chamberlain said. "He won the Big 12 championship for us that year. He’s just one of those guys that can pitch. He had “Tommy John” and came back and worked his tail off to be able to get back to where he’s at. He just goes out and trusts his stuff."
Chamberlain expanded on it a little by describing his former college teammate as a “great dude, who is real laid back”. He also expressed pride when stating how Duensing and he still live in Nebraska.
"There’s always people that are from Nebraska but don’t always stay there," Chamberlain said. "So it was nice to see him having those roots and pitching. It was fun to see him give up a home run and a couple of runs.
"I’m happy for him today, but tomorrow I hope we score 40 and the day after I’ll give him a hug."