The secret to solving Cliff Lee

    Monday, October 18, 2010, 1:50 PM [General]

    Marcus Thames has faced Cliff Lee 36 times in his career. By Sunday afternoon, Thames had analyzed the videotape of every one of those at-bats, searching for some clues about how to hit the supposedly unhittable postseason pitcher.

    Thames studied the pitches he missed, the pitches he fouled off and the pitches he didn’t swing at, rewinding and fast-forwarding through his dates with Lee. Eventually, Thames discovered a pattern, a sliver of information that he hopes will help him in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series on Monday night.

    “In every at-bat I had, I usually had one pitch to hit,” Thames said. “Even in the at-bats where I struck out against him, I had a pitch and missed it. You can’t miss that pitch.”

    Thames has seven hits, including three homers, and 15 strikeouts in his 36 at-bats off Lee, an uninspiring .194 average. But, despite the disappointing average and despite Lee’s remarkable ability, Thames was eager to face the pitcher who has hovered over this series without even firing a pitch.

    When Thames was with the Detroit Tigers and they opposed an intimidating pitcher, manager Jim Leyland would motivate his players by reminding them that those were the games where they had to challenge themselves. They were Major Leaguers because they were the best players in the world, so they needed to beat the best pitchers, too, Leyland would say. As Thames recalled Leyland’s words, he smiled. It was almost as if Leyland was sitting on his shoulder in the Yankees’ clubhouse.  

    “You can’t go out there with your hands all sweaty because of the name,” Thames said. “You have to compete.”

    Every pitcher makes mistakes, even the Hall of Famers and even the pitchers who are 6-0 with a 1.44 earned run average in the postseason. Those are Lee’s ridiculously gaudy statistics. Kevin Long, the Yankees’ batting coach, said starting pitchers usually make about 10 or 12 mistakes a game. By mistakes, Long meant pitches that are elevated in the strike zone or pitches that catch too much of the plate.

    As much of strike-throwing machine Lee was while walking 18 batters in 212 1/3 innings this season, and none in 16 innings in the postseason, he is human. He will miss his spots, just like any other great pitcher. If and when Lee misses his location, the Yankees must pounce.

    “You’re going to get, hopefully, one pitch to hit every at bat,” Long said. “You can’t foul it off. You can’t miss it.”

    Other than Derek Jeter, who has a .432 average against Lee, the Yankees’ starters are usually patient. But one American League scout said that the Yankees should shelve their patient approach against Lee because he is amazingly consistent with throwing strikes. If a batter tries to wait Lee out, there is a good chance he will be behind in the count. Jeter’s success off Lee could stem from the fact that he routinely attacks on the first pitch.

    While Jeter praised Lee as a pitcher who “is as good as anyone in baseball right now,” he was also mindful of embracing the challenge of trying to conquer Lee.

    “We’ve faced a lot of pitchers throughout the years that have had great reputations,” Jeter said. “Reputation doesn’t win games. You still have to go out there and pitch.”  

    Three months ago, general manager Brian Cashman thought he had acquired Lee from the Seattle Mariners. Instead, the Mariners did an end around in their negotiations and sent Lee to the Rangers. Cashman wasn’t interested in revisiting those discussions, but said, “I took a shot. It didn’t work out.”

    Now the Yankees must try and defeat the left-hander that Cashman said is “allergic to walks.” Because Lee tosses so many strikes with his fastball, slider, cutter, curveball and changeup, Cashman said he “takes away” your plate discipline, one of the Yankees’ strengths. Still, Cashman stressed that the Yankees’ philosophy on patience is to swing at strikes, not wait for walks. Walks are a by-product of being patient.

    The Yankees aren’t likely to be patient against Lee on Monday night. I would expect the Yankees to emulate Jeter, a hitter who is always ready, willing and able to swing at the first pitch. Lee’s first pitch might be the only one in the at-bat that was hittable. As Thames found out in his video search, there will be some pitches to hit. Just don’t miss them.  

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    Yankees must face the man they covet most

    Wednesday, October 13, 2010, 7:15 PM [General]

    One day after Cliff Lee was traded from the Seattle Mariners to the Texas Rangers, not the expectant Yankees, Brian Cashman took his son, Teddy, to the circus. A trip to see the clowns, the lions and the trapeze artists had been planned, but it came at an opportune time. After believing the Yankees had snagged Lee and then learning he was going elsewhere, Cashman needed a diversion.

    Cashman wanted Lee so desperately that he was willing to trade Jesus Montero, the Yankees’ premier prospect and a player that he thinks will eventually blast 40 homers in the Major Leagues. But the general manager thought Lee would be a season-changing addition, the type of pitcher who could help catapult the Yankees to a second straight championship. Instead, Lee went to the Rangers.

    “When he goes out there,” Cashman said in July, “you expect him to win every time.”

    The Yankees wanted Lee in their starting rotation three months ago and they will undoubtedly want to sign him when he becomes a free agent next month. But that was the past and that might be the future. During the present, which is the American League Championship Series, the Yankees view Lee as an enemy who is one of the obstacles to them advancing to the World Series.

    As the Yankees watched Lee dominate the Tampa Bay Rays, 5-1, on Wednesday night, they saw a confident pitcher who brushed the corners of the strikezone, who threw his curveball more often than usual and who, of course, didn’t walk a batter. Lee is a pitching assassin in the post-season, improving to 6-0 with a 1.44 earned run average in seven starts. That’s insane. That’s why Cashman wanted him.

    Because the Rangers had to use Lee in Game 5 of the A.L. Division Series, the Yankees will not have to face him until Game 3 of the A.L.C.S. That is a definite advantage for the Yankees. The longer it takes Lee to pitch, the more time the Yankees will have to grab control of the series. If the Yankees win the first two games, Lee’s impact in Game 3 will be reduced. The start will still be important, but it won’t be as significant if, say, the Rangers were ahead 2-0 in the series or it was tied 1-1.

    While Manager Joe Girardi, Jorge Posada and Nick Swisher didn’t want to discuss the Game 3 starter when Game 1 isn’t until Friday, the Yankees have the ability to prevent Lee’s role from growing. Since Lee would presumably be scheduled to pitch Games 3 and 7, the Yankees can sidestep the second potential meeting by not letting the series go seven games. If Lee starts once in six games, the Yankees should be able to win four of those games.

    Lee has multiple connections to the Yankees. As a member of the Philadelphia Phillies, he was 2-0 with a 2.81 earned run average against the Yankees in the 2009 World Series. He is close friends with CC Sabathia, who will start Game 1 for the Yankees on Friday. How close? Sabathia advised Lee about a house in Alpine, N.J. where Lee could live if the Yankees obtained him last July. And Lee might soon be a Yankee. None of that mattered to Girardi. 

    “As far as intrigue, no,” Girardi said. “I know we’re going to face him in this series and he’s as good as it gets.”

    Sabathia was rooting for Lee against the Rays and planned to text him to congratulate him. Lee and Sabathia were teammates on the Cleveland Indians and became fast friends, Sabathia said, because both were laid-back and both had the same mindset as pitchers. Once Lee added a two-seam fastball to an already superb repertory of four-seam fastball, cut fastball, changeup and curveball, Sabathia said he became an even nastier pitcher and a pitcher who produced endless groundouts.

    One American League talent evaluator said the Yankees, who are normally patient hitters, need to abandon that style against Lee because he throws so many strikes. He said the Yankees should try and be aggressive against Lee and hit pitches that stray out over the plate. Sabathia agreed, saying his advice to the Yankees is to pounce early, too.

    “Be ready to hit,” Sabathia said. “He’s going to throw the ball over the plate.”

    After this postseason, a postseason in which the Yankees are trying to vanquish Lee and the Rangers, Lee might end up throwing those strikes for them. 

    “I hope so,” Sabathia said. “We’ll see.”

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    From humble beginnings, Hughes ascends to biggest stage

    Saturday, October 9, 2010, 12:44 PM [General]

    Phil Hughes wasn’t supposed to be a pitcher at Foothill High School in Santa Ana, California. He was a third baseman, a superb athlete who felt awkward while growing into his changing body as a freshman. Hughes had excruciating pain in his right elbow, the residue of expanding bones, ligaments and joints on a collision course.

    Then, in a random summer game before Hughes started his sophomore year, his high school team needed some pitchers. A coach asked Hughes if he could help. Hughes quickly agreed to devour a few innings. A pitching career was born.
     
    “All of a sudden, he started pitching,” said Gary Fishel, one of Hughes’s high school coaches. “All of a sudden, we realized that we had to watch this guy.”

    Now the baseball world is watching Hughes. When Hughes opposes the Twins in Game 3 of the American League Division Series on Saturday, he won’t be thinking about the day he unofficially became a pitcher. He will be thinking about trying to tame Joe Mauer, Delmon Young and Jim Thome and trying to guide the Yankees to a sweep over the spooked Twins.

    But before Hughes could become the polished 18-game winner that he was this season, he had to start as a 5-foot-6-inch kid who hoped that his elbow wouldn’t hurt him with each pitch. Once Hughes began tossing fastballs, kept repeating his smooth, compact delivery and kept getting stronger and more comfortable with his body, it became more and more obvious that he could be a special pitcher.

    “He was always very poised,” Fishel said. “He had to learn how to pitch. To do that, he listened. He wasn’t a pain. He just went about his business.”

    Basically, the teenager that Fishel described sounded exactly like the 24-year-old Hughes, who is graceful and affable in the Yankees’ clubhouse. After Hughes grew several inches after his sophomore year, he dominated for the rest of his high-school career. Armed with a fastball that touched 94 miles per hour, Hughes went 12-0 with a 0.64 earned run average as a junior. Hughes, who grew to 6-foot-5-inches, was 9-1 with a 0.69 as a senior. The Yankees drafted Hughes in the first round and signed him to a $1.4 million bonus.

    When scouts asked Fishel about Hughes, he told them they wouldn’t be drafting someone who had the maturity level of a high-school senior. Not even close. Fishel promised that Hughes would be as mature as a college junior. Dave Eiland, the Yankees’ pitching coach, was Hughes’ pitching coach at Class AA Trenton, and marveled at how steady the pitcher has always been.

    “He’s mature beyond his years,” Eiland said. “That doesn’t mean he won’t get rattled. Maybe he loses his concentration. But he’s mature beyond his years. With the experience he’s gotten the last two years, we’re seeing that.”

    Baseball always came easily for Hughes, which is why his freshman year was so bothersome. He felt uncoordinated. His elbow was killing him. He wondered if he would ever be able to contribute to the varsity squad. He wasn’t expecting pitching to save him, but it did.

    As Hughes sat by his locker at Yankee Stadium on Friday, I asked if he remembered volunteering to throw in the summer game that helped christen a pitching career. Hughes remembered it. Like Fishel, Hughes didn’t recall many specifics. Just that the team needed some pitchers and that he obliged.

    “I was willing to do anything,” Hughes said. “I really just wanted to be out there so I said I could pitch.”

    What would have happened to Hughes if he hadn’t pitched in that game? Would he have still become an elite pitcher and still been discovered? Hughes was probably too talented to be overlooked, especially once he grew into the baseball version of a bouncer. Still, they are valid questions. Of course, they are questions that don’t concern Hughes. He has always looked forward, not backward, though Hughes did call his ascension to the Yankees an “amazing” journey.

    At Foothill H.S., Hughes’s compelling story is repeated frequently. Fishel tells his players about the small third baseman who blossomed into one of the best high school pitchers in the country and who won a World Series ring with the Yankees. Now Hughes, whose career changed when he agreed to pitch in a random summer game, is trying to help the Yankees climb closer to another ring.

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    Yankees turn to big man on campus

    Tuesday, October 5, 2010, 2:18 PM [General]

    When Brian Cashman sat in CC Sabathia’s home 22 months ago, the Yankees’ general manager offered him a massive free agent contract and a tremendous opportunity. If Sabathia signed with the Yankees, Cashman told him, he could be the man to help guide them to multiple championships.

    “I wasn’t leaving that house without a deal,” Cashman recalled. “It was like recruiting a player for college. You don’t leave without knowing you’ve got the player.”

    Cashman got the player, got one of the best pitchers in baseball for $161 million. In Sabathia’s first year with the Yankees, they also snagged a championship. Now, as the Yankees prepare for Game 1 of the Division Series against the Twins Wednesday night, Sabathia is the big man on campus for the Yankees once again.

    For the Yankees to repeat as champions, they will surely need a superb effort from Sabathia. If Sabathia struggles, especially in more than one game, it is difficult to imagine the Yankees being able to overcome that stumble. After Sabathia, the Yankees have an uncertain rotation. Andy Pettitte has been rusty since being activated, Phil Hughes has never started a postseason game and A.J. Burnett is so lost that he won’t start in the first round.

    While Pettitte, who unleashed a slick cutter and whiffed eight in his last start, and Hughes, who pitched six strong innings in his last start, could easily thrive, it wouldn’t be a shock if they had problems. It would be surprising if Sabathia faltered. It might also be devastating for the Yankees, who are trusting Sabathia, to pitch the opener and come back on short rest to start a possible Game 4.

    “There are a handful of pitchers who you expect to win every time they start,” Cashman said. “CC is one of those pitchers.”

    Because Sabathia is 6-foot-7-inches, weighs over 300 pounds and has one of the best fastballs in the Major Leagues, there is a tendency to categorize him as a power pitcher. Sabathia is a power pitcher, of course, but he is a lot more than that. He is smart and he is diverse. Sabathia isn’t the type of pitcher who relies on his fastball as he shrewdly analyzes situations, and sprinkles in sliders and changeups and even the occasional sinker or curveball.

    Before Sabathia faced the Orioles in September, manager Buck Showalter told his players to be aware of how often Sabathia used his changeup as an out pitch. The Orioles pounded Sabathia for five earned runs and nine hits in a 6-2 win. Showalter said the idea that Sabathia, who was 21-7 with a 3.18 earned run average, was a pitcher that repeatedly pumped fastballs was erroneous.

    “He’s not a thrower,” Showalter said. “He’s a guy who is out there pitching.”  

    The guy who is starting Game 1 for the Twins is Francisco Liriano. Liriano is trying to prove that he can match Sabathia as an ace and help push the Twins past a team that has foiled them in the postseason three times. Liriano, Carl Pavano and Brian Duensing, who will start the first three games for the Twins, have never defeated the Yankees in their careers.

    How unsure were the Twins about what to expect from Liriano this season? The Twins thought Liriano’s fastball-slider combination could help him succeed as a closer, so they asked him if he wanted to replace Joe Nathan, who had season-ending elbow surgery. Liriano said that he wanted to remain in the rotation, a decision that proved fortuitous as he went 14-10 with a 3.62 ERA.

    Liriano’s fastball averaged 93.7 miles per hour, which was slightly harder than Sabathia’s fastball (93.5) and two miles harder than Liriano’s fastball during an ineffective 2009. But Liriano’s favorite pitch is his slider. How much does Liriano depend on it? Only Ervin Santana threw a higher percentage of sliders than Liriano, who threw the pitch 33.8 percent of the time. Liriano averaged 9.44 strikeouts per nine innings and also collected twice as many groundball outs as fly ball outs.

    To conquer Liriano, one American League scout said the Yankees must force him to throw his slider and changeup for strikes early in the count. The scout said Liriano is successful when he induces hitters to swing at pitches that aren’t in the strike zone. When Liriano is ahead in the count, he loves to throw sliders that break out of the strike zone.

    Sabathia was 3-1 with a 1.98 ERA as the Yankees marched to the World Series last season. Meanwhile, Liriano pitched two innings in the Division Series, the only postseason innings in his career. The AL scout said Liriano is a stellar pitcher, but the Twins must wonder how he will respond in the glare of the postseason.

    “With CC, the Yankees know what they’re going to get,” the scout said. “You expect him to go out there and get the job done.”

    That is exactly what the Yankees are hoping, hoping that Sabathia can guide them all the way to another title.

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    Showalter: Yankees ‘know where the finish line is’

    Wednesday, September 29, 2010, 1:58 PM [General]

    The question about the Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays was simple enough. Since those teams are separated by one-half game in the American League East, and have been within two-and-a-half games of each other for the last nine weeks, I asked Buck Showalter to assess how evenly matched they are.

    Showalter has been managing the improved Orioles for two months and he has been studying the Yankees and the Rays for a lot longer than that. When we spoke on Tuesday, his Orioles were a few hours away from opposing the Rays at the Tropicana Dome. But Showalter’s answer started with praise for the Yankees.

    “I wouldn’t underestimate the Yankees,” Showalter said. “I know they’ve been leaking all over lately, but I wouldn’t focus on that. They know where the finish line is.”

    The Yankees reached the first finish line of sorts on Tuesday by silencing the Blue Jays, 6-1, to qualify for the postseason. Manager Joe Girardi exhaled, for a few minutes anyway. The first-place Rays reached that line, too, by taming the Orioles, 5-0, and pushing into the postseason. The two teams that have been shadows all season are still tussling for first-place in the division and with each other, and the Twins for the best record in the AL.

    As Showalter analyzed the Yankees, he mentioned how deep and devastating their lineup can be, how valuable it is to have a dominating pitcher like CC Sabathia at the top of the rotation and how much postseason experience they possess. Showalter wondered if Phil Hughes or Andy Pettitte would start after Sabathia in Game 2 and also wondered if the disappointing A.J. Burnett would have any role in the Division Series.

    The questions about the Yankees’ postseason rotation will be answered in the next few days. When I asked general manager Brian Cashman if the Yankees might use a three-man rotation, which would require Sabathia to pitch on short rest in Game 4, Cashman said, “Those are things we have to talk about.”

    Those discussions will determine whether the Yankees trust Burnett, who is 6-15 with a 6.30 earned run average in his last 26 starts, to start a postseason game. Cashman didn’t want to dissect Burnett’s problematic season, but he said the pitcher “is better than this” and “he has lost his way.” Allowing any pitcher to try and find his way in the postseason isn’t prudent.

    The Yankees have limped through September because their starting pitchers have imploded. Before Sabathia pitched powerfully into the ninth inning against the Jays, the starters had been 2-10 with a 5.91 ERA in the previous 23 games. Cashman admitted that the starters “haven’t been good,” but he stressed how quickly that could change.

    “We have some real talent on this team,” Cashman said. “We know what we can do.”

    Next week, the Yankees, the Rays, the Twins and the Rangers will get to show what they can do in the postseason. If Josh Hamilton, who has two fractured ribs, can be a significant contributor for the Rangers, Showalter said they have “as good a chance as anybody to” make it to the World Series.

    Showalter watched from the opposing dugout as the Rays celebrated their second postseason berth in franchise history on Tuesday. He considers the Rays dangerous, especially when they unnerve pitchers and catchers with their running game. The Rays have stolen 22 bases in 23 attempts against the Yankees, which is something they will try to exploit if both advance to the ALCS. In a season where the teams have been so evenly matched, that meeting might be destined.  

    “Maybe this year is different,” Showalter said, “but I wouldn’t underestimate the Yankees.”

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