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Pushing The Panic Button On Phil Hughes' Season

April 15, 2011 - John Whittaker
I'm officially pushing the panic button on Phil Hughes' 2011 season.

I have no doubt that Hughes can learn to pitch with reduced velocity. In fact, it was going to happen sooner or later. I do, however, have serious doubts if Hughes can learn how to do it this year, in the middle of a pennant race, with hoardes of reporters questioning him after every failed start. You can have every skill in the book, but without confidence, especially in a season as long as baseball's 162-game schedule, you're finished (see Burnett, A.J., 2010).

There are plenty of examples of ways to prove this, but one sticks out in my mind.

A few years ago, a buddy of mine asked me to play on his slow-pitch softball team. The first season I played, I hit the ball well, spraying line drives all over the place and feeling good about myself. I had a lot of three- and four-hit games and felt so incredibly confident at the plate that I thought I'd never make an out. If I did, seemed like it took a great catch or me hitting the ball right at a fielder.

Then, I took a year off and came back the next season thinking it would be just like the first season. I got cocky and promptly hit .187 for the season.

That's right. I hit .187 in a slow-pitch softball season.

I'm not proud of it. Actually, I'm really embarassed by it. I'm not the world's greatest athlete, but I'm better than a .187 hitter in a beer league. But, through the miracle of modern "I have a blog and you don't" I'm going to tell you why my experience at Bergman Park is a reason for the Yankees to be really concerned over Phil Hughes.

1. "It's just one bad game. Nothing to get too excited about." — After a couple of 0-for-4 games, I just thought I was in a slump.I hit a couple of balls hard and just missed the sweet spot a couple of other times. That means I'm just a little rusty, right? Deep down, I knew my hitting was crap, but didn't want to admit it. During spring training, we all heard Hughes talk about a dead arm period that was no big deal, that he'd have his fastball eventually. And, we heard about how he wasn't worried about getting bombed on the mound because he was working on some new things and trying to get a better feel for his changeup. Um, yeah, that's the reason you were getting pounded by the Pirates, Phil. Keep telling yourself that.

2. "I just need time to work things out. I'll get it going." — After three weeks or so of 1-for-7 weekends, I thought I just needed time. Maybe I was rusty from taking a year off and needed to get my groove back. I thought one good game would get me back to hitting like I used to hit. I was rolling over a lot of pitches and hitting weak groundballs to the shortstop. But, I'd been playing a lot of basketball and maybe I was just a little tired. Maybe I just wasn't seeing the ball quite right yet. There were always reasons why my hits weren't getting through the infield or finding holes in the outfield. I swear, it wasn't in my head yet.

We've heard this from the Yankees and Hughes already, too. We're hearing that from the Yankees right now about Hughes, too. He just needs to pitch to get his velocity back up. He needs to use his changeup more to make his fastball look faster. There's nothing wrong physically, so we'll just keep running him out there and give him every opportunity to fix it. Let me give a word of experience — Hughes' fastball ain't walking through the locker room door. At least, it isn't coming back unless he hooks up to Roger Clemens HGH workout program.

3. "What the hell is wrong with me. Can somebody, anybody, help me get a hit?" — It didn't take much longer for me to take drastic action. My buddy Dennis completely retooled my swing, thinking my mechanics were bad. I started taking more pitches rather than swinging at the first good pitch I saw, thinking I needed to be more selective. I started trying to work more walks, since I couldn't hit anymore. I got to the point I hated to come to the plate with runners on base and more than one out, because I was convinced I was a double play waiting to happen. Seriously, I almost went the Pedro Cerrano route and made Teddy and Dennis bring me a live chicken to sacrifice. If I could have found a JoBu doll, I would have bought one. I was desparate. Let's just say, this is the "We'll find something in Hughes' mechanics that will fix the problem" part of the process.

Here's how you know you're at this point. You see a guy staring blankly at the field from the dugout, like he's trying to visualize himself doing well. Body language goes into the toilet — shoulders sag, lots of deep breaths on the mound, slow walks to and from the mound. For hitters, you 'll see guys gripping the bat really tight or sighing as they trot halfway to first base after yet another popout to left field.

And, if you're listening, you'll hear things like this in their postgame comments. "I don't have the magic potion or the answers. Hopefully it will work itself out." or ""It's frustrating. I feel like I'm bringing nothing to the team right now. That's a bad feeling going out there and fighting as hard as I can to make pitches trying to keep us in the game. I don't have the magic potion or the answer. Hopefully it will work itself out."

Hughes uttered both comments after his Boston and Baltimore starts. Sound familiar, Yankees fans? It should, because it sounds eerily similar to A.J. Burnett last September.

"It's Groundhog Day again," Burnett said after an August 2010 start against Toronto. "When you take your team out of it in the first two or three innings, it wears on these guys. It's got to be frustrating not knowing what you're going to get every five days." And then there was this gem, "I don't feel like myself," he said. "I'm not having fun right now. Who would in a stretch like this?"

Both of those Burnett quotes came from July or later. Imagine, if Hughes sounds this bad in April, what he'll sound like in September? Let's hop into my Whitless Wonder time machine and fast forward to Hughes, standing in front of his locker after getting shelled by Tampa Bay in September and answering a question by anyone but Kimberly Jones, the Yankees YES Network sideline reporter who really should be fired by September.

"Well, they've taken my belt and shoelaces, and I have to call Joe Girardi every half-hour so he can be sure I'm OK," Hughes told reporters after giving up six runs in two innings against Tampa Bay. "I don't know what's happening out there. Russell puts down the sign for a fastball and, when I go to throw it, there's nothing there. I've forgotten how to throw a fastball. I've been to hypnotists. I've seen therapists, who think I have mommy issues. I'm completely, totally at a loss. I just want to go back to California, surf a little bit and maybe get eaten by a shark."

4. "Is this season over yet?" — Sure enough, by the end of the year, I wanted no part of picking up a baseball bat for months. I'd just hit .187 in slow-pitch softball, and basketball couldn't get here quickly enough. I felt like I had pretty well killed our season by being a black hole in the lineup. If Hughes is already on step 3, how long do you think the next five months look for him? This is where it becomes a head game. When you're not hitting, and haven't hit for months, you dread coming to the plate. When you're hrowing meatballs to the likes of David Ortiz and Vladimir Guerrero, you just want to go home and hide.

Confidence matters, especially in baseball. When you get off to a bad start, it just embeds itself in your head. If I dwelled on slow-pitch softball, what happens with Hughes, who's making millions playing in the major leagues. He's already showing signs of self-doubt. He's where A.J. Burnett was in July of last season — and let's just remember how ugly that got by the end of the year.

Contrast Hughes and Burnett with Derek Jeter, who has enough self-confidence to know that his swing doesn't matter much. He'll still get his hits and find ways to be productive. He's confident bordering on cocky — which is just the mentality you need to play in New York City.

Burnett has that look back so far. Hughes looks confused and has the confidence of an impotent 50-year-old after learning he can't get a prescription for Viagra. Unfortunately, buying a sports car will do nothing for Hughes' confidence.

My solution: I think Hughes needs to go back to the bullpen. On Thursday against the Orioles, Hughes' problem wasn't velocity. Andy Pettitte won a lot of games throwing 88-91 miles an hour. Greg Maddux won 350 games topping out at 90 miles an hour. Hughes needs to realize that location is his big enemy right now, and the bullpen might be just the place for him. He was good there once, and that experience helped create the 18-game winner the Yankees saw last season. Second, I think Hughes shouldn't be allowed to shake off a sign from his catcher. Ever. Against Boston, Hughes had no faith in his fastball and threw cut fastballs instead, promptly hanging them in the strike zone and getting pounded in the process. He should stop thinking and just let Russell Martin run the game for him. Don't think meat, just throw. Bartolo Colon, at least right now, gives the Yankees the best chance to win every five days and should be given the opportunity to do so.

I can't believe I just wrote that sentence.

Long live El Burrito Grande!

Last Week's Record: 3-2. Division Standing Through 11 games: 7-4, First in American League East.

What I Like Russell Martin continues to impress me. He's hitting .289 through 11 games, a number I'd gladly take for the season, has shown more pop than I thought he had left in his bat and is pretty decent defensively. If he keeps this up, the Yankees are in good shape behind the plate.

I'm still not feeling too bad about A.J. Burnett. He's 3-0 and is mixing his pitches much better than he did last year, a development for which I give all credit to Russell Martin. I'm not sure what he did to convince Burnett to stick with his changeup, but it's sure working so far. My only concern is the seventh inning Wednesday against Baltimore, when Burnett gave up a pair of two-run homers and then later said he was throwing "non-competitive pitches" in the seventh. Um, A.J., you damned near blew a 7-0 lead there buddy. Maybe you want to finish games a little better, huh? Maybe you should sit a few plays out, huh Champ? Still, I'm encouraged, somehow.

Alex Rodriguez is on fire right now. He's drilling the ball all over the place right now, and you have to wonder if the Yanks get blanked by Josh Beckett and the Red Sox on Sunday if A-Rod was in the lineup. I hope he can keep this up all year, because he's really fun to watch when he's hitting the way he has for the last 11 games. That goes double for Robinson Cano.

What Concerns Me Phil Hughes obviously scares the stool out of me. What is amazing to me is this — Bartolo Colon isn't throwing much harder than Hughes is right now, but Colon is finding ways to get people out. I wrote enough about Hughes above, so I won't waste any more time on him.

The top of the lineup still isn't getting on base quite enough for my taste. Brett Gardner is really struggling. He went 1-for-Baltimore and didn't do much better against Boston over the weekend. It's not panic time, but it's tough to have two speedy outfielders who go through extended slumps at the same time (yeah, Curtis Granderson, I'm talking about you). Derek Jeter has been a little better, but it's not like he's hitting the ball with much authority. Still, this is a results business, and at least he's had a few hits lately.

I hope Joba Chamberlain's four-out performance Wednesday bodes well, because he didn't impress me much in his two previous outings. His fastball looked good Thursday against the Orioles, but I'm still not a big fan of him throwing sliders in the dirt. It almost bit the Yankees with a wild pitch on Thursday, and against more selective hitters, it leads to people sitting on his fastball because they know his slider is hardly ever a strike. He struggled in consecutive outings before throwing a nice eighth inning Thursday, so I'll keep my finger off the panic button on Joba for now. The dude could use a serious haircut though. George Steinbrenner would never allow such malarkey.

What's Coming Up: The Yanks kick off a three-game series with Texas tonight before an off-day on Monday, two games against Toronto, another off-day on Thursday and then a three-game set against Baltimore.


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Does this look like someone confident that he can get anyone out right now? Yeah, that's what I thought.