02 May 2007

Yankees, Hughes Catch a Break...and a Pull, and a Strain, and a Tweak...

My initial thought, when I heard that the Yankees' top prospect, indeed the #1 pitching prospect in all of baseball, took a no-hitter into the seventh inning last night, was "Wow, now that's more like it!" Except that in the same breath, ESPN's Bob Pecose also announced that Hughes injured his hamstring and will miss 4-6 weeks, so all I actually got to think was "Wo-".

My next thought was, "Man, the Yankees just can't catch a break this year."

And then the irony hit me: They've already caught a break. It was Jeff Karstens' right fibula.

They've also caught four hamstring pulls (Hughes, Hideki Matsui, Chien-Ming Wang and Mike Mussina), three sore elbows (Karstens, RHP Jose Veras, and RHP Humberto Sanchez), a strained oblique (Bobby Abreu), a stiff forearm (Carl Pavano), a cracked nail (Wang), and most of Johnny Damon's body (calf, hammy, back...good thing he had his hair cut, or he'd have found a way to make that hurt, too). Meanwhile, with six errors in only 22 games played, "Gold Glove" Shortstop Derek Jeter can hardly catch a cold.

The interesting thing about the injuries, at least to me, is the frequency of hamstring problems. At some point or another, the Yankees have had five different players with some kind of hamstring injury, though to date Damon's demons have not sufficiently crippled him to justify a stint on the Disabled List. Mussina (38), Damon (33) and Matsui (32) are not young, but they're hardly old men either, and Wang (27) and Hughes (20) are still very youthful, and yet they've all suffered the same kinds of injuries.

Charles Euchner's book, The Last Nine Innings, discusses the physical trianing regimen that Steve Finley used to rejuvenate and extend his career, one that emphasizes flexibility and agility over strength, and is centered on the abdominal and trunk muscles, which helps to take the strain off the leg muscles. Someone like Will Carroll could probably do a better job of explaining why it seems to work than I can, but Finley related in the book how he was feeling his hamstrings start to tighten up, so he went to see his trainer. She was able to isolate his lower abs and pinpoint them (their weakness) as the problem. Strengthening the lower abdominal muscles took the pressure off his legs, especially the hamstrings, and he was able to keep playing. Say what you want about him being lousy these days, but the fact of the matter is that Finley's stuck around til age 42, while 20% of the Yankees' major league roster either is or has been on the DL with the same injury this year. OSmething tells me the new strength and conditioning coaches are asleep on the job.

The other problem plaguing the Yankees this year, particularly the pitching staff, is elbow trouble. Jose Veras was the closer in AA Trenton last year, and he had surgery in the off season to clean bone fragments out of his elbow, and it hasn't totally healed. So we'll give the Conditioning coaches a mulligan on that one. Humberto Sanchez, the top prospect from the Gary Sheffield trade, is reportedly going to be out all year after Tommy John surgery on his elbow. Karstens had a strained elbow as well, but was back from that only about a week before he got his leg broken by a batted ball. These are all young guys, and I don't know how much blame the coaches deserve for them, considering that they probably were not Veras' coach in Trenton Last year, or Karsten's coach in AAA Columbus, and they certainly could not have had anything to do with Sanchez, who was in AAA Toledo last year, in the Tigers' organization. Carl Pavano, with a strained forearm sustained in only his second start since June of 2005, has had all kinds of problems, this being the most recent, if not the most severe. One of the commenters on Peter Abraham's blog on LoHud.com had a different explanation for Pavano's scarcity in the Yankee rotation:

Cashman: Let me take you off the DL.

Carl: [with a small wave of his hand] You don’t need to take me off the DL.

Cashman: We don’t need to take him off the DL.

Carl: This isn’t the Pavano you are looking for.

Cashman: This isn’t the Pavano we are looking for.

Carl: He can go about his business.

Cashman: You can go about your business.

Carl: Send me my check

Cashman: Send his check… send it.

So maybe the midichloreans are the reason Pavano never pitches?

Rob Neyer makes the point that the Yankees can certainly come back from this and still succeed, even without their rookie phenom, though I'm sure that everyone who loves the Bronx Bombers hopes that he'll be back to phenominating as soon as possible. Heck, even if you hate the yankees, you can hardly begrudge Phil Hughes a chance to become a great pitcher. It's not his fault that they're the greatest team ever.

Neyer's right, of course. That's why he works for ESPN and you don't. The Yankees weren't counting on Phil Hughes before the season started, and they have enough talent that if those guys come back from their injuries (none of which is season-threatening) and play up to their capabilities, they should be able to overtake Boston in the AL East once again. But that's a big "if".

Regarding Hughes and his injury, Abrams makes the point that Hughes would not have gotten injured if he'd been in AAA last night. His reasoning is

The kid was pitching one hell of a game tonight. He was eight outs away from never having to buy another drink in his life. There’s Mark Teixeira 0-2 and waiting for the changeup that struck him out in the first inning. So Hughes was going to throw him the best curveball he had ever thrown.

Hughes told us [he] stepped too far in an attempt to really get on top of the pitch and throw it low. His momentum carried him downward, he got off balance and he tore his hamstring. Next time, and hopefully there is a next time, he will throw the pitch the right way.

Abrams then argues that since the pressure is lower in AAA Scranton, where Timo Perez hits #3 in the order for the bad-guys, Hughes would not have needed (or thought he needed) to do that. And Peter's probably right about that. But what he misses is that Hughes would likely have just gotten hurt whenever they called him up anyway, later in the season, and therefore closer to the postseason, when Hughes' skills would really be needed, assuming that the Yankees can actually make the postseason. If Hughes' injury was caused by an abandonment of his allegedly "perfect mechanics", the the first time he felt real pressure in a game, whether it was May in Texas, in June against the Mets, or September against the Red Sox, he was going to do the same thing, and he was, in all probability, going to pull that hamstring anyway. Perfect mechanics only help you if you remember to use them.

So, Yankee fans, be glad that Hughes hurt his hamstring last night, and that he can spend six weeks on the DL and still return before the All-Star Break, which was about as soon as the Yankees wanted to have to bring him up anyway. With some time off, and hopefull a lesosn learned at a very young age, Hughes should be as good as ever in late June or July, and with some (good) luck, the Yankees may even have a lead to protect in the AL East by then.

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