The Stages Of Phil Hughes

Books, Games, Management, Media, Paul Lebowitz's 2011 Baseball Guide, Players, Spring Training

Given my predilection for predictions, here’s the template for what’s happened, is happening and will happen with struggling Yankees pitcher Phil Hughes. Like the stages of grief, it goes in segments.

I’m not here to diagnose. I’m here to observe and report; express and explain; serve and protect.

Stage 1—Explanatory Calm:

Going back to spring training there were whispers about Hughes’s alarming lack of velocity.

Being it was spring training, there was nothing to be concerned about, but clearly there was pause emanating from all parties as to why a seemingly healthy and well-protected 24-year-old couldn’t achieve previous heights with his fastball.

Contrary to popular belief, velocity isn’t the most important thing in a pitcher’s arsenal—provided he has the ancillary pitches and control to get by without it; Hughes has always been able to rely on a live fastball to get through if he needed it.

The Yankees hierarchy gave the cliché responses of not worrying, but obviously they’re worried. And they should be.

Stage 2—Game Circumstances:

Hughes got blasted by the Tigers in his first start; he got rocked by the Red Sox in his second start. He looked and said he was “lost” and is grasping for answers; clutching at that missing few inches on his fastball that’s so unexplainable in its appearance and disappearance.

Despite the idiotic talk from the likes of Buster Olney who said, via Twitter:

“You’d have to assume the Yankees will talk about replacing Hughes in their rotation with Colon; for whatever reason, Hughes has no weapons.”

The Yankees won’t replace Hughes as long as he’s healthy because they can’t replace Hughes.

Fastball or not, he has to pitch and hope his fastball comes back.

Stage 3—The Obvious Process:

The biggest hurdle with his fastball isn’t necessary the pitch itself; nor is it the diminished velocity.


The issue is that everyone, everywhere is talking about it and expressing their personal and uneducated opinions about what’s wrong with Hughes and how to repair it.

The Yankees themeselves aren’t saying what their diagnosis is—publicly. Perhaps there’s a lingering injury that won’t get any worse if he pitches through it, but is sabotaging his fastball. It could be to his lower body, his shoulder, his hips—we don’t know.

The relentless chatter will be a ghostly presence around Hughes as he climbs from his hole.

Chatter from the media; the fans; teammates; opponents—everyone—will make matters worse.

Desperation to regain what he lost will lead him to try too hard; to incorporate all the advice he receives and create a mishmash of techniques, movement and exercises; this will add to the confusion and self-doubt.

It won’t take long before someone suggests he head to the Florida Keys to engage in alligator wrestling under a full moon to regain his fastball.

And Hughes tries it.

I find if laughable that laypeople are diagnosing the Hughes “problem”.

Believe me when I say that Larry Rothschild and Joe Girardi know more about pitching than you do.

Maybe GM Brian Cashman would like to simplify matters and blame Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen. Although it didn’t fly with the Pedro Feliciano back-and-forth, it doesn’t mean you abandon the strategy after one failure. And last year, Dave Eiland was a convenient scapegoat for A.J. Burnett.

Stage 4—Panic and Reality:

The Yankees are not in a position to remove Hughes from the starting rotation if he’s healthy enough to pitch. Bartolo Colon looked good yesterday, but he’s 38; has a long injury-history and hasn’t been a regular part of a big league club’s starting rotation since 2005. Do you really believe he’s the answer? The answer to questions that were present before the Hughes enigma?

As for Freddy Garcia, the Yankees are making painstaking gymnastic flips to prevent him from pitching; I recently said that Garcia won’t last past May-June in a Yankees uniform, but he might hang around if he never pitches.

Neither Colon nor Garcia are long-or-short term answers for an absent Hughes.

Stage 5—Fallout:

The Yankees are in deep, deep trouble without Phil Hughes delivering some semblance of what he did last year. Their 2011 starting rotation was woefully short with Hughes pitching up to his potential.


Now what?

Their bullpen-based strategy was contingent on getting length from CC Sabathia, Burnett and Hughes; Ivan Nova is gutty and looked good in his first start, but they don’t know what they’ll get from him over the course of the season; and the fifth starter—Garcia—hasn’t been used yet.

Pushing the bullpen hard to account for another pitcher in their rotation is going to exhaust its reserves by mid-season. Girardi overmanages anyway and with the finger on the button of pulling his starter to win games with Hughes as well, they’re going to blow out.

The Yankees will have no choice but to start scouring baseball for starting pitching. Presumably this will be after giving Kevin Millwood a chance. Teams know the desperation; they’re aware of the Yankees farm system; Felix Hernandez is not available.

What then?

Will they find themselves in a dogfight for a playoff spot at the trading deadline (or sooner) and have to ante up more than they want to for a James Shields? Ryan Dempster? Carlos Zambrano? Fausto Carmona? Chris Carpenter?

And what if the bullpen is shot by mid-season? They’re going to need relievers too.

The Yankees have a problem here.

A big one.

Currently, they can wait and use what they have to get through the Hughes starts, hoping that his fastball and confidence reappear just as miraculously/disturbingly as they vanished.

After that, then what?

What if it doesn’t come back?

What if he’s hurt?

What are they going to do?


Paul Lebowitz’s 2011 Baseball Guide is available and will be useful for your fantasy leagues all season long. It’s not a “preview”; it’s a guide.

I published a full excerpt of my book here.

It’s available now. Click here to get it in paperback or E-Book on I-Universe or on Amazon or BN. It’s also available via E-book on

It’s also out on Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble Nook.

If anyone would like to purchase an autographed copy, leave a comment; Email me; contact me on Facebook or Twitter. We’ll hash out the details.

I’ve started a Facebook fan page if you’d like to check it out.



And When I Slam Down The Hammer…

Spring Training

…can you feel it in your heart?

Much appreciation for the title to the patron saint of the misérables, Morrissey.

Being it’s simultaneously Valentine’s Day and the opening of spring training camps all over baseball, it’s time for me to do what I do best—yank the hearts out of the collective chests of overly-enthusiastic (in some cases delusional; in some cases addled) fans and media members, give them a brutal dose of reality and show them their still beating hearts before they hit the ground.

As teams outlooks evolve, there will undoubtedly be others added to this list to shatter their myths, but pitchers and catchers have just reported; the spring is still young!!

Give it time.

The “gurus” don’t have all the answers:

Dave Duncan is quite possibly the best pitching coach ever and he’s had his failures. Rick Ankiel and Todd Van Poppel come immediately to mind. Both had their own issues that couldn’t be solved by a simple tweak here and there. Ankiel was a time bomb and even though Tony La Russa and Duncan played a part in the expedited explosion in the 2000 playoffs, it was going to happen regardless; Van Poppel’s stuff wasn’t that good.

Duncan’s work with so many pitchers gives him the cachet to be anointed as the best at what he does, but it’s not as if he never misses.

Larry Rothschild is being doled similar accolades as a pitching coach now; the Yankees are pinning their hopes on him “straightening out” A.J. Burnett more than anyone else.

Here’s a flash: no matter how well Burnett and Rothschild “connected” when they met after Rothschild was hired, the only person who can straighten out Burnett is Burnett; and if you think that the pitcher Burnett has been since he arrived in the big leagues—oft-injured; running the gamut between unhittable and awful with little in-between deviation—is “fixed” because of a new pitching coach, forget it.

The pitching coach can only do so much and one has to wonder how much front office interference he was willing to accept when he took the job. It’s not Rothschild’s decision as to how many innings Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova are going to pitch; it’s GM Brian Cashman and his charts, graphs and medical reports used as a basis to “protect” their young arms that will determine how they’re deployed. Rothschild will have a say, but Cashman has become so wood-headed and invested in the organizational edicts and adherence to numbers that he’s got the last word.

Presumably an old-school pitching coach like Rothschild wouldn’t be totally on board with it, but sometimes one has to go along to get along.

Rick Peterson’s status as a “fixer” wore out with the Mets and was inconsistent with the Brewers; Leo Mazzone—supposedly the architect of the great Braves staffs in the 1990s—can’t find a job. You can list the names and question their results because the only way you know whether something worked is when it actually does work.

If Burnett pitches well, Rothschild will get the credit; if he doesn’t, who gets the blame? It won’t be the pitching coach because the history with Burnett is right there in black and white—he is what he is whether he wins 18 games or goes 12-16.

Place the responsibility where it belongs—on the individual—and we won’t know until we know.

A means to an end:

Orioles fans who are excited over their improved lineup and the full-season presence of Buck Showalter had better understand that: A) they don’t have enough pitching to compete; B) the division they’re in is an utter nightmare; and C) while Vladimir Guerrero‘s contribution to the team will reverberate for years to come, it won’t help them much in 2011.

Showalter’s history of turning his clubs around in his second year on the job aside, you can’t deny the facts.

Much like a hitter can make a “productive out” with a sacrifice fly or ground ball to the right side of the infield to advance a baserunner, the Orioles can have a productive season despite losing 95 games.

If the young players are taught to respect the game and play it in a fundamentally sound, team-oriented fashion, this will be something to build on in years to come when they are ready to take that next step.

Guerrero, with his leadership and positive attitude, can greatly assist in this as a conduit between the manager and the players on how they should comport themselves on and off the field.

The talk from the likes of Keith Law that Guerrero is “in the toaster” if not already “toast” is all well and good (and I don’t agree with it), but the team would lose 95 games without him; they’re probably going to lose 95 games with him.

That’s irrelevant in the long-term. If some of the younger players learn something about winning from Guerrero and it helps them in 2014, then it was a worthwhile signing.

Albert Pujols is not going to the Cubs:

MLB Trade Rumors has this rundown of the increasingly contentious Pujols negotiations here.

Joel Sherman of the NY Post chimes in that an executive told him that Pujols could go to the Cubs.

Did Sherman write that thing on a napkin at Michael Kay’s wedding? Stuffed with plentiful portions of chicken parm? Shocked by the fact that someone is marrying Michael Kay without a shotgun to her head?

It’s almost to the point that the only time Sherman writes something intelligent is when he’s repeating something I’d said days earlier.

Here’s a flash: Albert Pujols is not going to the Cubs.

No way.

No how.

This would be tantamount to Derek Jeter going to the Mets or Willie Mays to the Dodgers.

Money aside, Pujols would never be able to return to St. Louis. Ever.

The betrayal would be so profound; so ingrained that even the instinctively supportive Cardinals fans—for whom memories of their stars are part of the organizational fabric and inherent to the rapport between club and fan—would turn on him.

The Cubs?


If—if—things go terribly for the Cardinals and Pujols, there are much more appealing options for him and for fans of the Cardinals. The Dodgers, if they get their ownership straightened out; the Mets, if they get their ownership straightened out; the Angels; the Tigers; the Nationals—all are more agreeable locales for Pujols to land than the Cardinals most despised rivals, the Cubs.

Plus if you add in the histories of the respective franchises and how many times the Cubs have made that one move that was supposed to spur them to break the hex that has relegated them to a running joke for 100 years, not even Pujols can cure them.

If he wants to get paid above anything else, I suppose that it’s possible; but isn’t the team-oriented concept why Pujols is so respected whereas Alex Rodriguez was always seen as a mercenary who was only interested in himself?

There never appeared to be a pretense with Pujols; but now that the media is running with the stories of how poorly the negotiations are going; that the club and player are far apart; that there won’t be any talks after the player-imposed deadline and a refusal to allow any talk of a mid-season trade, it’s spiraling out of control.

I still believe, ultimately, he’ll stay with the Cardinals; but if he leaves it won’t be for the Cubs.

If your heart is still safe in your chest, beating as normally because your team wasn’t included in this missive, rest assured I may have something coming very, very soon to drive the electric current of Force Lightning through your entire body.

It’s spring training.

And I’m getting ready for the season too.