Vazquez vanishes again in pinstripes

Yankees pitcher Javier Vazquez is 1-4 with an 8.10 ERA this season.
(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

It was supposed to be different because he was supposed to be different. Ed Whitson and Kenny Rogers(notes) and Carl Pavano(notes) never could come back to New York again. They hated the city and the city hated them, a relationship of mutual revulsion. Javier Vazquez(notes), though? Well, Yankees fans slaughtered their figurative fatted calves upon his return this offseason.

Prodigal, unfortunately, he ain’t. The same Vazquez who toiled in mediocrity six years ago for the Yankees is back, and so as the biggest week of their season yet dawned, Yankees manager Joe Girardi for the second time this season said he was skipping Vazquez in the rotation.

No Javy in the two games against Boston. He will park his 8.10 earned-run average on the bench for the team’s first two games against its biggest threat, first-place Tampa Bay, too. Girardi will call upon him for the first game of the Yankees’ interleague series against the New York Mets. Perhaps a different borough – and a National League opponent – will treat him better.

Because until he proves otherwise, the prevailing thought – the Pinstripes are a pox on Vazquez – is as apropos as it was for the handful of other pitchers allergic to New York. The psychological often manifests itself physically, and for every time Vazquez pronounces his arm fine, the question arises: What, then, is causing the 2-mph dip in fastball velocity?

Pitching takes brain and body working in concert, and Vazquez’s are working like a ukulele and didgeridoo. And with the baseball world this week revolving around New York – and rightfully so – its eyes aren’t as much on the big stars as …

1. The one who seems as sick of the Yankee aura as anyone else, Javier Vazquez. And it’s not just the fastball velocity that’s his demise. Last season, Vazquez’s fastball was his third-most effective pitch, behind his curveball and changeup.

Vazquez’s hallmark, dynamite command, has disappeared. In 30 innings, he has walked 17. Last season, in 219 1/3 innings with Atlanta, he walked 44. Vazquez has allowed 37 hits, eight of them home runs. Among current starters, not one has a worse opponent OPS than Vazquez’s .962, and that’s after his most recent start, a seven-inning, two-run step in the right direction.

Girardi is giving Vazquez nine days to think about how he can turn his last start into something sustained. Last year, when the Yankees subsisted on three consistent starters, it would’ve been problematic. Today, it’s perfectly fine …

2. As long as Phil Hughes(notes) makes the reliever-to-starter transition look this easy. No starter – not even Ubaldo Jimenez(notes) – has silenced bats like Hughes, the 23-year-old who entered this season with an 8-9 record and 5.22 ERA as a starter.

Opponents are hitting .165 against him, the lowest batting average off a starter. They are slugging .203, also the lowest in the majors. In 39 innings, Hughes has allowed 22 hits, only three for extra bases, and his 1.38 ERA leads the AL.

After his rebirth last season in the bullpen, Hughes pilfered another Yankee’s signature pitch and watched it grow into one of the big leagues’ best. He started throwing a cut fastball, the pitch Mariano Rivera(notes) perfected. And this year, he employs it more than a quarter of the time – and, according to FanGraphs data, better than anybody, like …

3. Tim Lincecum(notes) and his world-class changeup. It’s every bit the pitch it was the last two years when he won the NL Cy Young award, which is what makes it so frightening to think Lincecum may be better now than he has ever been.

Tim Lincecum

Between Lincecum, Roy Halladay(notes), Ubaldo Jimenez and Adam Wainwright(notes), the race for the Cy Young is fierce earlier than any time in recent memory. The first three continue to own ERAs below 2.00 nearly six weeks into the season, where they’re joined by guys who, in all likelihood, won’t remain by June: Jaime Garcia(notes), Livan Hernandez(notes) and Jon Garland(notes).

Jimenez leads this week’s 10 best pitching matchups, opposing another player putting up all sorts of good numbers.

Ubaldo Jimenez vs. Roy Oswalt(notes), Thursday
Francisco Liriano(notes) vs. Jon Lester(notes), Thursday
Jered Weaver(notes) vs. C.J. Wilson(notes), Tuesday
John Danks(notes) vs. Justin Verlander(notes), Tuesday
Josh Beckett(notes) vs. CC Sabathia(notes), Tuesday
Wade LeBlanc(notes) vs. Cliff Lee(notes), Friday
Phil Hughes vs. Mike Pelfrey(notes), Saturday
Jonathan Sanchez(notes) vs. Mat Latos(notes), Tuesday
Kevin Correia(notes) vs. Clayton Kershaw(notes), Thursday
Tommy Hanson(notes) vs. Mike Leake(notes)

4. Off of whom Andre Ethier(notes) hit his fifth home run of the season, one of his six go-ahead homers for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Leake starts Thursday. When Ethier next can play remains unknown.

Ethier, leading the NL in all three Triple Crown categories (as well as on-base and slugging percentages), broke his right pinkie during batting practice Saturday in a freak injury. He wasn’t hit by an errant pitch. A small bone simply cracked during a swing.

He sat out Sunday and will get his hand examined this week by a specialist. He could be back soon. He could hit the disabled list. The Dodgers are baseball’s hottest team, having won seven straight to creep within two games of NL West-leading San Diego, and they need Ethier almost as much as …

Ichiro Suzuki

5. Seattle needs Ichiro Suzuki(notes). Before an 0-for-4 showing Sunday against Matt Garza(notes) and a potpourri of Tampa Bay relievers, Ichiro was on a typical Ichiro jag: 17 for 30, to raise his average from .308 to .360. At one point, he went 26 at-bats without a strikeout.

Ichiro is 36, and perhaps because he’s buried in the Pacific Northwest, or perhaps because his team has devolved into stories about Milton Bradley’s(notes) mental issues and Ken Griffey Jr.’s(notes) narcolepsy, we do not properly appreciate him. So do yourself a favor: Watch one game of Ichiro’s this season, just to remember how different he is, how finesse mastered can blow us away just as easily as …

6. A fastball from Joel Zumaya(notes). He’s back to his old antics: throwing a baseball harder than any human being ever has. Though Bob Feller and Steve Dalkowski may disagree, Zumaya’s fastball deserves recognition from the Guinness book as the fastest – single-pitch (104 mph) and consistent categories.

He’s averaging 99.1 mph this year – a tick lower than last season velocity-wise but infinitely more effective. Last season, hitters teed off on Zumaya’s fastball. This year, they can’t touch it, a rather good description for all the other pitches thrown by his Detroit bullpen mates.

Tigers relievers threw 3 1/3 scoreless innings Sunday, lowering their ERA to 2.45. Between Zumaya (1.90 ERA, 26-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio) and Jose Valverde(notes) (0.51 ERA, seven hits in 17 2/3 innings), Detroit’s eighth-and-ninth-inning punch has been the game’s best. The Tigers are six games above .500 due in large part to their bullpen …

Juan Gutierrez

7. While the Arizona Diamondbacks are eight games below .500 because of Juan Gutierrez(notes) and theirs. Fine, so it’s not fair to single out Gutierrez. Bob Howry(notes), Blaine Boyer(notes), Esmerling Vasquez(notes) and closer Chad Qualls(notes) deserve a scarlet A for awful (or H for horrendous or E for embarrassing). Really, an entire alphabet’s worth of epithets wouldn’t aptly describe the misery that grips the Diamondbacks’ relievers.

Six runs in 3 2/3 innings Sunday bumped their collective ERA more than a quarter run, to 7.68. It’s the worst mid-May ERA for a bullpen since the Cubs’ was at 7.65 on May 15, 2000, according to the Arizona Republic. And to think, for only $1.5 million …

8. The Diamondbacks – actually, anyone – could’ve had Jose Contreras(notes). Or, as he’s now known, closer for the best team in the NL.

The 38-year-old’s ascent to ace reliever for Philadelphia took a descent last season, when the Chicago White Sox tired of his helter-skelter performances and sent him to Colorado. The Rockies experimented with him as a reliever toward the end of the season, and his fastball’s giddy-up returned. It sits at 95 mph today, and with a reinvigorated split-fingered fastball and slider that has turned into more of a cutter, the re-imagined Contreras took the job from Brad Lidge(notes), who is turning into …

9. More of an injury risk than Nick Johnson(notes).

OK, no he isn’t.

Nick Johnson

Johnson needs to retire from baseball, commiserate with M. Night Shyamalan and star in a new movie: “Breakable.” He landed on the disabled list this week for the 10th time in his career. In December, when the Yankees signed Johnson, GM Brian Cashman told the Daily News: “We’re going to go into the laboratory and experiment with the ability to provide him with most of his playing time in the DH slot and see if that provides a higher degree of health.”

The lab blew up this week. Johnson received a cortisone shot in hopes that his season isn’t over. If it is, he’ll have banked $5.5 million for 12 hits, 24 walks and a .694 OPS. Though he is the biggest Yankees disappointment this season …

10. Time remains for Javier Vazquez to catch him. Already he has played himself into general irrelevance, the fifth starter drawing a short straw down the stretch and come playoff time. Among Sabathia, Andy Pettitte(notes) and A.J. Burnett(notes), the Yankees have a trio of proven postseason starters, and Hughes certainly is pitching himself into the fourth slot.

Which makes not just Friday’s start at Citi Field but the next few so imperative for Vazquez. He can play things the way he did in 2004, his lone season in the Bronx: get worse as the year wanes, finish with a thud and skulk along to another team. Or he can do what Sabathia and Burnett did and what Hughes is doing: embrace New York, love it, live it and learn that an arm as gifted as his can only go so far when the brain is playing Ke$ha instead of Mozart.

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, May 16, 2010