Phil Hughes and Putting It All Together

When the Yankees drafted Phil Hughes with the 23rd overall pick back in 2004, the hope was that the young right-hander from California could become a dominant front line pitcher. Hughes did nothing but encourage those pie in the sky thoughts during his first 3 years in the minor leagues and by the start of the 2007 season he was considered to be one of the elite prospects in all of baseball by the likes of Keith Law, Baseball America, and others. His fastball was considered to be the best in the minor leagues, his curve rated as a plus secondary offering and his control was 2nd to none.

By the middle of the 2010 season those scouting reports were looking rather spot on. Hughes had blossomed into an 18 game winner with a solidly above average strikeout/walk ratio and a new pitch, a cutter, to boot. But there were also some rather ominous warning signs laced into that 18-win campaign. Hughes posted a 4.90 ERA over the 2nd half of the season, had a gaudy home run rate and a chunk of that sparkly 18-8 record was owed to the fact that the Yankees’ offense put up 6.75 runs per game during his starts. But even with those minor nitpicks, that front line starter talent was starting to show through. Hughes just hadn’t put the entire package together quite yet.

Well, here we are 3 years later and we’re still waiting for a soon to be 27-year-old Phil Hughes to figure it all out. Since that All-Star tease in 2010, the Yankees homegrown right-hander has seemingly gone in reverse, or at the very least he’s been stuck in neutral, going 24-24 with a 4.76 ERA (89 ERA+).

What’s even more problematic for the Yankees is the fact that hitters are teeing off on Hughes’ once vaunted fastball. Opposing batters are absolutely raking Hughes’ fastball (which has lost about 1 mile per hour since 2010) over the coals, hitting .337 with 10 homers against the pitch. That average was over 100 points lower during Hughes’ All-Star campaign in 2010 he was striking out 3 batters per every walk on the fastball compared to 2 per every 1 this year. That’s a massive, massive issue for a pitcher who relies on his fastball nearly 2/3rds of the time.

Hughes has attempted to compensate for his lack of fastball success by adding a new slider into the mix. Hughes has already found the pitch to be one of his favorites and he’s opted to throw it more than 20% of the time after never really using it before. Hitters haven’t fared well against the slider, batting just .173 in 81 at-bats, but it hasn’t exactly translated into much overall success.

What’s got me even more worried is the fact that Hughes doesn’t appear to know who he wants to be as a pitcher anymore. He’s tried to remake his career on the fly this season, scraping that once valuable but oft maligned cutter for a brand new slider. Hughes has already found the pitch to be one of his favorites and he’s opted to throw it more than 20% of the time after never really using it before. Hitters haven’t fared well against the slider, batting just .173 in 81 at-bats, but it hasn’t exactly translated into much overall success in the run prevention department. The reason, you ask? Hughes has basically become a 2-pitch pitcher.

When an opposing pitcher decides to throw just 2 offerings nearly 85% of the time, it makes a hitter’s job at the plate rather easy, especially when those two pitches move in completely different ways and are thrown at completely different velocities, as is the case with a fastball and slider. Hughes’ slider is about 11 miles per hour slower than his fastball which is an extremely large difference at the Major League level and a dead giveaway to hitters, which is why they are teeing off. It’s just easier to hit when you know what’s coming.

Now, whether Phil Hughes can make some adjustments to fix these issues remains to be seen. Hughes needs to start working some of his other secondary pitches into the mix more often, even if those pitches aren’t all that good themselves. Hughes has a cutter, a curve, and a change-up and while none of those pitches are going to rack up the K’s anytime soon, they all have the potential to keep hitters off-balance. If Hughes opted to use just one of the pitches a few times again instead of opting back to the fastball again and again and again, who knows? It may be just the thing to get him back on track.

Big thanks to Baseball Reference and BrooksBaseball.net for all of their glorious stats.

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22 Comments on "Phil Hughes and Putting It All Together"

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Fireworks
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In 2010 Hughes had that run when he was great. Then hitters would foul off his pitches a ton until he made a mistake. He just doesn’t have an out pitch. You’re right; he needs a better mix. And he needs something low in the zone. Sometimes it comes together and he looks like a two/three but more often he looks like a spot starter replacing an injured five.

Fireworks
Guest

Did I forget to say he misses in the zone a lot? He misses in the zone a lot. At this point in his career he has been (for a while) a pitcher of the sort that you learn all you need to know about that day’s start just by seeing what the score is after two innings. At least that’s how it seems to me.

Ed
Guest

Slight correction…according to Baseball Reference, Hughes was taken 23rd in the draft.

Anyway, if Hughes doesn’t improve he will likely be viewed as a disappointment, particularly by Yankee fans. And yet he currently ranks 8th in career WAR among the 41 first rounders in 2004.

mosc
Guest

I have mixed feelings about Huges. My suspicion is his fastball and breaking stuff are easily distinguished off the hand. His fastball actually has a nice 2 seam/sinking action and was sitting 91-94 mph last night, decent velocity. For some reason when he goes up with it, hitters don’t seem to miss. Lots of guys regularly throw high fastballs, even with less velocity. I’m not sure why Huge’s high fastball is so easy to pick up when worrying about a very good curveball he has above average control with.

Fireworks
Guest
Hughes’ high fastball was really nice during that run in 2010 but thereafter it seemed to be most useful to extend ABs by batters fouling it off. When he’s really off he misses with it and it’s just… Both Hughes and Nova have the stuff to be better than this but they just miss in the zone waaaaay too much. You don’t often see them pitching and say, “well, that was a piece of good hitting.” Looking at Sabathia’s year so far and he’s getting dinged by the homers in Hughes’ fashion–first time he’s really been giving up the gopher… Read more »
Fireworks
Guest

Correction: It’s amazing how he [Vernon Wells] can hit like he should maybe be an all-star for a while and then hit like a guy who would wash out of class A for a while.

Ed
Guest

Fireworks: Fangraphs had a great article on Vernon Wells the other day:

http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/three-thoughts-on-one-vernon-wells/

RJ
Guest

For me, the most incredible point in that article was Joey Votto’s lack of pop-ups. Two pop-ups since the start of 2010?!

bstar
Guest

I’m really, really in awe of that stat as well, RJ. Seems almost impossible to have that few.

mosc
Guest
See, some of this I just don’t know what to make of. Huge’s fastball has decent control, decent velocity, and quite a bit of movement. He throws two distinct curves, the 12-6 slow breaking ball is rarely a strike but he also doesn’t hang it very much. His tighter, and much harder curveball (typically 82-85mph) he as well above average control with and can throw it for strikes or as an out pitch. The slider is new and getting attention and it’s not a bad pitch either. He even throws it to lefties on occasion. Not much break but it’s… Read more »
mosc
Guest
On Nova, he has the best 2 seamer movement I’ve ever seen bar none (and gets it over at 93 to boot) but he also has significant control problems. His slider looked like a saving grace since his curveball could not be counted on to find the strike zone but I don’t think he got solid enough to use it as regularly as he should. Neither his 2 seamer or his curve are particularly good control pitches either. Nova looks like a starter to me but he’s got significant work left to do. I also think he could be very… Read more »
RJ
Guest

“You don’t consistenly give up about 20 a year for over a decade and then turn into a homer a start sort of guy.”

A similar thing is happening with Matt Cain this year. Career 0.8 HR/9, and never above 1.0 in any season, yet 1.4 HR/9 this year. I too can only imagine/hope its a blip.

Mike L
Guest

Bert Blyleven gave up 96 home runs combined in 1986/87 in 539 innings, or about 1.6 per 9. The rest of his career he gave up 334 in 4436 innings, or about 0.7 per 9. In 1986, when he gave of the all time record of 50, he also had the best SO/BB ratio in the league.

birtelcom
Editor
Hughes is almost mid-way through his age 27 year, with 117 career starts and a 97 ERA+, 603 Ks and 225 BBs. Very similar stats to Ricky Nolasco at the end of his age 27 season (2010): 115 career starts, 96 ERA+, 638 Ks, 169 BBs. Other guys with similar ERA+ numbers through age 27, and with career starts around what Hughes is likely to have by the end of this season: Shawn Estes, Gil Meche, Jim Perry (Gaylord’s brother), Jason Schmidt, Lynn McGlothen, Early Wynn. Pitchers with similar ERA+ numbers, and also high SO/BB ratios comparable to Hughes, through… Read more »
Mike L
Guest
If Hughes doesn’t have a much stronger second half, the Yankees are probably not going to make him a qualifying offer. But the risk of letting him go is that he will go to an NL team in a big ballpark and become a #2. Birtlecom’s comparison to Jeff Weaver is interesting. Weaver also had live stuff, and at times could be very hard to hit, but just couldn’t manage to sustain the package for any duration. If I were Cashman, I’d offer Hughes 2 years at $16M. Two years for him to work it out, and, assuming he stays… Read more »
Fireworks
Guest

Thanks for the link Ed. And Misc, that’s exactly what I was thinking about Hughes: he’ll end up in a big NL park and be a solid #2, especially when he doesn’t have a dinger a start staring back at him.

Fireworks
Guest

Mosc* autocorrect.

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[…] Hughes a good pitcher. He still has the same plain, old vanilla fastball and his secondary stuff is mostly underdeveloped. Hughes, even at his best, is still just a league average […]

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[…] Hughes a good pitcher. He still has the same plain, old vanilla fastball and his secondary stuff is mostly underdeveloped. Hughes, even at his best, is still just a league average […]

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