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.