Josh Kalk of The Hardball Times posted an interesting article yesterday about the importance of throwing curveballs in conjunction with high fastballs. It is a fascinating read, as it gives some insight into the strategy of pitching, and provides some graphical evidence to analyze the concept of changing the hitter’s batting eye level. One of the players that he utilizes in his study is Phil Hughes:
Yankee prospect Phil Hughes is another interesting pitcher to track this with because of his large hump on his curveball. In fact, Hughes’ hump is the largest in the league by more than two inches. You would expect that Hughes would be throwing some high fastballs to help with the deception, but he didn’t once throw a high fastball followed by a curveball all year. In Hughes’ defense, his year was less than 40 innings but still you would have expected at least some high fastball/curveball sequences.
Hughes mowed down minor league hitters at every level, but he is still a very young pitcher. He also is almost exclusively a two-pitch pitcher (fastball/curveball) so he needs both pitches working to be successful. His curveball last year was over two runs100 worse than a league average curveball. Surprising considering how much scouts love the pitch and how much movement he gets with it.
It seems pretty clear that Hughes just doesn’t have the necessary deception yet and big league hitters are recognizing his curve and either laying off the pitch or hitting it hard. It is very possible that Hughes’ great movement was enough to fool minor league hitters and up until this point he never needed to properly disguise the pitch. With the Yankees’ rotation looking full after their offseason spending spree, it seems likely Hughes will start the year in Triple-A. He is likely to do well there as he has already shown he can get hitters out at that level, but without some tweaks, I would be very surprised if he had a lot of success at the major league level. Obviously, he is a very young pitcher and has a lot of time to make the proper changes, but it can be hard to work on something at a level where you don’t really need to use it to be successful.
That seems like a pretty ominous endictment of Hughes’ skill set. However, I think it does bring to light a few things that Hughes must focus upon to succeed at the MLB level. Firstly, he needs to work on his slider and changeup, as well as the cutter that he was supposedly tinkering with. Major League hitters are sitting on Phil’s curveball, and he needs to be able to disguise the pitch by using alternative breaking balls. If he can develop one more average pitch and another that can be used occasionally, the curveball can become the dominant out pitch that its degree of movement suggests it should be.
Another point suggested by Kalk is that Phil is not really going to learn much else at the MiLB level, as the hitters there are befuddled by the movement on the curve so that Phil does not need anything else. I think this is overstating matters, as I believe that the minors are the perfect arena for Phil to add pitches to his repertoire. The Yankees should set a quota each game in regard to types of pitches, so that he is forced to experiment with pitches other than his fastball and curveball. Once he has worked out the kinks on his third and fourth offerings, he can try his hand once again at deceiving major league hitters.
Ultimately, I think Phil is going to be a very good major league pitcher. However, success will not come without some tweaking of his pitching style and repertoire. Once he makes the necessary adjustments, he can start working on living up to the Phil Franchise moniker.
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