Let’s play a game. Here are the stat lines for two pitchers when they were 24 years old:
Pitcher A: 210 IP, 202 hits, 66 walks, 152 strikeouts, 3.21 ERA, 6.5 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, 2.30 K/BB, 3.64 FIP.
Pitcher B: 128 IP, 119 hits, 37 walks, 110 strikeouts, 3.92 ERA, 7.7 K/9, 2,6 BB/9, 2.97 K/BB, 3.87 FIP.
Pitcher A is Jon Lester. Pitcher B?
It’s a rare thing to see the Yankees to develop a starting pitcher. It takes time and patience, two currencies the Yankees rarely deal in. Somewhere in the bowels of the bullpen, Joba Chamberlain nods in agreement. Since Hughes’ injury-filled campaign in 2008, though, he’s made it easy for the Yankees. He pitched as one of the more dominant setup men in baseball in 2009 and stabilized the back end of the bullpen. This year, he converted to a starter with relative ease. There’s been no drama or injury; he has had a few bumps in the road but it’s no stretch to say that he’s been the club’s second or third best starter this year.
Tonight, Hughes will face off against the Royals in his 22nd start of the season. The fact that he has made it this far into the year is a relief for some Yankee fans who have wondered, quite legitimately, if Hughes would be the type of pitcher to make it through a full season of work. He still has a long way to go, but if everything holds steady we will see him reach around 175-180 innings this year and be prepared to start a full season of games with no innings restrictions in 2011. The idea of one of our young guys being able to go full-bore almost seems like a fantasy: fans have been hearing about innings caps and pitch counts and restrictions and rules almost constantly for the past three years with both Hughes and Chamberlain.
Yet Hughes chugs along, and for now Yankees fans can enjoy every start he makes as he creeps towards his innings cap. Hopefully no one ignores just how good Hughes has been this year, at this age, and in this role. Perhaps it will become easy for fans to forget the fact that he was just as good as Jon Lester at this age if Hughes starts to fatigue and tire under the heaviest workload of his career. But hopefully not. For me, every start for Hughes is a mini-celebration and every completed outing is a minor victory, another step in the right direction for a guy that always seemed just on the cusp of greatness “if only he could stay healthy”. I still watch every start with an odd combination of excitement and dread: happy about how good he really is but perpetually worried that he’ll crack a rib or pop a hamstring or walk off the mound with a grimace, shaking his arm. He still has a long way to go to get past the so-called “injury nexus” but there’s only one way to get there: one start a time, one inning at a time, one hard fastball or dancing cutter or deadly breaking ball at a time.
So enjoy it, and remember how far Phil Hughes has come.
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