This post kicks off the first of what will be a four-part series taking a deep, PitchFX-fueled look at each of the five pitches Phil Hughes threw during the 2010 season.
Everyone knows Hughes was primarily a three-pitch pitcher in 2010 — 57% four-seamers, 18% cutters and 17% curveballs. As Hughes threw each of these pitches in all 32 starts (including three postseason starts) he made in 2010, these three pitches will each merit their own post. The fourth and final post of this series will look at Hughes’ two-seamer and elusive changeup (each thrown roughly 3% of the time).
Today we’ll review Hughes’ primary weapon — the Four-Seam Fastball. According to Fangraphs, Hughes had the 12th-most valuable fastball among righthanders in 2010, with a wFB of 14.9 runs above average. If we filter that list to AL-only, Phil had the fourth-most valuable wFB among righthanders, trailing only Trevor Cahill, Felix Hernandez and Clay Buchholz. So yeah, while there were certainly aspects of Hughes’ 2010 that we’ll look for The Franchise to improve upon, one of the things that clearly went very right for him was his four-seamer.
The below chart maps the horizontal and vertical breaks of Hughes’ four-seamer by start throughout the season, and compares them to both Hughes’ seasonal average break for the pitch as well as the MLB seasonal average for the pitch.
All of the data I collected, including a comprehensive game-by-game breakdown of the results of the average breaks for each of the pitches in all of Hughes’ starts, is available for download here.
The MLB average horizontal break during the 2010 regular season for a righthanded fastball was -5.30, while the vertical break was 8.60. As you can see from the above chart, Phil spent much of the season throwing a four-seamer that broke considerably further inside than the average MLB fastball, while averaging about an inch-and-a-half more height (10.18 inches) than the average MLB four-seamer (8.60 inches).
Interestingly, if you take a look at the aforelinked spreadsheet (which I strongly encourage you to download), you can see partially why Hughes got killed in both of his playoff starts in Texas — he wasn’t locating his four-seamer. After throwing a robust four-seamer against the Twins in ALDS Game 3 (-5.74 horizontal, 9.01 vertical), Hughes’ control of his four-seamer abandoned him, as his average horizontal break in Texas on October 16 dipped to -3.98, while his average vertical break rose all the way to 11.53. Though he pitched slightly better on October 22, his avg. H-break dipped even further to -3.28 and he was still finishing too high, at an average of 10.44 inches.
For this next box, I binned each of Hughes’ 29 regular season starts into “good” and “bad” pools, based on the linear weight results he recorded on the pitch for that game. The “good” pool consists of all of the games in which Phil recorded negative linear weights on his fastball (per Brooks Baseball), which occurred 20 times. The “bad” pool consists of all of the games in which Phil recorded positive linear weights, which happened nine times. For whatever reason, Brooks does not have PitchFX data for Hughes’ start May 28 start against Cleveland, and so I can’t say with 100% certainty what the linear weights were on any of Hughes’ pitches for that game, but given that it was a gem (7IP, 5H, 2ER, 8K, 1BB, 109P) I feel comfortable including it in the “good” pile.
“Best” is of course the game in which he recorded the best linear weights on the fastball (-3.4513), which was on June 2 against Baltimore (7IP, 6H, 1ER, 7K, 1BB, 101P). His “worst” linear weights for the fastball (3.8165) came against (surprise, surprise) Toronto on August 25 — also not surprisingly his shortest outing of the season, a game in which he got shelled for five runs in 3.2 innings.
When Hughes is going really good, he has about 0.40 less horizontal movement than usual (average), and 0.20 less height. These numbers are so infinitesimally small as to be essentially worthless. However, in his “bad” starts, Phil typically threw his fastball nearly 0.80 inches further inside, which is, I suppose, slightly more demonstrable, while elevating his fastball about 0.40 inches higher than average. However, in his “best” start he threw his fastball both further inside and higher than average, so it’s probably best to take this information with a grain of salt.
Ultimately what I would take away from this — and keep this in mind in the subsequent posts in this series — is that it’s best to look at Phil’s average breaks in tandem. If he’s got slightly less than six inches of horizontal break and is also living in the vicinity of 10 inches of vertical break, he should be in good shape.
It doesn’t matter if he only has one of those things — in the August 25 game at Toronto, his horizontal break was -5.51, which might make one think “oh, I wonder why he got hit so hard,” but then you’d take notice of the fact that his vertical break was 13.01, or about three inches higher than Hughes’ seasonal average and conclude that it wasn’t surprising that he got smacked around that game after all.
I do want to take a moment and acknowledge that individually analyzing pitches in this vein isn’t necessarily going to give us the complete picture of why Hughes succeeded or failed in a given game, and that ultimately the forthcoming posts in this series should be read in concert with each other. That being said, in Hughes’ case, if he didn’t have his good four-seamer in 2010, there was a pretty good chance he was toast.
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