Pardon the vague literary reference (bonus points if you can guess the book; hint: I’m currently grading a metric ton of papers about it).
Though he will turn only 25 in June, it feels like Phil Hughes has been a Yankee forever. Drafted in 2004, he made his Major League debut in 2007 and his Major League career has essentially been a roller coaster since. Let’s start, as most stories do, at the beginning.
I don’t remember it when the Yankees drafted Phil Hughes. At all. It was June 2004, so I was just wrapping up my junior year of high school. I cared about the Yankees, but knew nothing about the minor league system, except for what I read in the MiL section of the programs I bought when I went to games in the Bronx. But during my senior year of high school and freshman/sophomore years of college, I dug more into the Internet and started to hear the “echoing footsteps” (hint again!) of this guy named “Hughes” (and some dudes named “Kennedy” and “Chamberlain” shortly thereafter).
Suddenly, I just knew this guy was the next big thing for the Yankees. I knew this was the guy who was going to head up the rotation for my formative Yankee fan years. Looking at the numbers from 2005 and 2006 I was in awe at what Hughes did to the South Atlantic League, the Florida State League, and the Eastern League. We were all sucked up in this dominance. Finally, the Yankees were going to have another homegrown pitcher in the rotation in the near future.
2007 saw Hughes make his Major League debut, get injured during a no hitter attempt, and pitch in a game that was/is part of history. All told, 2007 saw Hughes toss 72.2 league average innings (4.46 ERA, 102 ERA+) with a respectable (4.35 FIP), and good (1.280 WHIP, 7.2 K/9) and passing (3.6 BB/9, 1.0 HR/9) peripherals. We were pumped. We were elated. There was nothing left for Hughes to do in the minors and in 2008, he would start his ascent (ascension?) to starting pitching stardom.
The 2007-2008 offseason saw Hughes as a piece of trade bait and there was a constant threat, until the Mets fixed the problem, that Hughes would be traded as part of a package to the Minnesota Twins for Johan Santana. Brian Cashman and Company showed incredible faith and patience in Hughes (and the foresight to go after CC Sabathia for just money the next offseason) and refused to deal him for the game’s best pitcher at the time. We were all high on Hughes.
Then, 2008 happened. Hughes was ineffective and injured and pitched only eight games during the season. Five of his first six starts (all April) were terrible; start number one was the exception. Phil also made two September starts that were solid at the least. For the first time in his career, we saw Hughes fail. The luster wore just a little bit; the halo of St. Phil dimmed slightly. We–finally–tempered our expectations for Hughes.
In 2009, we saw Phil rejoin the Yankee rotation after starting the year in the minors. We were disappointed when he had to join the bullpen upon Chien Ming Wang’s return to the team after Joba Chamberlain was hit by a line drive, but we were happy with the results Hughes turned in while he was handing the ball to Mariano Rivera in the late innings.
After he won the fifth starter’s job in the competition during Spring Training 2010, he came out of the gate blasting. From April 15-June 8,, Hughes pitched nearly 70 innings of 2.71 ERA ball and held opponents to an OPS under .600. From June 13 on, he pitched to a 5.51 ERA and opponents OPS’d nearly .800 off of him. We were annoyed with the inconsistency, but it was normal. He was an early 20′s pitcher in his first full season as a starter in the sport’s toughest division. There were improvements to be made—the development of a changeup, better mixing of pitches–but we were confident that he could make them.
Now, after two starts in 2011, some are starting to seriously doubt Hughes and wonder what’s wrong with him and how much longer the Yankees will be able to keep running him out there every five days before they take him out. We, as Yankee fans, tend to be a very “gut reaction” group. I’ve tried to get better at that and if you’re reading this, chances are you are, too. TYA is pretty dedicated to acting logical and rational in our analysis of the Yankees rather than visceral. With this situation, though, it’s hard not to have a somewhat emotional reaction. For better or worse, we’ve all worshiped at the altar of Phil Hughes for a while now. Hell, we anointed him “the Phranchise.” In our defense, though, he gave us good reason. So when we see him struggle, it forces us to ask questions not only about him, but about ourselves. Did we buy in too early? Did we buy in too hard? After our love-affair with this pitcher, we can’t help but just react when he does badly. Couple that with the fact that we expect constant results from the Yankees on the field and you’ve got a volatile mixture: a pitcher performing below what we expect AND it’s hurting the team. It sucks. We all want a quick fix, and any team’s fanbase would.
Certainly, I can see the logic behind the emotional reaction that has led to the (somewhat vocal) calls for Hughes to be removed from the rotation. He’s got no velocity, he’s got no location, and he’s not fooling anyone; he’s had only three swings-and-misses in his two starts this year (glove slap to Craig Calcaterra for that one). Still, I think it would be more logical for us to wait at least two more starts on Hughes. Why? Well, even with two starts that were just awful, it’s still just two starts. For all we know, he could crush it in his next five starts and make us forget about the first two. I’m also keeping my faith in Hughes’ talent. That may be dangerous, but I think it’s worth the risk.
We’ve seemingly been everywhere we could with Hughes in the last seven calender years. We’ve ridden high on his prospect status and we’ve drooled over his potential. We’ve sweetened and soured on his actual results…and his potential again. The question is, where are we going with Hughes? I haven’t the slightest clue.
If I said right now that I wasn’t even a little low on Hughes, I’d be lying to you and I’d prefer not to do that. I think there are considerable issues that still need to be addressed (again, the extra pitches he needs, the mixing of those pitches, the putting away of hitters, now the velocity) and I know I’m not alone in that sentiment. My faith in Phil’s talent, though, outweighs those concerns for the time being. As it always is with baseball, though, that balance could be tipped very easily over the course of the 2011 season.
We are at a crossroads with Phil Hughes and a path is most definitely diverging in a pinstriped wood. The road to this point hasn’t been without its rocks, cracks, potholes, and detours and the road ahead will have the same problems; of that, I am most definitely sure. The question remains, though, will it be the road many have taken, upon which the majority has fallen? Or will it be the road less traveled? Either way, we’re in for a hell of a ride on the back of number 65.
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