As those of you who read my game recap know, a funny thing happened on the way to Phil Hughes delivering his first strong outing of the season on Sunday. Following the game, I noticed that his curveball — the one that he told everyone he was going to revert back to utilizing his original grip on, an admission that I was admittedly pretty skeptical of — had racked up -1.1172 linear weights*.
A quick check of the spreadsheet I pulled together this past offseason that contains ridiculous amounts of data from every start Hughes made in 2010 for a series of PitchFX posts breaking Hughes down pitch-by-pitch confirmed that this linear weights tally was better than his curveball in every single start he made least season.
A few days later I went back and checked the game logs for Hughes’ starts in 2009 and 2008 (unfortunately there isn’t reliable PitchFX data for 2007), and it turned out that Hughes’ -1.1172 linear weights from this past Sunday’s game was his third-best ever among the data set available — the only starts he registered better linear weights on the curveball were his final two in 2009 — May 25 against Texas (-1.1946) and May 31 against Cleveland (-1.3905). He was then transitioned to relief and of course pitched out of the bullpen the remainder of that season.
I decided to put together a table showing Hughes’ average linear weights for the curve from his starts during the 2008 season, 2009 season, 2010 season, April 2011 and then the individual linear weights from his two starts back (July 6 and July 17) since returning from the DL.
Now according to Fangraphs, Hughes’ wCB hit a career-high in 2007 at 2.1 runs above average. Brooks and Fangraphs do not utilize the same pitchFX data, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that his 2007 avg. linear weights were probably roughly in the -2.1000 vicinity, which would make ’07 his most effective curveball year — anecdotally you probably wouldn’t get too many people to disagree with you. However, even without having the exact data available, it’s pretty clear his curveball this past Sunday was among the best it’s ever been.
So what changed?
Horizontal- and Vertical-Break alone don’t tell the entire story, but presumably there’s something to be said for the fact that his curveball broke closer to the plate both horizontally (4.49 inches of H-Break, compared to an average of 6.71 inches across the other five data points) and vertically (-4.66 inches of V-Break, compared to an average of -7.92 inches) than it ever had on average in the past. That’s more than two inches horizontally and more than three inches vertically closer to the plate — it may not sound like much, but that’s a fairly substantial difference. Closer to the strike zone — but not too close — will presumably induce more swings and subsequently lead to weaker contact.
Sure enough, this past Sunday Hughes threw his curve for a greater percentage of strikes — 68% — than at any previous time in the selected data sets, and also recorded the highest Swing%, at 48%. While the relatively low Whiff% might be slightly discouraging, I’d take it as a positive sign that his Foul% was also the highest among these data and the In Play% of 28% was second-highest — given his sterling linear weights on the pitch, this tells me that hitters just weren’t making good contact on the curve.
Now before we get too carried away, this obviously was only one start. Given how ineffective Hughes was at the beginning of the season, I don’t think it wouldn’t surprise anyone if he got beat up in his next outing — he still has a ways to go before he wins back much of the good will he relinquished. However, if this new-and-improved curveball command/control is here to stay, Hughes will hopefully get back on track sooner than we might have expected him to.
*For those not familiar with the concept of pitch type linear weights, Brooks Baseball provides the following definition: “Pitch Type LWTS correspond to how many runs were likely to score on a particular pitch based on average run expectancy when each pitch was thrown and what happened as a result. Negative scores indicate more effective pitches.” All data in this post is from Brooks and TexasLeaguers, and for a more thorough primer on pitch type linear weights, check out this great post on Fangraphs.
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