As noted in the the Tuesday night game recap, Phil Hughes‘ continued inability to authoritatively shut down hitters after reaching favorable pitchers’ counts — he seems to have particular trouble putting guys away after reaching 0-2 on hitters — was on full display after surrendering a long two-run home run on an 0-2 count to Matt Wieters.
The home run in and of itself isn’t a huge deal, except for the fact that his issues dispensing with guys with two strikes in the count has been an ongoing problem now for the better part of two years — even when he does retire a guy after getting two strikes on him it generally wreaks havoc on his pitch count and workload; Hughes has only made it into the seventh inning 11 times out of the 42 regular season starts he’s made since the beginning of 2010, and only made it into the 8th inning twice — and after poring over some of the numbers, things appear to have gotten even worse.
A downward (or really, upward) trend
Take a look at the following graphs illustrating how Hughes has fared over the years in the following pitcher-advantageous situations. The data in these charts was culled from Baseball-Reference (click on charts to enlarge):
This is pretty ugly. His sOPS+ after 0-2 counts currently sits at a hideous 241, which means batters are performing 141% better than league average in these situations against Phil. I don’t even know what to say about that.
If you remove the injury-shortened 2008, his AVG, OBP and SLG against, along with tOPS+ and sOPS+ have basically gone up every year after reaching an 0-2 count on hitters. Granted, these charts do come with a significant caveat: obviously the sample sizes are small, and even smaller for 2011 since he’s faced fewer hitters, and so take these findings with a grain of salt. His 2011 numbers in particular actually fell significantly after his Orioles start on Tuesday night, so there’s still room for improvement. That being said, the data isn’t exactly encouraging.
This is slightly better, although thus far the numbers have remained relatively flat from 2010 to 2011.
The AVG and OBP against have stayed relatively level over the last five seasons, although that’s a pretty significant uptick in SLG against this season with two strikes.
Unsurprisingly Hughes’ five-year lows when ahead in the count came in 2009 when he spent the bulk of the season in the bullpen and could empty the tank to finish hitters off, but that still doesn’t fully explain the dramatic spikes he’s experienced in five of the six categories, especially when you compare his rookie season with 2011.
So what’s going on with Hughes? For one, as many have noted, his fastball velocity — though better than it was back in April — still really hasn’t been what it once was. For two, as everyone under the sun knows, he still lacks a true secondary offering that can be counted on to regularly put hitters away. To Phil’s credit, we’ve seen what appears to be a slightly more aggressive curveball in a handful of his starts since returning from the DL, but it still doesn’t feel like a put-away pitch. For three, his cutter, which he introduced in 2009 to great effect, is essentially gone. He’s used it quite a bit less, and the lack of fastball velocity is subsequently impacting the cutter’s velocity.
Add it all up, and it leads to a pitcher with a diminished arsenal who seems to have just enough to push hitters to the brink, but doesn’t have the command or quality secondary offering to regularly finish hitters off. While he’s gotten his percentage of foul strikes down to 31% from an American League-leading 34% last season, that 31% mark would still tie for second-highest this season if he had enough innings to qualify.
While the diminished stuff is certainly a large part of the equation, I was also curious about pitch selection. The available data pertaining to pitches thrown in specific counts is rather limited, but I took what I could get from JoeLefkowitz.com to see if there were any noteworthy patterns. Another important caveat here is that — as Mike Fast and others have noted on many an occasion — it’s inherently risky to try to compare multiple years’ worth of PITCHf/x data due to the fact that the classification algorithm is updated every year. So again, take the following data with a heaping grain of salt:
I only went back as far as 2009 because I ran into several classification issues as it was with the 2008 data. In any event, if this data is to be believed, it appears that Hughes has taken to utilizing his curveball in 0-2 counts to hitters on both sides of the plate quite a bit more frequently than he did last season, while deploying the four-seamer less frequently. In fact, lefties can expect to see a curve 41% of the time in 0-2 counts against Hughes, which incidentally was the same frequency the saw the pitch in that count in 2009.
Given the lack of pep in his fastball this would seem to be a positive development in theory, only this year it just hasn’t been as effective, despite the fact that he’s throwing it to lefties overall with the exact same frequency he did two years ago — 22.7% of the time. In 2009, lefties hit the curve on the ground 68% of the time compared with 38% this season; they hit it for a line drive 18% of the time compared to 27%; and put it in the air 14% of the time compared to 35% now.
Despite the concerns with finishing hitters off, Phil seems to have just enough stuff to get by as a back-of-the-rotation starter for the rest of the season, with a 5.06 ERA as a starter since returning from the DL that actually falls to 3.30 if you remove his two weird blowups against the A’s. However, barring an implosion by one of Garcia, Colon or Nova, Phil’s ticket to the bullpen come the postseason appears to be punched.
In an ideal world he’ll completely revamp whatever his offseason conditioning routine was and come into camp next spring with the arm strength he needs to generate the appropriate velocity on his four-seamer and cutter, and hopefully take a significant step toward returning to the pitcher who wowed us in early 2010. Oh, and maybe he’ll finally perfect that long-awaited secondary offering we’ve been waiting for, although I probably wouldn’t hold my breath.
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