When Phil Hughes was called up in early 2007, he appeared to have all the promise in the world. He was highly anticipated as Baseball America’s top pitching prospect that year, exploded on the scene with a near no-hitter facing the Rangers, and Yankee fans thought they were watching a future ace grow up right before their eyes. Over the past few years he’s had his share of ups and downs, but loyalists insist he’s still young and that we should be patient. But after 5 seasons of gathering data on Phil, I think that patience is misplaced, at least when it comes to him being a successful, high end starter for the New York Yankees. I don’t say this out of frustration coming off a bad year, but rather taking a good look at who he is and always has been as a pitcher.
Look at Phil’s batted ball numbers from Fangraphs. He gave up fly balls almost 45% of the time in 2011, and line drives 23.2%. Only 5 starters had a higher LD% in all of baseball (min 120 IP) and only 9 gave up fly balls more often. He kept the ball on the ground just 32% of the time in 2011, which would be the 3rd lowest mark in all of baseball among starters (120 IP min). I know what you’re thinking, that 2011 was an aberration. But when you look at his career numbers, it isn’t. He has a 35% ground ball rate and a 45.2% fly ball rate for his career. That’s pretty much who he is as a pitcher, and that profile is a bad fit if you’re a right hander pitching for the New York Yankees.
We can talk about his dead arm, spring training trip to fat camp, lack of a 3rd pitch and whatever other excuse we want. He can rededicate himself to working out, show up in camp in the best shape of his life and in my view it will change little. The simple fact is he’s a right-handed, extreme fly ball pitcher who pitches his home games in Yankee Stadium. If he’s not missing bats he’s in trouble, and he doesn’t do nearly as much of that as a starter (6.97 K/9) as he does when working out of the bullpen (11.18 K/9). His batted ball profile explains why his Home/Road splits have always been stark, and its also interesting to note that his GB/FB rates don’t change much whether he’s starting (0.78 ) or relieving (0.76). His career ERA is 5.01 at home and 3.88 on the road (443.2 IP). But even those numbers are a bit skewed by his stellar work as a reliever, particularly in 2009. His career ERA as a starter is 4.90 and a miniscule 1.44 as a reliever (4.46 ERA overall). Since his numbers are so much better as a relief pitcher, I thought it would be interesting to see what his Yankee Stadium ERA looks like without them, viewing him only as a starter at home. If you do the calculations his career ERA is 5.88 pitching as a starter at home (222 IP). Much of this is due to his fly ball tendencies. For his career he’s given up 37 HRs at home and just 16 HRs away, giving him a 0.67 HR/9 on the road and a 1.46 HR/9 at home. I’m all for patience with young players, but after 5 seasons I think the results are in. Phil just is flat-out awful in starting Yankee Stadium, and has been throughout his career. He was only successful in a small sample of starts in the first half of 2010, and even that year he gave up an ungodly 20 HRs at home and just 5 on the road. Let’s also not forget that he also enjoyed enormous run support that year, going 14-0 in the 16 games when the Yanks scored 6 or more runs for him.
If they want to send him to the bullpen, fine. His stuff plays up there, and the fact that he misses bats as a reliever keeps him out of trouble. But if they feel that’s not a desirable option, since it means he’s heading to an already crowded bullpen and you have to replace his innings as a starter, then Brian Cashman should trade him someplace like Petco or ATT where his style of pitching will fit and he can be successful. If Phil blossoms elsewhere, I won’t lose a minute of sleep over it since I have no reason to believe it was going to happen here. Asking Phil to be a #2 starter as a Yankee is asking him to do something that he hasn’t shown himself to be capable of on a consistent basis. His profile as a pitcher just isn’t a fit for Yankee Stadium, not unless he finds a way to more generate ground balls or somehow reinvent himself. Good management is all about putting players in situations where they can be successful, not asking them to do something outside their comfort zone. It appears to me that Phil Hughes and the Yankees would both be better off if they parted ways.
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