Phil Hughes has been a mystifying and at times infuriating pitcher to watch throughout his Yankee career. As a prospect, he was viewed as very unlikely to bust because he had good command to go along with a fastball that could touch the mid-90′s and a legitimate plus curveball. In the majors, Phil’s raw stuff, command, and approach have been consistently inconsistent, leading to periods where he flashes dominance, and other times where he is hittable and inefficient.
Unfortunately, the latter scenario has been the case for much of 2012, despite improved fastball velocity compared to 2011. So far this season, Hughes is 2-4 with an ugly 6.67 ERA and a 5.67 FIP, and a ridiculous 2.54 home runs per 9 innings. Phil has made it to 5 innings in just 3 of hits 6 starts, with only one quality start (his most recent outing, where he last 6 2/3 innings and gave up 3 runs). Needless to say, this is not exactly what Yankee fans were hoping to see from Hughes this year, which was supposed to be decisive in determining his future in pinstripes.
While the overall numbers don’t look very favorable for Hughes, there are some signs that things could be getting better. Despite the large number of hits and home runs, Hughes has been effective at striking batters out and limiting the walks allowed, two statistics that bode well for his future performance. Overall, Phil is averaging 9.53 strikeouts per 9 innings, and just 2.54 walks per 9, nearly a 4:1 ratio.
Phil’s last two starts have been more effective, particularly his most recent outing, where he gave up 3 runs on 6 hits and a walk in 6 2/3 innings, with 7 strikeouts. Hughes’ fastball velocity seemed noticeably higher while I was watching the game, reaching as high as 95 in the later stages of the start, which may have contributed to his effectiveness. To confirm my suspicions, I took a look at pitch f/x data from Brooks Baseball to see if there was a noticeable difference in Hughes’ fastball (and other offerings) in his most recent start.
On the season, Hughes has average 92.75 mph on his fastball, but the numbers have varied somewhat start to start. As you can see from the graph below, however, the velocity seems to be trending upward. In his April 8 outing against Tampa, Hughes averaged just 91.68 mph. In his April 25 outing against Texas, Hughes averaged 92.31 mph. In his most recent (and most effective) outing, Hughes bumped his average velocity up to 93.34 mph, and maxing out at 95.6. This upward trend in fastball velocity could be a potential reason for Phil’s improvement in his most recent start.
In addition to velocity, Phil’s fastball may also be gaining some movement. In his strong May 6 outing, Hughes’ fastball had its highest horizontal break of the season, -6.46, compared to his season average of -4.37. The extra 2 inches of horizontal break may be another contributor to the fastball’s success in that outing. Even if it didn’t greatly increase the whiff rate of the pitch, the extra horizontal movement could prevent hitters from squaring up the ball as well.
Also potentially relevant to Phil’s improvement could be the change in his pitch mix. Most notably, he has reduced his cutter usage substantially (as you can see in the graph below). In the earlier outings, Hughes used the cutter over 10 percent of the time, but he has used the pitch just twice in the past two outings combined. Considering that the cutter has not looked to be a very effective pitch from what I have seen (essentially a slow, hittable fastball with minimal bite), using fewer cutters may be contributing to Phil’s improvement.
While there is not necessarily a causal link, the increase in fastball velocity (of nearly 2 mph over the season) seems to track very well with the decreased cutter usage in the small 6-start sample. One possibility is that Phil’s increased fastball velocity (and better movement) has obviated the need to use the cutter, and consequently he is throwing more 4-seamers instead. Another possibility is that throwing fewer cutters somehow contributes to Phil’s increased velocity, perhaps through mechanical or physical change related to decreasing cutter usage. Of course, the warmer weather over the course of the season could be a factor as well.
It will take a lot more than 1 good start for me to declare that Phil Hughes will be an effective pitcher this season, but there were obvious encouraging signs from his most recent outing. To maintain his success, he will need to build on what he was able to do well and continue to fix the problem areas. Scrapping the cutter is a good first step that will hopefully allow Phil to maximize the effectiveness of his 4-seamer and secondary offerings.
While the fastball was improved in his most recent outing, Hughes still gave up a home run (as he has done in every start this year). Pitching up in the zone and playing half of games in Yankee Stadium are likely culprits here, but Phil will continue to be victimized by the longball at an above-average rate (even if his current sky-high rate is unsustainable) unless he makes some change in approach. However, as he demonstrated in his most recent start, he can still be fairly effective with his current approach as long as his velocity and command are working.
Hughes is far from over the hump, and still has a lot to prove in order to demonstrate that he is worthy of sticking in the Yankee rotation over the long haul. His most recent outing was a good start, and he will need to continue to demonstrate progress for his manager (and Yankee fans) to trust him. We have been tantalized and teased by Phil’s progress countless times, but hopefully the improvements can continue to come. I will be interested to see if these improvements can be sustained over the next few starts, and hopefully the season.
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