Last week I wrote that Phil Hughes was too predictable in his first three starts, throwing his four-seam fastball way too often with 2 strikes. I concluded that his reluctance to use an offspeed pitch was allowing hitters to anticipate the fastball and more easily work the count. Four days later, Phil Hughes pitched his best game of the season, and arguably his best game in years. The boxscore reads 4 earned runs, something the media will write off as another failed start, but the advanced numbers are startling.
Aside from the runs, you’d see that the 25 year old went 5.2 innings, giving up only 4 hits, 1 walk, and 6 strikeouts, which is an outing I’d call successful for even the great CC Sabathia. Hughes’ good start was killed by 2 hits that left the park, something that will unfortunately happen with a flyball pitcher in Yankee Stadium. With 3 runs scored on homeruns, the 4th scored when Boone Logan couldn’t strand his inherited runner at first base with two outs. Excuses one might say, but I find it hard to believe that Hughes’ 20% HR/FB rate this year is a product of anything other than small sample size, and holding a starter accountable for runs allowed by the bullpen is just bad analysis. Instead, I took a look to see why and how he allowed only 4 hits and earned 6 strikeouts.
That suggestion I made about throwing offspeed pitches with two strikes seemed to be taken into account by the team as well. I’ll reiterate that in the first three starts, ahead in the count and with 2 strikes, Hughes threw nearly 70% four-seam fastballs. While most pitchers rely on offspeed pitches to strike batters out 0-2, Hughes continued to attack with fastballs. I surmised that this predictable approach allowed hitters to foul pitches off, driving up his count, and let hitter wait for the pitcher to miss his spot. In his last start, while 2-2 and 1-2, Hughes went from a selection of respectively 9% and 12% curveballs to 50%, and while 0-2 went from 14% curveballs to 60%. Would you be surprised if I said this selection helped the righty retire hitters? Hughes went from a 4.1% whiff rate on the curveball, to a 22.2% whiff rate, or 6 swings and misses, 3 for strikeouts.
While I’ve seen Hughes talk about the curveball being sharper, PITCHf/x has the pitch breaking with only 1 inch more sink and 1.5 inches less horizontal break into left handed hitters. Indeed, the spin angle was dropped 7 degrees, allowing the pitch to drop more. However, I am on the side that his selection, or what he called a “reliever’s mentality” created his success. Hughes’ 20%+ whiff rate on the curveball is a sign that he still has vast potential, and perhaps its only a matter of replicating this approach. If he can put up the same numbers in his next performances, I believe his homerun numbers will even out, and we’ll see an above average starting pitcher.
For sometime, fans have been calling out the Yankees’ front office out on their failure to develop starting pitchers, partially a product of impatience. With Hughes currently struggling, I’ve heard many people call for his demotion to the bullpen. It would appear the Yankees have made a decision to be patient with one of their young starters, a necessary evil they’ve avoided in the past, and with some signs that it’s paying off, I say it’s about time.
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