The first complete game of the year for a Yankee pitcher goes to… Phil Hughes. After giving up 11 hits and 7 earned runs in 5.1 innings against the Angels, Hughes shocked everyone with a brilliant complete game win against the not-so-easy Tiger’s lineup. His final line was 9.0 innings, 4 hits, 1 run, 1 homerun, 3 walks, and 8 strikeouts. With an 80 Game Score, this duel between him and Justin Verlander ranked as the second best start of his career, something we never expected following such a poor performance in Anaheim. As I examined this dud on Friday, it’s only fair that I analyze possibly the best start any Yankee has seen all season.
The difference between his two starts really begins with a different game plan. As Hughes showed an inconsistent curveball at the beginning of Sunday’s start, he threw 98 four-seams out of 121 PITCHf/x registered pitches. While I’ve always preached mixing pitches for Hughes, the 81% four-seam selection was done in good taste. As you can see by the pitch speed chart above, Hughes went through periods in the game where he would attack with his fastball, and then heavily mix his changeup and curveball. In particular, Hughes attacked the weaker parts of the Tiger’s lineup with fastballs, and then reverted to changeups and curveballs for Prince Fielder and Delmon Young. Fielder would go on to hit a poorly located curveball out of the park for the only run of the game, but by throwing offspeed pitches in seemingly unpredictable patterns, (pitching backwards the first time through the order) he kept hitters off the fastball.
It wasn’t all mixing pitches though, the fastball had some movement we’ve yet to see before. The image above shows the four-seam movement from a catcher’s perspective, with the origin being the movement of a no-spin pitch conforming to gravity. In the red you can see the movement of fastballs from the month of May, and in black the fastball locations for his start on Sunday. There isn’t a huge difference between the two plots, but the small cluster of black fastballs located around -4 inches horizontally and 6 to 8 inches vertically accounted for numerous groundballs. Hughes finished with an 8-5 groundball to flyball rate in this start, something I’ll attribute to a lot of contact with the “sinking” four-seamer here.
The break of his fastball from his last start is plotted above with a bird’s eye view in the top image, and a 1st base/3rd base view below. Although the bird’s eye view of the horizontal break shows little difference, the bottom image shows that his fastball on Sunday (in black) had less vertical break. Despite seeing a decent cluster of fastballs with additional sink, his fastball actually averaged less break. This might account for many of the whiff’s he saw from the high fastball. What surprises me, is the differential between many of his fastballs from Sunday night individually.
There was around a 10 inch difference between his highest rising fastball and lowest sinking fastball, something that may have kept hitters from squaring up the pitch While his strike rate was phenomenal, he struggled locating the fastball into Russell Martin‘s called locations all night. There were certainly times in the game where you could see he had no feel for the strikezone, and that was evident in the three plate appearances that led to walks. The lack of control from his fastball may have helped him to a degree, but it’s something he needs to understand in the future so the issues don’t evolve into the same ones we saw in Anaheim.
The two GIFs above show Hughes throwing his four-seam fastball to the first hitter of the game, Quintin Berry. The left shows Hughes attempting to locate the four-seam in to the left handed hitter, but misses up and away a few feet from where Martin sets up. The image on the right shows the previous pitch of the at bat, which was called for in a similar location, and Hughes hits the spot perfectly. Numbers-wise, you can see below how close to average the commanded fastball on the right is, and how off the pitch on the left is.
|Pitch on the left||Average||Pitch on the right|
|Horizontal Movement (inches)||-2.22||-4.64||-4.73|
|Vertical Movement (inches)||7.73||10.28||10.32|
From the graph above, the pitch on the left has very different movement from the average fastball he threw on Sunday, and the pitch perfectly located on the right is thrown with numbers exceedingly close. This would become a plot for Hughes throughout his whole game, causing the differentials in movement. Can you tell the difference between the two deliveries? There seems to be one flaw, his balance. If you watch the image on the right, he’ll going into the balance position (lifting his knee) before the GIF on the left, despite that, he lands his follow-through on the left much earlier than on the right. By rushing his legs on the left, he’s unable to replicate the same rotation and spin angle from pitch to pitch, thus creating his command problem.
Despite the mechanical issues, he showed that he’s maturing with his game plan, and at times the fastball that made him a top prospect. It’s all a matter of replicating the results now, and we’ll get to watch that in his next start against the Mets on Saturday.
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