Back in early March I made a bold prediction, Phil Hughes would be the number two starter. April didn’t bode well for my dark horse pick, the 25 year old right hander produced a 7.88 ERA with batters hitting .329/.395/.658 against him. There were occasional glimpses of brilliance on Hughes’ side, but no one expected the type of rebound he’s made in 2012. What’s been well stated, is that since May 6th Hughes has produced a 3.48 ERA. Thanks to some key mechanical changes that I’ll detail later, he’s thrown 61.2 innings with a 2.77 ERA and a .226/.272/.409 triple slash.
Not only are the numbers impressive, but Hughes is earning a lot of trust with his pitch count. He hasn’t been the workhorse we’ve seen from CC Sabathia, but he’s pitching longer into games. If Hughes reproduces what he’s done over the last three months, I think it’s fair to say he’s worthy of the number two or number three starting pitcher badge. However, if he continues to produce as he has since some mechanical changes in late June, he’s approaching something bigger.
|Pitch Type||Selection||Velo||V Mvt||H Mvt||Spin Angle||Spin Rate|
I’ve always found Hughes to be the most interesting pitcher on the staff. He’s a guy who once had #1 stuff, but he’s clearly had to adjust mechanically throughout his career. From the chart above, you can see how different his pitches and style has changed since his terrible April. During his rebound, I’ve analyzed his selection, his spin rates, some mechanical changes, and his new 11-5 curveball. The PITCHf/x information above shows some key differences overall, the decreased usage of the cutter, higher reliance on the curveball and changeup, and strong horizontal movement from all his pitches. That horizontal movement appears to be a key in his recent success, which is increasing whiff rates and groundballs.
The video on the left shows Hughes during his April slump, while the video on the right is Hughes pitching in his most recent start against the Athletics. The differences aren’t huge, but among them are an exaggerated balance stance and a stronger stride. However, the biggest difference is a change in arm slots, from a high 3/4 in April, to a more normal 3/4 in July. It amounts to a matter of a few inches lower and further away from the mound, but it’s increasing the spin angles on his fastball, and thus creating more horizontal movement.
The graph above shows Hughes’ release point in July and his release point in April in black. The additional horizontal movement has helped Hughes increase his whiff rate from 12.76% in April to 14.07% in July. What’s even more important, is that the four-seam is producing many more groundballs, from 2.88% in April to 7.41% in July. The amount has increased so much that he’s now seeing more groundballs than flyballs on the pitch. I wouldn’t go as far as to compare it to a sinker, but the pitch has vastly improved since April. Additionally, based on purely observational speculation, I’ve seen less fastballs flying up and in to right handed batters, as we see in the April fastball above. This was a consistent issue with his control, even in May and the beginning of June, but it appears to be less of an issue with the new slot. Since dropping the arm slot, he’s produced a 2.25 ERA in 36.0 innings and averaging 7.1 innings per game.
We’re still dealing with small sample size, but the numbers following the arm slot drop are very encouraging. The good news is that Hughes is continuing to improve, and I think there’s reason to believe he could finally reach a potential we thought was long gone. It’s hard to believe he’s only 26 years old, but Hughes is still learning how to pitch. Could he develop into the ace pitcher that was once his destiny?
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