CC Sabathia, Michael Pineda, Andy Pettitte, Ivan Nova, Mariano Rivera, Dellin Betances, and Manny Banuelos are all on the disabled list. While Hiroki Kuroda has stepped up in a huge way, Phil Hughes’ rebound season has been just as important. Since mechanical and repertoire adjustments began on May 6th, the 26 year old is pitching to a 3.59 ERA. That’s a pretty number for a young flyball pitcher in Yankee Stadium, and if the team lost his arm amongst numerous other injuries, it would be a huge blow to the starting rotation. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but Hughes is on course for a drop off in production.
The national media is currently discussing Stephen Strasburg, who is close to reaching an innings limit that would shut him down for the season. Last year, in an injury shortened season, the 24 year old only threw 44.1 innings in the majors and minors. This season, he’s already thrown 145.1 IP, slightly more than 100 innings more than last. His agent, Scott Boras, the Nationals, and likely Strasburg himself are all worried that the jump in innings could have a long term impact on his career. The concern is so big that the Nationals are willing to lose their best starting pitcher in their first ever playoffs under the name Nationals, and their second in organizational history.
Phil Hughes threw 88.2 in his injury shortened season last year. Right now, we’re up to 149.2 and counting. While he threw double the innings that Strasburg accumulated last year, Hughes also faced a rigorous training regiment this winter. Hughes should be approaching that 100 innings jump by mid-September, and with only 1 year left under team control, there’s much less concern about long term effects, but it also creates some concern with how he’ll hold up during the playoffs.
Unfortunately, the regression has already begun. Looking at Hughes’ fastball velocity throughout 2012, he reached his peak in May. Every month there after, the righty has witnessed a decline in velocity, who’s down to 91.8 mph this month, compared to 92.6 in May. Likewise, Hughes’ spin rate followed a nearly identical trend. Every month since May has been in decline, with the exception of August, yet there is still a subtraction of nearly 250 RPM between May and August.
While velocity and spin rate don’t equal success, Hughes makes his living on the fastball. Using high velocity up in the zone can usually prevent hitters from making good contact. The spin rate is used to increase the movement from the magnus effect on the pitch, and with less spin, he’ll show less rising action.
Considering how strongly the Yankees are relying on him at the moment, a weaker fastball could spell disaster in the rotation. If the trends hold up much longer, the organization might want to seriously consider sending him to the bullpen come late September. Hughes has shown that he can unleash more velocity when pitching in relief, and he’s no stranger to the area. Of course, I wouldn’t make any changes unless we see his production catch up to his declining fastball. For right now, he’s coming off two starts where he went 7.0 innings, and gave up just two runs to two great offensive teams, but don’t be surprised if he looks tired come September.
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