Mark O’Brien is gettin’ the shaft. The Santa Clara University baseball coach doesn’t have a dominant, front-line ace to trot out there this weekend when his team takes on conference foe Loyola Marymount in one of the most important series of the season. Instead, O’Brien will have to watch his should-be ace, his prized recruit from 2004, take the mound for the New York Yankees later tonight. O’Brien, however, appears to be the only one who lost out in this situation.
The Yankees had one Mr. Philip J. Hughes ranked very high on their draft board in 2004, and were ecstatic when they landed him at #23 overall. Even though he had been pitching for only 3 years, they loved his potential. Who do you have to thank for helping Hughes end up in pinstripes? Scott Boras, and he’s not even Hughes’ agent.
When the news broke that Hughes was coming to Bronx, it was like one of those moments that you had waited so long for, that when the time came, it didn’t seem real. Joe and I were exchanging IMs when the news broke:
Mike: …and I said “No, but that’s a nice ski mask!”
Joe: HAHAHA!!! Damn Mike, you are one funny guy!
Okay okay, back to reality. Here’s what we really said:
Mike: i’m starvin’, imma go grab a bite, later
. . . makes a quick stop over at LoHud . . .
Mike: holy shit, they called up hughes
Joe: no, no way
Mike: yup, starting thurs vs the Jays
Hughes will be the 12th player from the 2004 draft to hit the bigs with significant staying power, joining Justin Verlander, Jeremy Sowers, Jered Weaver, Stephen Drew, Taylor Tankersley, Huston Street, Dustin Pedroia, Chris Iannetta, Casey Janssen, Ben Zobrist, Cla Meredith and Jonathan Sanchez. What separates Hughes apart from those guys is his background, as he’s the lone high school draftee on the list.
How does he stack up?
Before we jump into possible comparisons, let us bask in the awesomeness of Phil Hughes’s professional statistics:
The only problem with Hughes’s numbers is the sample size. Everything else looks magnificent. Not once in his minor league career did he break a 1.00 WHIP. He’s never broken 2.50 BB/9, and never dipped below 9.00 K/9. His home runs shouldn’t even be measured by a rate stat: he’s given up just six in his entire minor league career, and three of them came in his first two AA outings. And, as his Eastern League numbers show, he kind of settled in.
Of course, we need a basis for comparison. Or many, if possible. Over the past few days, Mike and I (this Joe now, though I suppose you figured that out) have been rattling off comparison after comparison, trying to find a few guys to hold up beside Hughes. We tried to keep it to big righties with similar stuff to Hughes, high schoolers, comparable numbers, and call-up age. Of course, we didn’t want to come out here with two comps, so we were flexible. But those are the basic criteria.
Keep in mind: The Sally League, New York Penn League, and Gulf Coast League are pretty neutral. The Florida State League is a big pitchers league. The Eastern League favors hitters, as do all the California-based leagues. Not sure about the Midwest League — lemme know if you are.
Unfortunately, Baseball America’s Jim Callis is making us start with a pitcher not quite Phil’s size. He was also a junior college kid. But, let’s give it a whirl. First three minor league seasons (along with keeping consistent with Hughes’s professional seasons, this also saves me a whole ton of typing).
Of course, it would take another year and a bit before Oswalt finally got the call to Houston at the age of 24. He had some lower-level dominance, but really evened out once he climbed the ladder. His dominance started in 2000, when he split time between A+ and AA. He kept his strikeout rate above 9.50, kept his walks below 2.00, and he had a AA WHIP of 0.99. Comparing age 20 seasons, though, it’s not even close. Hughes ruled the Florida State and Eastern Leagues with an iron fist. Oswalt had great success in the Gulf Coast League, but couldn’t master the New York Penn League.
And that’s all she wrote for Beckett, because he was called up later in 2001, only to return for rehab work in 2002. Because he throws harder, his strikeout numbers were better than those of Hughes. Beckett kept his walks low, home runs lower, and kept his hits at a level that allowed for a near- or sub-1.00 WHIP. Beckett looks like a pretty good comp. He pitched 24 big league innings in 2001, posting an ERA of 1.50. He struck out 24 and walked 11, so he was a bit wild, and he let a few sail over the fence. Beckett came back with 107 quality innings in 2002 before becoming a sub 4.00 ERA guy — although frequently injured.
It’s a definite possibility, though, that Phil Hughes is a lot smarter than Beckett.
Let’s dig a little deeper, though, to a highly regarded prospect that didn’t exactly work out as planned. Still, you could do a lot worse than
Izzy was dominant in a Hughes-ian way in the New York Penn League, but he could not repeat at other levels. He kept his walks down, and his hits were at a very reasonable level. If you’re wondering about Izzy’s injury problems, look at his age 20 and age 21 seasons. When you increase your innings by 100 from one year to another, you’re bound for trouble. This will certainly not be the case with Hughes (it would take ~250 innings for that to happen, when he’ll probably clock in at somewhere around 180 or 190).
It’s kind of a sad comp, because Jackson hasn’t exactly worked out. But if you’ll look closely, he never put it all together in the minors like Hughes. He showed a high strikeout tendency in 2003, but at the cost of his walk and home run rates (plus, his hits went up, too). He’s probably the closest we have so far, which doesn’t bode well for our franchise player.
And that’s all it took for the Mets to call him up at the age of 19. True, he had more pure stuff than Hughes, but not nearly the polish. As you know, Gooden did just fine in the majors…until the whole cocaine thing in 1987. And even then, he continued to post stellar numbers until 1994. This makes me feel a lot better about the Edwin Jackson comp.
It’s really not worth it to type out two levels and eight innings worth of Foppert’s 2003 minor league numbers. He’s a college kid, so he’s not an ideal comp. He, like many of the other guys we’ve listed here, never put it all together: low WHIP, high strikeouts, almost no homers. And it’s a good thing, because Foppert is the definition of a bust.
I betcha I can find one you like less than the Foppert comp.
Yeah, I didn’t want to do this one, but his numbers match up…kinda. He never really had Hughes’s strikeout ability. He kept his walks low, which led to the low WHIPs, but all in all, while he had comparable stuff and size at the same age, his ability level was not that of Hughes. And that’s a good thing.
So let’s end this on a high note:
Now that’s more like it. Super-low WHIP? Check. High strikeouts? Check. Low walks? Check. The only thing separating Clemens and Hughes is that Clemens was a college guy. However, at a similar age, he dominated the minors, just like Hughes.
Of course, we’re not saying that Hughes will turn out to be Clemens; we’re also not saying that he’ll turn out like Edwin Jackson, Jesse Foppert, or even Carl Pavano. He’ll have his own path through professional baseball, and what the future holds we don’t know.
However, just take a look at the numbers on all of those comps. No, we didn’t scour the minors for low-WHIP guys (and we wish there was a searchable database that provided such), but we pooled our knowledge to come up with as many guys as possible who were either as hyped as Hughes, or with similar stuff. And really, very few of them compare. And the ones that matched up best — Gooden and Clemens — were sort of good players. Hell, even Pavano had a few good years, though he was always an injury case.
Other guys we looked at: A.J. Burnett, Rich Harden, Dan Haren (matched up well, even though he was a college kid), Brad Penny, Chris Carpenter, and Pedro Martinez. For other comps, you can look to Hughes’s Baseball Prospectus PECOTA card. They include Bobby Bradley (eh), Jake Peavy (struck out nine in a row last night), Brad Penny, Edwin Jackson, Bob Miller, Adam Miller, Yusmeiro Petit, Milt Pappas, Troy Patton, Bert Blyleven (yay!), Don Drysdale (yay!), Clint Everts, Scott Kazmir, Rick Ankiel (minus the psychosis), Ubaldo Jimenez, Erv Palica, Dave Boswell, Carlos Zambrano, Ed Correa, and Jim Maloney.
Seriously, everyone: enjoy this to its fullest. It may be a long time before we see a pitching prospect of Hughes’s caliber come through the system and into Yankee Stadium.
(Photo via NoMaas)