No, Phil Hughes is not pitching well. I had big hopes for last night, after seeing how sharp he was last time out, before the rain delay. He did not fulfill those hopes, though, and naturally it raised questions about his belonging on a major league roster. Those questions should be asked. Hughes has been frustratingly inconsistent, and further has put a taxing on our bullpen. He’s the youngest pitcher in the majors, so the simple solution would be to let him work out his issues at AAA.
The only problem is, I’m not sure that’s the remedy.
At some point, there will be no harm in trying. But right now, as in today, I’m not convinced that a demotion is in order. Some readers might thing I’m trying to spin this with, as one commenter said, Hughes-colored glasses. But it’s not quite that. Hear me out.
First, let’s look at the immediate. Hughes’s next scheduled start is Sunday against Seattle. It’s not like they’ve got a super-charged offense, so you might as well let the kid go out there and see if he can start May better than he left off April. Plus, it’s still relatively early, so we can afford a hint of patience.
Monday is a day off. So if Hughes throws another poor game on Sunday, you can skip his next start, sending him down for a spare bullpen arm or bench bat, until a fifth starter is needed again. If he pitches well, you can proceed with caution.
Now let’s get to the long-term.
The Hughes Theory
As we all know, Phil Hughes has one helluva minor league career. He dominated every level he touched, keeping his WHIP below 1.00 and striking out over a batter an inning. Of course, we’ve seen guys pitch well in the minors and bust in the majors. But Phil really dominated.
That itself might actually be the problem. When Phil was cruising through the minors, he’d be going five or six innings, and in many games he’d have just two or three baserunners. That simply doesn’t happen in the majors, not for a 21-year-old. Major league hitters won’t be fooled by the same stuff that gives AA hitters fits.
That’s fine, though. Every pitcher needs to make adjustments at each new level. Phil has to adapt to not only pitching with guys on base, but to the psychology of having guys actually hit you hard.
In other words, welcome to the majors, meat.
The problem is that he’s not adjusting. Once he starts to get hit, he’s all over the place. The fastball tails to the right. The curveball doesn’t bite as much. There is no consistency. It’s like a mean case of stage fright hits him when things aren’t going well.
Keith Law made a similar observation in Spring Training a couple of years ago. “The first time I ever saw him, he gave up a hit in Spring Training, and went to pieces,” says Law.
This is not unusual for such a young player. However, it makes me wonder if a stint in AAA is the answer. As I said earlier, at some point there’s no harm in trying. But if he goes down there and starts off pitching like he did tonight, well, there’s a good chance he’d end up cruising through the game. The homer pitch to Granderson was at the knees, and a AAA hitter, unless MLB-bound, probably wouldn’t be able to handle it in the same manner. The homer pitch to Sheff was a good pitch, but since Sheff had seen the curve a few times, he knew what to do with it.
To be clear, this is not excusing Phil’s performance tonight. It is simply stating the obvious, that AAA hitters won’t be able to get to Hughes the same way MLB hitters do.
On the whole, I cannot fault anyone who wants to see Phil back in the minors. I just think that the problems specific to him need to be worked out at the major league level. Which is unfortunate, because it can lead to a cascade of problems that will hurt us over the course of the season. But there is certainly something to be said for letting him work this out in the minors.
Oh, and cut the Johan crap
Thankfully, this is a minority of RAB readers, though a vocal minority. Yes, the crew that continues to lament the team’s decision to not trade Phil Hughes for Johan Santana this winter. I can’t tell you to stop. You are entitled to an opinion, just like the rest of us. I just think it’s a wee foolish to be judging the non-trade the April after it didn’t happen.
Just look at Santana himself. As a 21-year-old in 2000, he tossed 86 innings to the tune of a 6.49 ERA. He made three starts early in the year. The first was okay, and the second were putrid. They actually kind of resemble Hughes’s starts from this year. His two starts in September weren’t much better. In between, he had varying degrees of failure as bullpen guy, coming in for plenty of mop-up situations.
And you know what? He wasn’t all that hot a starter in 2001, either. It wasn’t until 2002 that he started to show what he was made of, and until 2004, as a 25-year-old, that he showed complete and absolute dominance — though he was pretty damn good in 2003, splitting time between the bullpen and the rotation.
Again, I’ll cite Greg Maddux, who got roughed up as a 21-year-old. Ditto John Smoltz. This trade is not a bust because Hughes had a bad April. This was a non-move made with the long-term picture in mind. One month does not constitute a long-term picture.
Of course, just because the move was made with the long-term in mind does not necessarily mean it was the right move. But it’s still way, way too early to close the book on this one.