On April 26, 2007, the Yankees found themselves without a starting pitcher, and so a few months — or possibly a year — ahead of schedule, they handed the ball over to a 20-year-old right-hander named Phil Hughes. A few months later, on August 7, 2007, they again found themselves short a pitcher. This time, the team needed a reliever, and they found one in a young flamethrowing starter nearing his innings limit named Joba Chamberlain.
Over the course of the 2007 and 2008 seasons, Joba’s and Phil’s paths diverged. Almost immediately, Joba established himself as someone who could thrive in a high-pressure situation on the big stage. The brash kid from Nebraska emerged as a dominant set-up man, faltering only when a swarm of bugs attacked him. When the Yanks, amidst much criticism, moved him back to his natural spot in the starting rotation, he still thrived. Armed with the confidence he built up in the pen, he has emerged, at 23, as a kid on the way to Major League stardom.
Hughes, on the other hand, saw his fortunes follow a different path. His first start was nothing spectacular, and he couldn’t make it out of the fifth inning against the Blue Jays. Five days later though, he was dealing. Through 6.1 innings, he was no-hitting the Rangers in Texas when his hamstring popped.
For much of the next 18 months, Hughes would deal with the fallout from this injury. He came back by the end of the year but seemed tentative on the mound. He didn’t want to land too hard on his front leg or overstride again. In 2008, given a spot in the starting rotation, he couldn’t hold it. He went 0-4 and landed on the DL for much of the year with a mechanics-induced stress fracture in one of his ribs.
While he was still just 22 when the 2008 season ended, scouts and talent evaluators wondered if Hughes was destined to be a — I shudder to type it — bust. He was 5-7 with a 5.15 ERA in 21 starts spanning 106.1 innings. He wasn’t giving the team depth or getting outs.
When the Yanks called upon Hughes this year, the results looked disappointingly similar to his 2008 effort at first. He got shelled in Baltimore, and Yankee fans were wondering what the hype was about. But Hughes took his bad outing in stride. In four starts after it, before ceding his spot to Chien-Ming Wang, he went 2-0 with a 3.91 ERA in 23 innings. Even better were his 23 strike outs and seven walks over that span. This was the first sign of the Hughes we had expected.
When Wang returned, the Yankees pulled a reverse Joba on Hughes. They knew he could contribute at the Major League level, and they knew they would need someone to step in if or when Wang proved to be ineffective. Phil Hughes in the pen though has been a revelation. He has thrown 12 innings with a 1.50 ERA. He has given up just two runs on five hits and three walks while striking out 15. He has flashed that mid-to-upper 90s fastball we had heard about but never seen before. He was throwing with renewed confidence and ability, and he is not shy about admitting it.
Of course, as New York is the unnecessary debate capital of the world, the voices grew loud. “Let’s keep Phil Hughes in the pen,” they screamed. “He can be the bridge to Mariano.” The Yankees would have none of it. As Bryan Hoch noted in his Monday mailbag, the Yanks have tried to shut down this faux-debate before it grows too loud. “Anybody who is a good starter is going to be a hell of a setup guy, I promise you. Anybody who has a plus fastball and a plus secondary pitch would make a great setup guy or closer, in theory. But it’s not the same,” Brian Cashman said. It’s not the same because starting pitching is far more valuable than relief pitching.
Young pitchers can be certainly be used effectively in the pen. Joba was able to contribute at the big league level while facing an innings cap in 2007. He got to know the competition and Major League life. For Phil, the pen has restored his spot atop the Yankee pitching prospect pecking order. He struggled in the early going, as young 20-somethings are wont to do, but he has learned this year that he can succeed as a starter and let loose as a reliever. As baseball psychology goes, this move has worked wonders so far for a pitcher on whom the Yankees are counting in the near future.
That is what it’s about. The Yanks are no B-Jobbers or B-Hughesers, pushing for a permanent move to the pen. Rather, there is a team with a plan learning how, after years of producing nothing out of the farm, to develop a young pitcher who has mastered the minors but not yet gotten a handle on the majors. While 12 innings is of course a small sample, we are watching Phil Hughes arrive, and it looks good.