Stop me when this sounds familiar.
The Yankees move a heralded pitching prospect into the bullpen, and his success is a revelation. Sporting top-flight fastballs and some good breaking pitches, this starter-turned-reliever dominates, and fans wonder why this pitcher should ever be put back into his starting role. He can lock down the 8th inning. Let’s keep him there.
As this pitcher builds appearances, his numbers get better. Through 13 games, he sports a 0.98 ERA and has a 19:5 K:BB ratio through 18.1 innings pitched. The Bridge to Mariano has been built, and it grows stronger every day.
I am, of course, talking about Phil Hughes. He’s become the latest baseball wunderkind out of the bullpen, the next in a long line of good pitchers who — surprise, surprise — can be great relievers. No shocker there. While reading this piece from Marc Carig this morning, though, I realized again the price the Yankees are paying by keeping Hughes in the pen.
In the article, Brian Cashman reiterates the Yanks’ plans going forward to put Hughes back into the starting rotation. At some point in the future, Hughes will be a pinstriped starter. It may be later this year; it may be in 2010 when Andy Pettitte is probably elsewhere. What it won’t feature though is Hughes with a refined change-up, the pitch he really needs to master to become a top Major League starter.
Carig explains more:
When he is again a starter, Hughes will need to keep refining what is still a raw changeup, one he will eventually need to throw well enough to navigate lineups stacked with left-handed hitters. But despite this need, it’s a pitch Hughes has eradicated from his repertoire as a reliever, meaning he is losing valuable time toward its development.
It is an example of long-term sacrifice to fill an immediate need, a trade the Yankees are willing to make to fix a bullpen that had been ailing…But in the meantime, Hughes admits efforts to improve his changeup are “on the back burner.”
“He’s going to find a way to develop that changeup,” said Mark Newman, the Yankees’ vice president of baseball operations. “But I’ll tell you what he’s getting: major-league game experience in tough situations, under duress, against the best competition on the planet. As he does this, he gains confidence, and that is huge.”
Everyone in the Carig article says the right thing. The Yanks’ coaches and player personnel recognize that Hughes’ change-up is both a necessity and a work in progress. Hughes knows that he can be a major contributor now at the Big League level and will continue to develop a feel for this important pitch.
Yet, I can’t help but think that the Yankees are sacrificing something by moving Hughes to the pen. I’m fully in favor of getting Hughes Major League experience against good hitters in key spots. AAA hitters no longer offer much of a challenge to the young righty. At the same time, though, Hughes and the Yanks can’t sacrifice his future effectiveness for 40 or 50 bullpen innings this year.
According to the pitch f/x breakdown, Hughes has thrown a career-low 1.2 percent of his pitches as change-ups this year. He last threw one in a game situation on June 10 when he threw 3.2 innings in relief of Chien-Ming Wang. Now that it’s been over a month since he last threw a change, I can only hope he doesn’t lose the progress he made on that pitch.