On Friday, just hours before Phil Hughes struck out six Tigers in two innings, Ben lamented the loss of the young righty’s changeup. Not that he really had one in the first place, but that’s the point. One key to Hughes’s future success, many postulate, is his development of a serviceable changeup. He can play that off his fastball to keep hitters off balance. Now that he’s in the bullpen, though, he’s not using the changeup at all, opting to with the two-pitch combo: fastball/curveball. Could this focus on just two pitches hurt his development?
Both Ben and Marc Carig seem to have a concern about this. Honestly, I did too. How can Hughes learn a changeup, I wondered, if he’s never throwing it in a game? As Carig puts it: “Had he stayed in the minors, Hughes could have kept throwing the changeup in game situations, where the real learning of pitches takes place. But as the primary bridge to Rivera, he does not have that luxury for now.” It would appear that he doesn’t.
It appears, though, that perhaps I was asking the wrong question, and that Carig was making a few assumptions. Rob Neyer steps in with his own opinion, which runs contrary to what many of us thought.
I’ve read quite a bit about changeups and their development — especially while working on this — and I agree that “an effective changeup is often a matter of feel” … but I’m not sure that “the real learning of pitches takes place” in game situations.
In fact, quite the contrary. In game situations, the pitcher usually doesn’t have the luxury of learning things. He’s on an island in the middle of the field and big guys with wooden clubs are trying to kill him. Sure, it’s a little different in the minors, but nobody wants to get embarrassed out there. A power pitcher like Hughes, even if he’s actively trying to learn to throw a changeup, will throw how many of them in a game? Five? A dozen, tops?
My understanding is that athletes generally “learn” things during (relatively) stress-free practice, with the new skill perhaps reinforced in the heat of battle. I think you have to learn how to throw a changeup first, and then you have to learn to throw it during games. Well, it doesn’t sound like Hughes has done the first of those yet. Not really. He doesn’t have the feel for a changeup yet.
He might never get it. Some pitchers don’t. But if he does get it, it won’t be during a game against the best hitters in the world. It’ll be in the bullpen, when he’s getting in some work. Or in the outfield before a game, when he’s fooling around with his teammates. And he can do all those things whether he’s a starter or a reliever.
Emphasis mine. It certainly does appear that way. If Hughes did have a better feel for his change, we likely would have seen him throw it more when he was a starter earlier in the year. Now that he’s in the bullpen, he has a chance to utilize his best tools — a revived fastball and two varieties of curves. Because he uses the knuckle curve as his off-speed offering, he doesn’t really need a changeup while he’s pitching out of the bullpen. This leaves him plenty of time to work on it in practice.
When will he deploy it in a game? Perhaps he throws a few starts in a winter league for which he qualifies (he’s no longer eligible for the Arizona Fall League). Maybe he just works on it over the winter and starts using it during Spring Training. The point is, if Neyer is right and these guys do learn new pitches on the side rather than in the game, then Hughes has some time to get comfortable with a changeup. In fact, he has plenty more time to get comfortable with it because he’s in the bullpen and can completely cut it out of his repertoire.
Another question is of whether he actually does need a changeup to thrive as a starter. As I said, his knuckle curve is off-speed enough that he can use it to keep hitters off-balance. He also uses a tighter curve to mix things up. But what about his slider? Taking a trip in the way back machine, we learn that Phil once boasted quite the bendy pitch: “Hughes’ slider reportedly puts his other pitches to shame; it’s a power pitch that breaks hard and late and induces plenty of swings and misses, however the Yankees made Hughes keep it in his pocket in an attempt to develop his other pitches.”
(Then again, Mike called Hughes’s changeup above average at the time. I wonder if the pitch got lost in the fray, or if the scouting report was just wrong. In any case, the bit about the slider wasn’t just Mike. I believe that one came right from Baseball America — hence the “reportedly” insertion in the above passage.)
Fastball, knuckle curve, power curve, slider? That sounds pretty good to me. I do wonder what it will take for the Yankees to have Hughes break out the pitch again. Maybe they were just waiting for him to get through a healthy season…
In any case, it looks like the only concern with having Hughes in the bullpen is his innings totals. After having missed so much time over the past few years, it would be nice to finally see Hughes eclipse his career high IP total from 2006. At this pace, he probably won’t even match it. That’s a shame, because it will mean more restrictions on his innings for next year. Yet the bullpen seems to be providing Hughes a learning experience. That could be more important in the long run than his innings totals.