The counter-argument to Hughes’s changeup

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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.

Retired, Mussina to stay that way
Marte rehab tour heads to Scranton -- UPDATE: Wang feels pain
  • UWS

    Fastball, knuckle curve, power curve, slider?

    Don’t forget the cutter.

    • jmas12

      I was just about to say that. I haven’t seen him pitch in a while, but when he was starting I caught most of his appearances and that cutter was a very effective pitch. I think he threw it between 88 and 91. obviously it doesn’t have the bite that rivera’s cutter does, but it was still a very effective pitch that got alot of swings and misses.

      • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

        … but when he was starting I caught most of his appearances …

        It took me like three reads of that sentence to realize you meant you watched them (as a fan) and not actually caught them (as a player).

        I was about to say “Jorge Posada, is that you?”

    • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

      I’m now legitimately drooling at the thought of Phil Hughes becoming Mike Mussina Pt. Deux and throwing 6 pitches: Fastball, cutter, knuckle curve, power curve, slider, changeup.

      Great googily moogily.

      • ClayBuchholzLovesLaptops

        Imagine him throwing it from a gazillion different arm-slots like El Duque…

        Head explodes.

        • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

          El Duque is Cuban. I’m not allowed to compare Phil Hughes to a Cuban player, it’s against the rules.

          • ClayBuchholzLovesLaptops

            Cuba is a socialist country and this is a socialist blog. What’s the problem?

            • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside
              • Thomas
                • ClayBuchholzLovesLaptops

                  (Golf clap)

                • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

                  The comments in that thread are priceless. Apparently, Guevara and Hitler are one in the same, and wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt is analogous to wearing a confederate flag t-shirt.

                  Understanding the complexities of history FAIL.

              • pat

                Coincidentally that’s the only known photo of ben mike and joe together.

                • ClayBuchholzLovesLaptops

                  Great. I love how fast it can escalate on this blog.

            • pat


        • Thomas

          And then throwing with both arms like Venditte.

      • Chris

        But does he have a gyro ball? That’s the pitch that made Matsuzaka the best pitcher in baseball.

        Seriously though, if you have a cutter, slider, power curve and curve does that really count as 4 pitches? There’s no clear delineation between those pitches – it’s just a spectrum of pitches from cutter through slider to curveball. That’s not to suggest it wouldn’t be effective, but I think it’s a stretch to call that 4 pitches.

        • Zach

          ha damn you beat me by 5 seconds

      • Zach

        but does he have a gyro ball and pitch backwards? if not keep him in the 8th inning

      • Mike HC

        Moose is a good comparison, but I see him more as a poor mans Roy Halladay. Throws hard but not upper 90’s(not counting in relief), has the cutter and the sharp curveball. Also pitches very smartly.

        • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

          Yeah, but I don’t think Hughes generates that much natural sink in his pitches. Halladay’s GB rates are insane.

          Hughes’s greater likelihood is in having great command and thus, throwing his 3-5 quality pitches to all corners of the zone, kind of a Smoltz or Mussina lite more than a Halladay lite, IMO.

          • Mike HC

            I think that cutter Hughes developed is going to be a huge factor in getting out left handed hitters, very similar to Halladay and Mo. If I remember correctly, he was throwing it at about 88 mph as a starter. Halladay throws it a bit faster, but that is where the “poor man’s Halladay” comes in. For righties, Hughes and Halladay has the 4 seamer and sharp curve.

            Of course, I would take a poor man’s Halladay, Smoltz, or Mussina. So we are all good.

  • ChrisS

    Six Tigers in two innings? Whoa.

    I wonder he could do if he started a game.

  • Dillon

    I’m pretty sure hughes last four hits have come off his curveball. That pitch needs plenty of work as well as the change and slider. The cutter was a very effective pitch for him as a starter, but after that he really only has the fastball. Even when he was throwing 91 his fastball seemed to have great life….at 95mph guys just can’t pick it up. Thank God, because his other pitches just aren’t that good YET. The move to the pen was ideal. Hopefully he can blow guys away with mainly his fastball ala Papelbon and be effective the rest of year in 7th and 8th while continuing to work on his curve/change, because if he doesn’t get another plus pitch he’ll never be a great starter.

    • Dorian

      His Curve got hit because Miguel Cabrera is an outstanding hitter and he was looking for it twice and got it in the exact same situation twice in a row. Anderson got extremely lucky on a great curveball and tapped it and it found its way in to CF. Plus Fastball, Plus Curveball, Show me cutter, and one more put away pitch I think will take him to stardom.

  • Ed

    My understanding of his slider is this… he threw fastball/slider in high school. He developed a sore elbow shortly after signing with the Yankees, which prompted them to have him scrap the slider and learn a curve instead. They had him change his arm angle to one that was better suited for a curve rather than a slider, which would imply if he started throwing the slider again it would be less effective than it was in the past.

    • ClayBuchholzLovesLaptops

      IIRC, he could not throw two different breaking pitches in the same game. He could either throw a slider or a curve. And if the curve is the better pitch – which I believe it is, it’s great – then it seems conterproductive to bring back the slider.

  • kinglear

    However, I recall in an interview last year that Hughes said he has completely stopped throwing the slider, that he had lost the feel for it when he added the CB. He also said that generally post-high school, the slider hadn’t been very effective for him. Thus, he incorporated the cutter, as a replacement pitch for the slider, especially to use against lefties.

  • Alex K.

    Doesn’t he have a cutter too?

  • Chris

    He did have a pretty good changeup, but he never threw if very much. Back in his no-hitter in 2007, he threw 6 changeups.

    Three of them were used to strike out Teixiera:

  • Observer283

    Interesting post Joe. My question is: What’s going on with his cutter right now? To the naked eye, it seems like he’s abandoned it.

    It seemed like he was making real progress with the cutter right before he went into the bullpen. If he’s still throwing it in games and/or maintaining the feel for it in side session, then great.

    But if he’s abandoned it completely, that could be a problem next year. As we’ve seen with Mo and Andy, the cutter can be a real effective pitch for righties against tough lefties and for lefties against tough righties.

    Really wouldn’t want to see Phil just be Fastball/Curve next year if he was thisclose to developing a cutter that would be a weapon against lefties.

    I presume the Yankees have made sure he’s still working on the pitch, at least I certainly hope so.

  • Ivan

    Isn’t Hughes repretoire

    FB, Knuckle Curve, Cutter(which replace his slider) and Change up?

    I think he also throws a 2 seamer too.

  • zs190

    Fangraph says Hughes has thrown almost 20% cutters so far and it is about 4-5 mph slower than his regular 4 seam fastball, can it not be a serviceable 3rd pitch to replace the need for a changeup? (I think a pitch f/x for Hughes to look at the cutter vs his 4 seamer would be nice, not sure if you’ve already done it though)

    • Joseph Pawlikowski

      I can see him using the cutter to replace the slider, but not a changeup.

      • zs190

        I am a bit clueless on this. Why is that? As I understand it(I could very easily be wrong), a changeup is basically a ball thrown in the same arm slot and angle as a fastball and comes out of hand looking like a fastball but is considerably slower, can the cutter not do that?

        • Mike HC

          Optimally, all of a pitchers pitches would start out looking the same. Two, a four mile per hour difference between 4 seam and cutter is not “considerable.”

          I don’t think that Hughes needs a great change to be successful. A 4 seamer, cutter, curveball seems pretty good to me for now. Over time he will develop the change, or slider, or splitter, or whatever pitch he feels would help him improve, or make adjustments to keep one step ahead of the league.

      • crawdaddie

        I agree because the main objective of a good changeup is to mess up the timing of the hitter by throwing the changeup with the same fastball motion. IMO, the cutter is used mainly as a pitch for contact with either a weak groundball or flyout.

    • A.D.

      Cutter is more of a nice change of pace fastball than a real off-speed pitch. When he’s throwing the change he has a 10+ MPH difference between that and the fastball, which is a much nicer contrast than 4-5.

      • zs190

        Is that necessarily true? I remember seeing Josh Johnson pitch against us a couple weeks ago and I recall myself marvelling at the fact that he threw everything hard. 95-97 fastball, 87-89 slider, and 87-90 on changeup. I just went to fangraph and see that last season his fastball averaged 93.5 and changeup averaged 87.9, that’s 6.6, it’s not necessarily 4-5 but kind of close, no? And he was pretty darn good last season doing that.

        • zs190

          Math failed there, 5.6, not 6.6

        • Zach

          he only threw 4 changeups against the Yankees.

          dont use the velocity from the YES guns, this was his average velocity for that game
          FB- 95.67
          CH- 86.95
          SL- 88.66

          • zs190

            I’m using fangraph(because I don’t get to see YES here) and he did average almost 88 mph on his changeup(over 14 starts) vs a 93 mph fastball last season, so it would seem to me that it’s not necessary to have that much differentiation between a changeup and a 4 seamer to be successful.

            • Zach


              his change averaged 86.8 last year not 88. He throws his change 5% of the time throughout his career. thats 5-7 pitches a start, you cant use just 1 pitcher and compare him to Hughes. JJ’s FB and slider are great pitches, its just like AJ- his curve and FB are so good that he can get by with using those 2 pitches 95% of the time in his outings

        • A.D.

          Chances are last year the FB was a little slower since he was coming back from arm surgery, this year the separation is about 7.5 MPH between the FB & change.

          Generally speaking the more separation the better, as the less likely a player can guess sit on the change and still hit the fastball. Could the cutter be an off speed pitch of sorts for Hughes, maybe, but even better if he has fastball, cutter, and change.

  • Kenneth

    Why can’t you people be happy that hes dominating and having great success as a set up man? Leave him alone and let it play out. He’s 23 years old here. We have gone from a disaster pen to a good pen. Let him keep doing it.

    • Tampa Yankee


      But seriously it’s because Hughes is more valuable IMHO to the Yankees as a starter, not as the bridge to Mo. And again to fill a hole in the current team, they have potentially mortgaged part of their future.

      • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside


        • Tampa Yankee

          I channeled my innermost TSJC on that one.

  • Glen L

    The problem with saying that the slider could be his 3rd (or 6th or whatever pitch) instead of the change up, is that a change up (usually) will tail toward the pitchers arm side .. for phil, away from left handed hitters .. its the only pitch he can throw that will have movement away from, rather than towards (or straight down), a lefty hitter

  • Tank Foster

    I don’t like playing this game…second guessing his pitch development, or whatever we wish to call it. I know that’s the purpose of blogs, but I honestly think if it was crucial to being a successful pitcher to have mastery of the changeup or whatever it is, he would be working on it. I’m not a pitcher, either, so I really don’t know, but watching baseball, it seems that most starting pitchers use 2 pitches for probably over 90% of their pitches in a given game. Fastball and either a breaking pitch (slider or curve), or a changeup. Some pitchers have 3 or even 4, but most guys use 2 pitches most of the time. If you have control, I don’t see where you need more than that. Of course, you vary them…2 seam v. 4 seam fastball, for different movement, cut or split finger fastball for slightly less velocity and different movement. Knuckle curve or harder/tighter curve. I honestly think this is a non-issue.

    Even if he does “need” a changeup or some sort of third pitch, who says he won’t be able to use it just fine when he becomes a starter again? Is it a given that he will “forget” how to throw a pitch or command it? Sometimes you do better at something after laying off it for a while.

    He’s a dynamite reliever. He’s going to be a good starting pitcher.

  • Jake H

    Hughes threw some great change ups. I think he has the grip just not the conviction to throw it in a game situation yet.

  • thebusiness

    He doesn’t throw two curves….. Knuckle curve all the way. He just decided to throw it harder this year.

    • Mike HC

      yea, I also must have missed the two curveballs, unless we are talking about last years curve vs. this years curve.

  • Mike Cap

    It’s not about what pitch, it’s about effectively changing speeds, changing eye level and hitting spots.

    I recall watching a Yankees game years ago and Seaver (I think it was Seaver) going on about how Jim Palmer really only fastballs and curveballs.

    Hughes probably could throw two and four seam fastballs (two pitches), tight curve/knuckle curve (third pitch), slower looping curve (fourth pitch) and the change-up (fifth pitch) as a “show-me” pitch.

    Concerning innings – expect Hughes to throw some winter/Arizona (or wherever it is) league innings to increase his total.

    • Mike HC

      You are giving him way too many pitches. Hughes is not all of sudden become a guy who throws 4 main pitches and a “show me” pitch. He has one curveball and a couple of different fastballs. Just because he literally knows how to throw a certain pitch, does not mean he has it in his repertoire to actually use consistently. If you are looking five years down the line, then maybe, but we are getting a little ahead of ourselves here.

  • Tank Foster

    I remember Seaver saying a good pitch needed 2 out of 3 things: velocity, location, and movement. I’m not going to try to say I “know” pitching or anything, and I’m sure the more pitches you can throw for strikes, the better you’ll be. But there are many ways to skin a cat, or get out a lefty, and as long as he has control, I’m not the least bit worried about Phil Hughes’s pitch repertoire.

    • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

      Generally speaking, though, the more different pitches with different breaks and different velocities he can throw for strikes, the better.

      The art of pitching is keeping hitters off balance. If you have a larger pitch arsenal, it’s harder for them to get in a rhythm and thus, start centering the bat on the ball in the hitting zone.

      That’s why guys with multiple good pitches have the potential to be great starters, because they can face a guy 3-5 times in a game and prevent them from getting in a comfortable hitting rhythm.

      • Tank Foster

        I can’t disagree with anything you say. But I guess I’m saying I don’t believe you [em]need[/em] 5 different pitches to do that. Sometimes, simpler is better. If you have 2 pitches of differing speed, with which you have fantastic mastery, meaning you can throw them for strikes either inside or outside, you can get any batter out. For some people, it’s better to have a small arsenal that you can trust and control, than to mess around trying to throw 4 or 5 different pitches.

        I also think it’s something fluid in a pitcher’s career. Early in their career, maybe they need only 2 pitches, because they have great velocity and movement. As they get older, they add pitches to keep guys off balance. Maybe it’s ok – even an advantage – that he has only 2 pitches now.

        • Mike HC

          I think you are right on the money here Tank. It is more important for Hughes to consistently locate his best two pitches, rather than mess around with 4 or 5 different pitches and not master or locate any of them. Over time, and throughout multiple off seasons and Spring Trainings, he can start to slowly develop and add in other pitches in the mix.

  • Reggie C.

    With the breaking news on Wang, Hughes better get that changeup sharp. I can’t imagine the Yanks utilizing Mitre as a starter beyond the trading deadline.

    • Mike HC

      What is the breaking news on Wang?

      • zs190

        bicep tenderness, shut down until Friday, according to Bryan Hoch.

  • stefan

    The way I see it, there is no real waiting around for Hughes to
    “get a feel” for his changeup. When he was signed, he caught on to the curveball right away and it became his best pitch. Last year, he learned the cutter the moment he started toying with it and it also became an effective pitch for him. But this changeup has been “developing” for the last 4 years. How much longer is it going to take, especially for a guy with such a clearly good feel for pitching?

    I’ve pretty much given up on thinking it’ll be anymore than a “show-me” pitch, but that’s not to say Hughes won’t be great. (At least) 3 great pitches, excellent command of all of them, and excellent control for a pitcher his age; I think he’ll be perfectly OK with what he has.

    • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside


  • Simon B.

    The thing is, Hughes has thrown his changeup fairly frequently outside of the majors, and it looked decent from what I’ve seen.

    So I’m wondering how much of it is simply a lack of confidence which would lead to lack of practice rather than a lack of technique with it. The changeup is so much different from other pitches because instead of relying on velocity or break, it’s basically a optical trick, and so it seems harder to trust a pitch which isn’t much different from a fastball except ~10 mph off your good stuff.

    In interviews, he’s said himself that he “doesn’t want to be beaten by his 4th best pitch”, which I think is a poor way to approaching things.

    Hughes has (or had, until he changed his grip with it) good speed differential and arm speed. He just wasn’t able to command it very well, perhaps because he threw it so rarely at the major league level.

    I was always thinking that he should just throw about ten a game even if he couldn’t command it for a strike. That way, he helps himself in the game theory part of pitching, and hitters have to think about another pitch he could bring out at any time. He would also gain more practice with it.