Where did Phil Hughes’ curveball go?

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Like most (all?) of you guys, I spent my Sunday evening watching Phil Hughes pitch part of the 8th inning in the Yankees’ series clinching win over the Twins. And also like most of you, I was waiting for Hughes to throw either Denard Span or Orlando Cabrera a curveball, a curveball that ultimately never came. In fact, just 3 (3!) of the 59 pitches Hughes threw in the ALDS were curveballs, that’s it. This wasn’t the first time I found myself wondering if St. Phil was ever going to break out Uncle Charlie, and it seemed like I was waiting for it more and more as the season progressed.

Since your memory can deceive you (“Memory can change the shape of a room; it can change the color of a car. And memories can be distorted. They’re just an interpretation, they’re not a record, and they’re irrelevant if you have the facts,” said the guy in Memento), I decided to turn to good ol’ PitchFX and dig up the facts. First things first, let’s take a look at Hughes’ pitch selection this season. Remember to click any chart in this, or pretty much any RAB post, for a larger view.

Phil Hughes' Pitch Selection, 2009

As you probably expected, Hughes went fastball heavy once he shifted to the bullpen, as he should. There’s no point messing around with your third or fourth best pitch as a reliever, and you can clearly see that his velocity spiked after the move. As for how much he was throwing each pitch as the season progressed, well that graph comes after the jump.

Phil Hughes' Cumulative Pitch Selection As A Reliever, 2009

What we have here is how much Phil Hughes threw each of his four pitches (as a reliever) as the season went along. In mid-July he was throwing about 58% fastballs and about 28% curveballs. By the end of the regular season, those numbers were 67% and 20%, respectively. So obviously my suspicion was correct, Hughes was throwing more fastballs and fewer curveballs later in the year than he did while he was making a name for himself as a setup man.

Why is Hughes going more and more to his fastball now? I have no idea, and frankly it’s unlikely we’ll ever know. There are so many variables in play that it’s not even worth speculating. Maybe he has a blister, maybe he’s just struggling with the pitch, maybe he’s hurt, maybe he’s just too proud of his fastball. Who knows. The real question is this: is it affecting his performance?

In an attempt to find out, I took a look at how Phil’s FIP changed as the season went on, so let’s check that out:

Phil Hughes' FB-CB Ratio vs FIP, 2009

The blue line is Hughes’ fastball-curveball ratio. So if we go back to that mid-July reference point again, Phil was throwing 2.07 fastballs for every one curveball. At the end of the season, he was up to 3.54 fastballs for every yakker. That big spike in FIP in early September was when he gave up the leadoff homer to Jason Bartlett, tying the game in the 8th. The Nick Swisher walk-off game. It would have taken months to bring his FIP back down pitching just one inning stints every few days.

Anyway, as you can see from the graph, Hughes was still pretty damn excellent even though he was going more and more to his fastball. His K/BB ratio remained excellent, and he wasn’t even giving up many hits, looking at the game log. Heck, I even ran the numbers and found out that the numbers of pitches he needed per batter faced didn’t change, so it’s not like he’s having trouble putting guys away with just his heat.

So maybe this is all for naught, and I just wasted a bunch of time to dig up the data and create some pretty graphs. We do know for a fact that Hughes is throwing fewer curveballs now than he did all that summer, and we also know that it really isn’t affecting his performance. So what’s the problem?

Well, the problem is predictability. Jonathan Papelbon blew Boston’s season Sunday afternoon because he threw fastball after fastball after fastball, 26 straight at one point. Ex-Yank Bobby Abreu admitted in the post-game press conference that he was just waiting for a fastball on the outer half to flip towards the Monstah, knowing he’d get it eventually. Sure enough, Papelbon gave it to him, and Abreu did exactly that with it. It might not happen right away, but eventually hitters will just sit fastball against Phil, and eventually they’ll start to catch up to it and do some real damage. It might not happen in the playoffs, but if he keeps it up, it’s bound to happen eventually. No one lives on fastball alone.

That’s why it’s important for Hughes to keep that big bender in his repertoire, especially since he’s going to move back into the rotation next year. As good as Hughes is, he’s not Justin Verlander or Josh Johnson. He’s not a guy that can throw his fastball 67% of the time and dominate, he needs that knockout breaking ball to succeed like most mere mortals. For now though, the mostly fastballs approach is working. Just don’t expect it to work forever.

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  • larryf

    I noticed this too. It reminds me of Gossage years ago throwing #1 to Munson over and over. Goose had more movement on his fastball and that is the key to being able to throw it repeatedly. Hughes is not Gossage and he needs to throw the big curve with confidence early in the count. Might be something to look for if he comes into a game where we have a 2 run lead or more…Hey-even Joba mixes up his pitches out of the pen lately….

  • Joe R

    “No one lives on fastball alone.”

    Mo begs to differ.

    • http://bronxbaseballdaily.com Matt ACTY/BBD

      Well, yeah, but that’s one pitch he’s perfected over his entire career. If we were expecting Phil Hughes to be a closer, then this would not be much of a problem. However, since we expect a transition back to the rotation next year, his secondary stuff is going to need to be sharp. His cutter looks pretty good, but he’ll need that curve to keep everyone off balance.

    • http://imgur.com/NMNVd.jpg Joba Powers (all I needs is a jheri curl mullet)


    • the artist formerly known as (sic)

      Not the same. It’s not a straight fastball, it’s a cutter. Hughes’ fastball is a four seamer, as is Papelbon’s.


      • the artist formerly known as (sic)

        BTW, that’s sorta-kinda-not-really SFW.

  • pat

    For some reason it seems like guys are sitting waiting for the curve to come. Maybe he’s been tipping it and has lost confidence?

    • TheZack

      If batters are sitting curve, then shame on then. That is no approach to hitting.

      I think the problem seems to be more that when he does throw his curve, its right over the plate. But I’m too lazy to look it up.

      • pat

        True, I guess waiting for a pitch he only threw 3 out of 59 times is a pretty bad approach I know two of those times it was definitely hit.

        • Chris

          There was one foul, one weak pop-fly that dropped in, and one single from Mauer.

      • andrew

        Well, if Hughes is tipping the curve and having it get crushed as pat guessed, then no shame on them, that’s smart baseball.

        • TheZack

          No, it’s really not, especially considering how many times he threw it. And if a guy is throwing 95 and throws a 75 mph curve, its just really dumb baseball

      • http://cache.daylife.com/imageserve/0awG8jw7Ax5xR/610x.jpg Drew

        Either Sheffield or Manny sit offspeed and adjust to a fastball. I can’t remember which one it is, I’m leaning towards Shef.. It’s pretty nuts.

        • pat

          Well sheff certainly has the batspeed to adjust to a fastball.

  • vin

    I get the impression that Phil has so much confidence in his FB that he doesn’t want to get beat by throwing anything else. He’s facing the best teams’ best hitters (for the most part) and he’s attacking them with what he feels is his best pitch. I’ll begin worrying when guys start catching up to the heater, and doing something with it.

  • Doug

    Last 5 outings, he’s given up 8 hits over 2 2/3 innings as he’s basically become a one-pitch pitcher. At “only” 94/95, he can’t just throw his fastball. He has to mix it up to keep hitters honest, because otherwise, as Mike noted, hitters will more and more just sit on the fastball, knowing it’s coming.

    The Abreu quote on Papelbon was very telling as he has really become a one-pitch pitcher. Doesn’t even throw the split on 2-strike counts anymore. Started in the playoffs last year (and he heard about it in the local papers) and became even more pronounced this regular season and postseason.

    • http://bronxbaseballdaily.com Matt ACTY/BBD

      Last 5 outings, he’s given up 8 hits over 2 2/3 innings as he’s basically become a one-pitch pitcher. At “only” 94/95, he can’t just throw his fastball. He has to mix it up to keep hitters honest, because otherwise, as Mike noted, hitters will more and more just sit on the fastball, knowing it’s coming.


      • CountryClub

        He throws a lot of cutters. And he gets a good amount of swings and misses with it.

        • Doug

          based on the chart above, he throws the cutter 10% of time. wouldn’t consider 1 out of every 10 pitches “a lot” and personally, it’s not nearly enough. whether it’s the curve, or the cutter, or whatever, imo he needs to throw that non-fastball pitch upwards of 40% of the time. players are sitting more and more on his straight fastball, and unless it’s located perfectly, he’s going to start being hit more and more (again imo).

          • CountryClub

            Fair enough, but in the ALDS he threw it 20% of the time.

            • Doug

              well, i don’t have the raw data in front of me, but according to the chart, it says just under 10%.

    • http://cache.daylife.com/imageserve/0awG8jw7Ax5xR/610x.jpg Drew

      He gave up 2 runs on Oct 9th. He wasn’t throwing one pitch. He threw 15 Heaters and 7 offspeed pitches. 5 cutters at 87ish and 2 curves. 65% of his pitches were fastballs, that’s not too crazy for a reliever.

  • Tank the Frank

    Excellent post as always. This has been on a lot of our minds for some time now, as it’s obvious his use of his curveball has regressed.

    Personally, I believe that as he’s thrown it less and less, his feel for it has diminished and he’s no longer confident with it. One of the only curveballs he threw in the ALDS got hit in a big spot in a 3-2 battle…. I forget who the batter was.

    One of the better secondary offerings I’ve seen Hughes throw recently has been his cutter/slider (I have trouble distinguishing between the two). As we know, the slider was once Hughes’ go to out pitch, and I was happy to see him break it out and record a nasty strikeout with it in the ALDS (again, I forget the batter). I never liked the fact that he completely scrapped his slidepiece for a curve, and I think incorporating both into his repertoire with make him a more complete starter…but I digress.

    Hughes is now a power reliever. I would like to see him stick with a power 4-seam, cutter, slider approach. He always has the curve in his back pocket, and could throw it as a get me over for strike one. Again, personally, I’d like to see him stick with what’s working. And in this postseason, that’s been his FB-cutter/slider combo. It looks like he’s lost a feel for his curve. However, this doesn’t worry me. The curve has been a great pitch for Hughes for sometime now, and I’m confident he can rediscover it in the offseason and spring training in time to be a very effective starter for us next season.

  • The Lodge

    Great analysis and +1 for the Memento Reference too.

  • Will

    Didn’t he throw the curve to Punto when got the go ahead RBI in game 2? As a one inning guy, Hughes has pretty much shelved the curve, which I think makes a lot of sense. When he returns to the rotation next season, the Yankees have to make sure he really works on regaining the feel.

    • http://bronxbaseballdaily.com Matt ACTY/BBD

      But if he shelves the curve (for the most part) he’s going to have even less of a feel for it and it’ll be that much more rusty when he does throw it.

    • Tank the Frank

      Yeah, that’s what I was trying to reference in my post. He was in a 3-2 battle with Punto who kept fouling off his fastball, then he “fisted” a straight 12-6 curve into CF. I was surprised a hitter who had seen so many FB was able to hit the curve. I guess you just tip your hat to Punto.

      But when you finally break out your curve, and it gets hit in a big spot, it can’t do much for your confidence in the pitch.

  • Roster Rooster

    Denard Span saw more fastballs than almost anyone in baseball this year (68% of the time). The hitters above him? David Ekstien. Luis Castillo. Jason Kendall. CHONE FIGGINS. and tied with Emilio Bonafacio.

    A bunch of Punching Judy’s.

    I guess we can expect a maddening amount of FBs to Chone from all the pitchers.

    And if you look at pitch Value, O Cabrera sucks against FB’s (-.65/C) but Denard isnt on the list. I guess thats a case of “old school” scouts looking at Span’s unusually late swing and pumping him with FB’s, even though hes been good against the pitch (.41/C)

    BTW. Like Span, Chone has been very good good against FBs this year (.9/C), but still teams give him more heaters than almost anyone.

    I hope the scouts are aware of these stats, and dont just have the pitchers throw heat because Chone is a punching judy.

  • Guest

    Do we know what is BAA is on his curveball? Anecdotally, it seems like he has been giving up a lot of hits on the curveball (which is one of the reasons he has probably shelved it). My guess is this is a vicious cycle:

    1. Hughes doesn’t throw curve
    2. Hughes loses feel for curve
    3. Hughes drops a random mediocre curve to keep hitter of balanced (see Punto at bat)
    4. Hitter hits Hughes curve
    5. Hughes doesn’t throw curve

    He needs to get the feel for the curve back, certainly. But Im not sure the 8th inning of a close game in the ALCS is the place to do it.

    I’m with an earlier commenter: Use curve as “get me over” strike one on occasion. Otherwise, Fastball and cutter. Work on curve over Spring Training. Go back into starting rotation.

  • http://imgur.com/NMNVd.jpg Joba Powers (all I needs is a jheri curl mullet)

    Hughes ALCS checklist:

    spot fastball
    be deceptive/keep hitters honest by sprinkling in cutters, curves, and sliders

  • YankeeDoodleDandie

    As John Flaherty would say, Phil Hughes is proud of his fastball”. Unfrortunatley, he’s not so proud of his cureveball.

  • Accent Shallow

    I don’t believe he throws a slider, I’d bet that any pitches with that label are misidentifications of either the cutter or the curve.

    • Tank the Frank

      Yeah, I’m not sure what I saw. It wasn’t like any cutter I’d seen him throw before. The velocity was down a bit (87mph) from his usual 89, 90mph cutter and it was to a right hand batter, which made me think slider. Whatever it was, it was dirty, and I hope he throws it more often.

    • Chris

      His cutter is really basically a cross between a cutter and a slider. There’s really no clear distinction between a cutter, a slider and a curveball that could be applied to all pitchers. It just depends on what the pitcher calls it.

  • Chris

    The interesting this is that he’s not really getting hit hard. He gave up a lot of hits in the ALDS, but they were soft grounders or bloops. It sucks, but that’s the type of thing that will even out in the long run. He’s got 3 Ks and 1 BB in 2 IP in the ALDS. I put more faith in those numbers with the small sample sizes that we’re talking about.

  • Tank Foster

    When he was really unhittable a couple of months ago, it seemed to me what was getting the batters was the combination of the fastball and the cutter.

    I’m wondering if he’s struggling a bit with location, which makes it harder to throw the off speed pitches, and easier for batters to hit the fastball (because it’s not located optimally).

    • Tank the Frank

      To further that point, I think he was more successful when he was mixing his location up. He got a lot of strikeouts with fastballs up in the zone. He now seems to be going exclusively with fastballs on the outside corner with every batter, righty or lefty. It looks as if that’s led to a lot of deep counts with hitters knowing where the pitch is going and fouling his fastball off until they get a mistake. That could be more Jorge Posada than Phil Hughes.

  • MikeD

    Perhaps he’s been losing the feel for his curve as the season progressed since he throws it less frequently than as a starter.

  • Johnny

    I think his curveball is still sharp… It seems to have good break when he throws it. It looks like he’s always trying to get a strike with it though… He should bury it in the dirt occasionally.

    (This is coming from someone who has never pitched in his life)

    • Bo

      How can you say its sharp when we’ve havent seen it??

  • JRVJ

    Tank the Frank kind of alluded to this, but my big question is why isn’t somebody questioning Girardi’s pitch selection? (or to a lesser extent, Posada’s).

    I always thought that Girardi and/or his staff gave instrutions as to which pitches they want their pitches to throw.

  • Jerkface

    Someone who isn’t at work right now, or maybe someone at a lax work, should check out Hughes’ location to RHB and LHB. I feel like Jorge/Eiland/Whomever have Hughes pitching hard away almost exclusively.

    In his last ALDS appearance Hughes threw 1 inside pitch to a lefty, which punto swung through. It was a 94 mph fastball. Everything else to lefties was away, same with righties.

    He did not throw 1 ball in to a rightie. What the hell? What kind of gameplan calls for eliminating an entire half of the plate? its not like he was fighting David Ortiz.

    • Tank the Frank

      I think that was the gameplan for the entire Yankees pitching staff vs the Twins; right or wrong. They went away, away, away and forced the Twins to go opposite field, especially in the bullpen. The Twins did a good job IMO. They had a lot of opposite field hits and outhit the Yankees overall. But in the same regard, that also took away their power. They had zero HR and only 2 or 3 XBH off the top of my head.

  • Bo

    I wouldnt worry so much about it. They obviously had a plan when pitching to the Twins hitters. It was fastball heavy thinking perhaps they couldnt catch up to it. Maybe they make an adjustment here.

  • Mason

    I had heard that Mo had been working with Phil on a cutter. Maybe he’s just throwing that with enough bite to make hitters miss. I dont know how valid that information is but its possible. And if there is one guy who can live on the fastball alone, its Mo.