Phil Hughes through the lens of Pitch f/x

Open Thread: Death By Snow
Derek Jeter has more power to right than Albert Pujols

If there were an official Yankees pitcher of RAB, it would be Phil Hughes. Sure, Joba claims most of the attention, but back when we were just a fledgling site our big obsession was Hughes. We all followed him through the minors, and knew that in the year we launched, 2007, he would make his major league debut. Because the Yankees pitching staff was a shambles early in the year, Hughes got the call in late April, and wasted little time in dazzling us. Unfortunately, he wasted equally little time in ripping out our hearts.

For Hughes it was a long road to redemption. An ankle injury while performing calisthenics kept him on the DL for longer than initially anticipated, and we’d have to wait until his final start of the season for him to again dazzle us. It did help, though, that he looked like an ace in relief of the injured Roger Clemens during that year’s postseason. That was enough to win Hughes a spot in the rotation for 2008, though it was apparent early on that he hadn’t quite earned it, but rather benefited from a scarcity of reliable arms. Again we had to wait until Hughes’s final start to see a glimmer of hope.

We know from the start that 2009 would be different. Brian Cashman stocked the rotation, adding CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett to go along with incumbents Chien-Ming Wang, Andy Pettitte, and Joba Chamberlain. With the five rotation spots filled from the start, Hughes started the season in AAA, knowing he’d get the call in case of emergency. That happened early, and Hughes got off to a great start, pitching six shutout innings in Detroit, fanning six and and allowing just four baserunners. From there he went from bad to mediocre, interspersing it with easily his best start of the year, an eight-inning shutout in his return to Texas, where he had strained his hamstring just over two years prior.

From there he hit the bullpen, where, after a short adjustment period, he appeared a natural fit. His fastball blazed, so much so that he often threw it more than 80 percent of the time, mixing in the occasional cutter and curveball. The change in his fastball, however, included more than just velocity. It always does.

Most of the information we need to examine Hughes resides on his FanGraphs player page. Here we can see not only the average velocity and movement of his pitches, but we can also see, in graphical form, how they changed over the course of the season. Since Hughes switched to the bullpen mid-year, perhaps that will give us some insight into exactly what changed. First up, velocity chart:

Click for larger

Understandably, his velocity jumped at one point, not coincidentally around the time he joined the bullpen. Take a look at the plots prior to the rise, though. There’s one noticeable dip, Hughes’s sixth start of the season. That dot, believe it or not, represents his game in Texas. His fastball averaged just under 91 mph and maxed out just under 93. The difference that game, it appears, is that he threw it less frequently than in other starts. So maybe velocity isn’t the key at all.

Another trend that stands out is towards the end. It appears his fastball velocity consistently declines towards the end of the season. He seems to have recovered the fastball for the playoffs, though it wasn’t all that effective. But, as I said a few paragraphs above, a fastball is about more than just velocity. Vertical movement plays a part, too. Allow me a second to explain, though I’ll do so in more detail when we cover Pitch F/X in The stats we use. Feel free to skip the next paragraph if you’re familiar with Pitch F/X numbers.

Pitch F/X measures movement by comparing an actual pitch to one with no spin. A pitch with no spin would drop more quickly than a pitch with backspin, so vertical movement on fastballs is expressed as a positive number. In 2009 the average fastball “rose” 8.6 inches over the same pitch if it didn’t have any spin. Higher vertical breaks can mean a fastball is tougher to hit. David Robertson, for example, had a vertical break of 11.2 inches on his fastball, which is phenomenal.

Now, onto Hughes’s vertical movement chart.

Click for larger

For most of the season, Hughes’s vertical movement sat around that 10 inch mark. True to that, his average fastball vertical movement was 10.1 inches. But as his velocity dropped towards the end of the season, so did his fastball vertical movement increase. In that final game against the Rays, when his fastball averaged just under 93 mph, his vertical break was just under 11 inches. In his second playoff appearances, the one where he allowed two runs against the Twins, his fastball was back up to 94, but his vertical break was all the way down at 8.75 inches. Thankfully, it was back up over 10 for most of the playoffs.

We know that when Hughes eventually returns to the rotation that he won’t throw an average 94 mph fastball. We also know that he doesn’t need that type of velocity to succeed. Not only does he have that “sneaky” fastball — though, just so you think I’m not working on an agenda here, his vertical movement was at times sub-par, including in the Texas game, earlier in the year — but he also generates excellent movement on his curveball. The average curveball in 2009 moved 5.3 inches horizontally (away from a righty) and -5.2 inches vertically. Hughes’s curveball averaged 7.4 inches horizontally and -7.6 inches vertically. His cutter also had good horizontal movement. 0.2 inches (into a lefty) vs. a league average of -0.5, and while his vertical movement was below league average, you can see in the above chart that it did trend upward toward the end, along with the velocity (perhaps explaining the 4-seamer’s decreased velocity).

As I said in the Robertson post, it’s difficult to draw sweeping conclusions from this data. I’d like to think that it signals Hughes can succeed back in the rotation, even without that 94 mph fastball. He has good movement on it, and combined with a quality curveball and a developing cutter, he might be able to pitch six, seven, eight innings every five days. If not, we’ve seen his success in the pen, and that’s a pretty solid fallback option.

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Matt Slocum. Graphs credit:

Just for a trip down memory lane, here’s Hughes’s no-hit bid in Texas in 2007. Fastball vertical? Check. Curveball vertical? Check-plus — 7.47 horizontal and -9.76 vertical against league averages of 5.4 and -4.4. Ah, what could have been. Maybe we’ll finally realize it this season.

Open Thread: Death By Snow
Derek Jeter has more power to right than Albert Pujols
  • Chris A

    I too suffer from Hughes-obsession and that why it hurts me so much to know he is probably going to be in the bullpen this season. Don’t get me wrong, I want Joba in the rotation end of story, and I know Hughes out the bullpen is going to be a great force, but I want to see Hughes in the rotation so badly. I’ve always thought Hughes could be an excellent starter, and hopefully these numbers push that point a little bit more.

    • DP

      Patience, young Jedi. In 2011 it will be so.

      • Tom Zig

        2011: The Year of Phranchise
        2010: The Year of the Joba

        • Salty Buggah

          2010: The Year of the Joba
          2011: The Year of Phranchise and El Carpintero

          • W.W.J.M.D.

            2010: The Year of the Joba
            2011: The Year of Phranchise and the Righteous One

  • BigBlueAL

    My only thing is if Hughes is in the bullpen (and to me it would be an epic failure on Joba’s part if Hughes is in the rotation and Joba isnt) I hope he is used like Aceves was last year or Mo was in 1996 for 2 to 3 innings at a time and not this stupid 8th inning only or even worse 1 or 2 batter appearances that Hughes was having once he became the “8th inning” guy.

    There is no reason why Hughes even mostly out of the pen cant throw over 100 innings if not even much more if Hughes is given a few spot starts throughout the season.

    • W.W.J.M.D.

      I think Hughes will be used exactly as you hope and i agree it makes the most sense so that he can join the rotation in 2011, but you don’t have to worry about him getting alot of 8th inning appearences, that will be K-Rob’s job.

      • Crazy Eyes Killa

        I love every part of it, and K-Rob is a fuckin G

        • Slugger27

          i really prefer D-Rob

          K-Rob is too similar to K-Rod, and i hate that guy

          • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Archimedes Torquemada


            DRob >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> KRob

            • JMK the Overshare’s Mystique and Aura

              How about just “Rob”?

              • pete

                i think we should stick with the religious themes. Let’s just call him David.

            • Matt Imbrogno

              Either way, chicks dig the curve ball.

    • KayGee

      I just dont see Hughes being used like Aceves. Relievers dont throw that many innings anymore and I doubt the Yankees would risk it. Also, considering his highest single season innings total is over 146, his innings limit next year will more likely be based off a number closer to that (although I’m not sure how teams view this in terms of “how many seasons ago was that total). The difference between Hughes throwing 75 innings as opposed to 100 will not really affect his innings limit next year.

      If Hughes is going to be used in relief, I’d rather see him used in the highest leverage innings, whenever those innings occur. Just eliminate this “8th inning guy” crap that teams seem to be stuck on. The pecking order should be used in terms of leverage, not the inning number.

      • pete

        i agree. I don’t believe that workload refers specifically to innings totals – i’m sure that clubs have more advanced methods of monitoring them. And those would involve most likely not letting one of your premier young pitchers throw 120 innings as a reliever. His arm would fall off.

        • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Archimedes Torquemada

          Aceves is a 27 year old whose ceiling is probably a #4 starter (and that might be generous) or a top-flight middle reliever.

          Hughes is a 23 year old whose ceiling is a staff ace/Cy Young candidate.

          That’s why they’d never use him like Ace or Mendoza from back in the day. Al Aceves is a really useful piece, but if you break his arm permanently, it’s not the worst thing in the world.

          Breaking Phil Hughes’s arm would be a traveshamockery.

          • KayGee

            Exactly….and as I said above, I dont see 70-75 innings being any different from 100 innings in terms of his innings limit next year.

            I would just like to see Hughes used in the most important spots in the game as opposed to being the “8th Inning Guy”. If that means bringing Hughes in to get out of a tough spot in the 6th, a situation where Robertson/Marte could be more likely to walk a batter, letting him finish the 7th and handing it off to D-Rob/Marte in the 8th, so be it.

            • TheZack

              Right, but the difference between 75 innings and 130 innings could be huge. If Hughes throws 75 innings this season out of the BP, it will be over 4 seasons since he threw 146 IP as a 20 year old.

              I know its old news and its been debated before, but getting Hughes innings seems to be really, really, really important.

              • KayGee

                Right..but theres no way hes throwing 130 innings out of the bullpen…if you are talking about starting him in AAA, thats a different issue.

    • Bo

      Why would Girardi mess with success? Unless someone else is lights out as the primary set up guy it is Hughes’ job.

      • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Archimedes Torquemada

        Why would Girardi mess with success?

        Because success is not the binary “we won a title this year or we didn’t and nothing else matters” boversimplification you want to portray.

        Success is winning a title this year AND preparing to win a title in every year after that. Success thus requires foresight and planning, and often includes taking short-term sacrifices for long-term benefit.

        • Amy

          +28, 29, 30

          Imagine how filthy the next 5 years could be if Joba and Hughes both develop to their potential, and we still have CC Sabathia in his early 30s at the front of the rotation? … Wow, man.

  • themgmt

    Texas pitch f/x is always slower.

    • Lucas A.

      Yes; I was just going to say that.

  • Steve S

    The one thing about that Texas no hit bid was that Hughes was throwing a pretty decent changeup. I know his repertoire has changed in the last couple of years with tinkering, primarily the addition of the cutter but can he survive with those three pitches as a starter? If he is going to be a starter, does he need some time in AAA to help develop another pitch or at least master that cutter to a certain extent? That is really the reason I don’t get the Joba debates. Joba has shown the ability to throw two above average/effective pitches (slider and fastball even with the reduced velocity) and sometimes even throw the changeup and curveball very well.

  • Chip

    Actually, I think we got that 2007 version of Hughes again but the league adjusted to that massive curveball much the way they finally got around to doing the same to Zito. The good part is that Hughes also adjusted by throwing more of a spike curve now so it looks more like his fastball. I’m thrilled to see if Hughes can tear the league apart this year or next.

  • Tank the Frank

    Why can’t Hughes avg a 94mph fastball? I’m sure this has been discussed to death, but wasn’t that his velocity during his entire minor league career? I’m sure most of you have read the same scouting reports I did that pegged Hughes as a future ace with a fastball sitting 93-95 touching 96. I remember watching streaming video of Hughes pitching against Wade Davis for Scranton when they won the International Cup. His velocity was dead on in that start. I believe he struck out 11.

    I find it odd that both of the Yankees young starters tagged as potential aces have both lost velocity from what we’ve seen or read about during their minor league careers, and even from what we’ve seen in the majors. (And just to be clear, I’m talking about velocity as a starter. I’m well aware of the increase in velocity that comes from a switch to the bullpen).

    In each case, I’m inclined to believe that the reason lies with the injuries both players have suffered. I think in Joba’s case that can be clearly illustrated by the Pitch FX data before and after his shoulder injury. Hughes is a bit more puzzling. He’s been in and out of the rotation with nagging injuries and has never really been able to settle in. I think both Joba and Hughes’ velocity would benefit from a full, healthy season in the rotation, becoming more comfortable with their mechanics, and improving arm strength from throwing a full season in the rotation. Of course I could be (and most times I am) wrong.

    I too believe that both pitchers can succeed without 96mph fastballs. But we’ve all seen Hughes sit at 93 touching 95 and Joba sit at 95 touching 97 or so. I look forward to watching both of these kids stay healthy and hopefully regain that kind of velocity again.

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