Hughes’s troubles finishing off Sox hitters

All's well that ends well
The Bullpen Problem
Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

As Mike discussed yesterday morning, last night was the first time this season that Phil Hughes faced a team for the second time. He basically blew away previous opponents, even surviving on pure stuff when he didn’t have great command against Baltimore. Last night his stuff was undeniable, but he had his share of troubles. Once J.D. Drew took him deep in the fifth, it became, by far, his worst start of the season.

Hughes’s problems started in the first. Though he retired the Red Sox 1-2-3, he required 19 pitches to do so, including 10 pitches to J.D. Drew. It took a monster 96 mph fastball to finally retire him. Still, he put himself in a tough position going forward. He’d have to keep his pitch count down in order to last longer than six innings. Things got so bad that he wouldn’t even start that inning.

The second inning actually lasted longer, 21 pitches, and included two hits, including one that allowed a run to score. That wasn’t too devastating, considering the Yanks had already put five runners across the plate. Adrian Beltre actually hit a pitch out of the zone to drive in Youkilis, so maybe it wasn’t all on Phil. A few hits will mean a few extra pitches in the inning, but we’ve seen pitchers settle down after a few long innings and still get through six or seven.

The Ortiz homer in the fourth was a bit annoying, but that didn’t compare to the fifth. Hughes started out quickly, retiring Jeremy Hermida and Darnell McDonald on just three pitches. He then got ahead of Marco Scutaro 1-2, but failed to retire him on two fastballs and a cutter. The final fastball led to a single up the middle. He got ahead of Dustin Pedroia 1-2 but again couldn’t put him away. Pedroia fouled off two fastballs, a cutter, and a curve before working the count full and then doubling on a cutter right down the middle.

Most frustrating, though, was Drew’s at-bat. Hughes actually got ahead 0-2 on Drew, but couldn’t finish him off. Drew fouled off an outside fastball before hammering a cutter inside. Both home runs came off cutters, so I think it’s fair to say that the pitch wasn’t exactly working for him. Or maybe the Red Sox had a better idea of what to expect. The two cutters in question were inside enough, but belt high. So maybe it was a problem with location.

Mostly, though, his problem was his inability to put away hitters. He only walked one, and threw 68 percent of his pitches for strikes. Problem was, they weren’t necessarily good strikes. In fact, here’s the breakdown of those 71 strikes: 20 called strikes, 28 foul balls, 18 in play, and only 5 swinging strikes. Coming into the night he had a 9.7 percent swinging strike rate (that is, percentage of strikes that are of the swing and miss variety). Last night it was down to 7 percent. The foul balls were the real killers, as they ran up his pitch count and gave hitters longer lives. A few of them, like Pedroia, proved to be trouble.

This isn’t to say that Phil will have problems going forward. He didn’t seem his sharpest last night, and it showed when hitters fouled off pitches that, on better nights, they’d miss completely. That changes the game from a pitcher’s standpoint. The high number of balls in play didn’t help, either. Hughes faced 22 batters, and 18 of them put the ball in play. That’s well above his normal rate. Again, it goes back to all the fouls. He couldn’t put guys away, so instead of setting them down on strikes he had to rely on his fielders. While the Yanks defense is by no means bad, allowing so many balls in play can hurt from time to time. It’s the nature of the game.

I wouldn’t worry about Phil, though. This start almost ended well for him. By the end, though, as his pitch count ran into the 90s in just the fifth inning, he might have been tiring. That doesn’t excuse the performance, but instead gives him something to build on. His next chance comes over the weekend against the Mets.

All's well that ends well
The Bullpen Problem
  • The Three Amigos

    The one thing that is worrying is what Dave Eiland said about him relying too much on his cutter. He needs to keep mixing up his pitches and throw his changeup more. It can be an average pitch down and away and go along way towards keeping hitters guessing. 10 changeups a game to keep lefties off balance would be beneficial.

  • A.D.

    Seemed with the 2 HR cutters, up in the count, against lefties, I’d expect him to really bury that in on the hands, where ultimately it isn’t a strike. Instead it looked like he tried to nail the corner, thus leaving it in the strike zone & a far better pitch to hit.

    • Moshe Mandel

      Agreed. I thought the Ortiz pitch actually got far in, but on the Drew pitch, Cervelli set up on the hands, and it didn’t comec lose to that. Didn’t even make it to the corner.

  • Steve H

    He, despite obviously struggling was essentially 1 pitch away from a 5 innings/2 run performance with a bloated pitch count. Leading the AL in ERA was nice and all, but Hughes is going to struggle. The best thing that could have happened to him was his hot start, but it’s obviously going to lead to some unreasonable expectations going forward (from unreasonable fans). The Sox are going through the same thing with Buchholz (without nearly as good a start as Hughes got off to), and lest we forget, Buchholz is 2 years older than Hughes. Last night’s performance may be disappointing, but not surprising.

  • Steve

    I agree – I kept watching that 5th inning pitch selection to Scutaro, Pedroia and then Drew. They were all sitting dead-red on that fastball. Phil wasn’t locating his cutter, or curveball especially, well. Those 3 were just up there looking fastball and taking their hacks and pulling it hard. I kept thinking that Hughes should throw that change-up to Drew and see if he’d chase it. I remember seeing him throw one to Ortiz in the 2nd inning. It wasn’t a bad pitch, it had good movement, it was just a little low.

    He’s got that change-up, he’s just gotta learn to trust it in the game. Hopefully, Eiland and the catchers will work with him on this. Otherwise, the league will learn to adjust soon enough.

  • MattG

    I only got to see Hughes pitch the fifth inning, when the cutter was located poorly, and the curve was totally absent. He also mixed in a couple of 91/92 MPH fastballs. You say the stuff was undeniable, but in the fifth, it was anything but.

  • Brien Jackson

    He missed his spot pretty badly with the cutter to Drew, but other than that the Sox just did a good job of fighting off his fastball and forcing up his pitch count and not striking out. That’s gonna be rough on anyone, and he suffered more as his pitch count went up towards the end. It happens.

    I agree that the Sox really looked like they were sitting on the cutter. Hughes is going to have to start using his changeup.

    • Steve H

      Agree. You have to give the Sox some credit. Despite all of the “pitching and defense” we’ve read about, their offense remains among the best in the league, even without Ellsbury and Cameron.

      • bexarama

        Funnily enough, their offense has been very good while their pitching has been completely atrocious.

  • Jake H

    I thought Dave E should have come out after those 2 long at bats to Scutaro and Pedroia. Give him a breath, let him get his wind back and then attack Drew. Also he struck out Drew on a cutter in so why not go away? I thought it was a bit of bad pitch selection at that point since he dominated them with the cutter in when he pitched at Boston.

  • Matt :: Sec105

    On a night Hughes didn’t have his best stuff, he wasn’t able to grind one out, like he’s done a few times before this year.

    You always hear Pettitte (and, er…cough…clemens) talk about loving those starts where they didn’t have great stuff, but found a way to grind through and deliver a respectable performance.

    Hughes, was unable to do this. As noted, having a hard time to finish seemed to be the problem. Kind of like playing old school mortal combat and you don’t execute the right button combo for a gory finish move (ie: heart rip out).

    I’m willing to kind of throw this one away, BUT I am very interested in seeing how he bounces back…even though it’s versus the lowly Mets in spacious Citi Field (he does face Pelfrey though, young-gum match-up, kinda cool).

  • Chris

    Coming into the night he had a 9.7 percent swinging strike rate (that is, percentage of strikes that are of the swing and miss variety). Last night it was down to 7 percent.

    I don’t think this is that big a deal. The difference between 7 percent and 9.7 percent is two swinging strikes. That’s not too surprising when facing the team with the second best contact rate in baseball.

    • bexarama

      As someone said, if one of those swinging strikes is Pedroia or Drew in the 5th (wasn’t Scutaro on like a 1-2 count when he singled too?), Phil goes 5 IP with 2 ER (maybe 6 IP if he gets Scutaro out quickly).

      I love parentheses.

      • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside the Elder

        I love parentheses.

        Januz, is that you?

    • Joseph Pawlikowski

      Yes, it is big deal. If two fouls turn into two swinging strikes, the whole game changes. They’re strikeouts instead of balls in play.

  • Lex

    Coming into the night he had a 9.7 percent swinging strike rate (that is, percentage of strikes that are of the swing and miss variety). Last night it was down to 7 percent.

    Oh my!
    Not 7 percent!

    • Steve H

      If one of those foul balls to Drew was a swinging strike then he gets out of it at 5 innings and 2 runs. That’s kind of a big difference.

  • Dan

    In the fifth, Hughes got the first two outs quickly, then Pedroia, who was locked in, saw about 75 pitches and reached Hughes for a 2-2 hit, then Drew, also with two strikes got the HR. Those two ABs completely changed the character of Hughes appearance, because 5 innings, two runs, no big deal, but 5 and 4 is a big deal.

    The pitch before Pedroia’s hit, Hughes had him struck out. It looked like a sharp slider, Sparky Lyle style for those who go back that far, started off the plate inside, then broke over and had Pedroia dead. The problem was that Cervelli was set up outside, and lunged across the plate to catch this pitch while rising to his feet. That probably caused the umpire to miss the call as Cervelli must have past through his vision of the pitch.

    I’d love to see a graph of this pitch, because I was watching without sound and there was no replay, but Pedroia looked dead for what looked like strike three, three outs, and a good outing for Hughes.

    • Brien Jackson

      Boone and Nomah were talking about that on ESPN. Both of them thought it was a strike, but all the catcher movement messes up the ump.

      • Chris

        Brooksbaseball has the pitch as a ball, just out of the zone. It’s close enough that it could probably have been called either way.

    • Thomas

      It was borderline on the ball side. Here is the graph (4th one down): (safe).

  • Klemy

    I kept thinking he was missing his spots more than usual during the game. He was missing Cervelli’s targets more than previous starts it seemed, but maybe I was imagining it due to the severity of damage done on a couple pitches?

  • Mark

    I think the most glaring issue was that he didn’t have good command of his curveball. He has a definite plus curveball – and could throw more if they keep fouling off the cutter. Most curveballs he threw were in the dirt last night. If had his usual command of the curveball – would have been a much better outing.

  • ZZ

    In a lot of ways last night was a very positive start for Phil Hughes.

    To a certain extent, he really did grind through that start. Like others have pointed out, he was one pitch away from 5 innings, 2 runs which is not bad on a night like that.

    If he does get through with 5/2 we all look at this start much different.

    But, really the biggest problem of the night was pitch selection. That is a very easily correctable problem and Hughes will be better off now that he really saw the consequence of falling in love with his cutter.

    Hughes will be better off in the long run, because of the way things transpired last night.

    • Klemy

      I agree with this. That’s the silver lining of the performance.

  • Kevin M.

    He needs to mix in more curveballs and more change-ups to prevent hitters from sitting dead red. Hopefully the 2 HR’s on cutters will be a bit of a wake up call against falling in love with the cutter.

  • Steve H

    Jorge Posada clearly needs to do a better job of calling pitches.

    Wait, what?

    • Thomas
    • ZZ

      I think you’ll see Posada catching Hughes as often as possible for the rest of the season.

  • sfoperator

    Phil has struggled over his last two games. He was able to fight his way through his previous start, but against a Red Sox team that still knows how to hit, it fell apart. Hopefully this is a blip on the radar and he goes back to being the CY Young candidate we’ve been seeing so far this year.

    • bexarama

      Phil has struggled over his last two games. He was able to fight his way through his previous start,

      You mean the one against Detroit (that was his last start, right?)? He had one bad inning and cruised the rest of the time, IIRC.

  • Mike HC

    The Ortiz homer can on a 85 mph pitch that the announcers called a change up, but looked more like a messed up cutter. It also looked like he kinda tripped on his windup. Just a fucked up pitch.

    For the Drew homer, it just looked like Drew flat out beat him. Hughes even showed him the curve in that at bat if I remember correctly. Drew just got the better of him.

    • bexarama

      Yeah, JD Drew is a very good hitter. Even when Hughes got him out, he made him work a lot. I would dare say he is better than Pat Burrell.

      /if you didn’t see that in last night’s thread, ignore this statement’d

      Oh, and apologies for the slight OTness, but Ortiz took his sweet-ass time getting around the bases, didn’t he?

  • Captain Jack

    Unsustainable results, he was due for an awful start sooner or later…if he makes a habit of it fine; but for now there isn’t much cause for concern about him facing a team for the second time.