Is Phil Hughes’ pitch selection really a problem?

Game 62: Javy vs. Wandy
Thames hits the DL with hamstring issue, Huffman recalled

There has been a much discussion around Phil Hughes and his lack of secondary pitches this year. Sure enough, he has primarily relied on the fastball and cutter, rarely broken out the curve, and the changeup we read about all winter is seemingly non-existent. There’s certainly some concern here as he starts to see teams for the second, third and fourth times this year, but if he can get by without mixing his pitches too much, should he?

We all remember Hughes’ start against the Red Sox where he couldn’t put anyone away and the Sox were fouling off pitches left and right. It was concerning, and was prefaced by a post that was questioning how Hughes would do the second time around.  The post turned out to be spot on for that appearance. While that start seems to stick out amongst a ton of great starts, I think we as fans are coming back to that start a little too often. I have read and heard a bunch of people talking about Hughes’ lack of mixing his pitches and that Sox start is being used as an example. He certainly struggled that night without being able to put batters away, but what do the stats tell us about Hughes’ ability so far to get people to swing and miss?

In researching this, I came across some pretty interesting info, but Hughes certainly isn’t struggling with foul balls and getting batters to swing and miss. He is inducing swinging strikes right up there with the best pitchers in the game (a group he may be on the way to joining). So far Hughes has managed to get swings and misses on 9% of his total pitches. Without context that’s somewhat meaningless, but let’s take a look at how some other pitchers are doing.

Lester 10%
Burnett 7%
Price 8%
Buchholz 10%
Verlander 8%
Halladay 10%
Jimenez 9%
Johnson 11%
Lincecum 13%
Wainwright 10%

In the AL, Verlander and Burnett possess some of the most lethal, swing and miss stuff in baseball, and yet Hughes is getting more swinging strikes than them. He’s also ahead of Price, and just below Boston’s duo of Lester and Buchholz. John Lackey, (not to be confused as having great stuff or being a great pitcher despite being paid like one) has garnered swings and misses on just 6% of his pitches this year. Clearly the guys in the NL have an advantage in that they are facing weaker lineups, but Hughes’ is getting as many swing and misses as Jimenez, who is off to a historic start, and is just behind Halladay and Wainwright.

I think a lot of the concern with Hughes’ pitch usage so far stems mainly from that Red Sox game, and sure enough that was his worst game all year in terms of swings and misses with just 5. We, as people, do a great job of remembering the outliers, not the norm. Is there a chance that the Yankees and Hughes have decided to try to get by early in the season on a limited repertoire, only to unleash everything else as the season goes along? It’s pretty far fetched, but if he’s having so much success with primarily two pitches, what’s the use of using the curveball and change? The obvious answer is that he doesn’t want to lose the feel for those pitches, though maybe he is focusing on those pitches in his side sessions. Again, I don’t think that was the plan, but he may be comfortable enough, and having enough success, that it’s not worth throwing the kitchen sink at the Detroit Tigers in a game in May. I don’t think Hughes will continue to have the same success going forward without mixing in more curves and changes, but in the meantime, I don’t mind the pitch selection. As soon as he starts getting hit (and that could mean within a game), they need to switch it up ASAP.  He’s not always going to have his best fastball, in terms of location or velocity, and while he hasn’t had major struggles yet, when the time comes, Hughes and the Yankees will need to respond.

For more of my work head over to Mystique and Aura.

Game 62: Javy vs. Wandy
Thames hits the DL with hamstring issue, Huffman recalled
  • mike c

    perhaps the 2nd half of the year hughes will mix in additional pitches to throw off scouting reports?

    • Pete

      I think this is likely. He seems to be getting the most out of facing a lot of eh lineups and not really facing the same team twice except for Boston. One would think he’d start working in more pitches once they start hitting the stuff he’s throwing.

  • CapitalT

    Where can we see his pitch selection per game?

  • AltaJoe

    Personally, I’d like to see him come in high and hard 2x an inning. Not headhunting, just hands to shoulder 5″ off the plate. Make sure it is not mistaken for “one that got away”, but a FB intended to get the batter’s attention.

    Also, once in a while I’d like to see the waste pitch cap high over the plate, just to stop the batter’s from zoning the knees.

    • Pete

      I dunno about twice an inning, but I’d agree he could get a little more mileage out of the FB (not that he’s not already getting great mileage out of it) if he did a little more to keep hitters off the plate and off the low fastball. On the other hand, though, he seems to lull them into thinking they can hit anything because he throws so many fastballs for strikes, which helps him get a lot of ground balls.

      I think an issue is that he seems to have the same game plan every time out there. This would be fine if every lineup were the same, but they obviously aren’t. His current method of just pounding the bottom of the zone with tons of FBs and cutters works extremely well against mediocre or worse offenses, but better lineups will require not only more diverse pitch selection, but also more diverse location.

  • Pete

    Great post, Steve. I completely agree. Hughes has a good enough curveball to keep most hitters honest, but he, very smartly, does not overuse it. His greatest weapon is his combination of a quality FB/Cutter duo and great command. Command of a fastball and a cutter can lead to much quicker outs (via weak contact), and also makes the curveball better.

    I really think pitchers need at least three very good pitches to get by on “mixing it up” in the way that Vazquez does. Even Pettitte relies primarily on a FB/Cutter combo, and he doesn’t have anywhere near the bite on his FB that Hughes does.

    Every pitcher is preached at from HS on that they need to mix their pitches, not rely too much on the FB, etc, but it gets to a point where pitchers overvalue their offspeed pitches. I noticed during the Strasburg debut that he rarely doubled up fastballs, and almost never threw three in a row. This is a guy who throws his FB 99+ with regularity and commands both that and his 94+ two-seamer. When you can do that, you can significantly decrease the risk of hanging a breaking ball or changeup by throwing 80+% fastballs.

    Of course, Strasburg’s curveball is incredibly nasty, so there’s not really a lot of harm in throwing it say, 20% of the time, but he shouldn’t take the risk of hanging it if he doesn’t need to. And considering his changuep, which is slow enough and has enough movement to get hitters out if it is thrown sporadically enough, should be thrown ~5% of the time. It wasn’t, and the result was Delwyn Young hitting a home run off of it.

    I’m starting to get off track a bit, but what I’m getting at is this – it’s all about command and finding the right balance. Against a team like the Sox, Hughes has to be particularly careful because if he throws too many curves, they’ll start to see it better and will hammer anything that’s not executed perfectly, but they can also catch up to his FB, so if he lets them get too comfortable, they’ll jump all over him.

    I think it would be smart for Hughes to start incorporating the changeup against particularly strong lineups if he has already faced them. Like I said, simply shifting the balance towards a higher curve/FB ratio wouldn’t work because it would give them too much familiarity with the curve, but obviously he needs to do a little more to keep hitters off balance than he did last time. My guess is that something like a 50/30/15/5 ratio of (respectively) FB/Cutter/Curve/Change would get the job done, assuming he has good command of each.

  • ZZ

    When you have a fastball like Hughes it acts as more than one pitch.

    Mixing up pitches has commonly become known as simply throwing different pitches. But, that is not really the most effective way to mix it up or what many elite pitchers do or have been taught to do.

    Changing eye levels, pitching to different quadrants, etc. is usually the most effective way to mix it up, depending on the quality of the pitcher’s stuff.

    Going forward though (and that does not even mean this year), Phil is likely going to have to use his changeup a little more to keep LH off balance.

    He is quickly turning into a guy you build a rotation around for 10+ years. The Yankees have done a fantastic job with him and made a great internal decision to put him in the rotation this year.

    • Pete

      Yup. Also, a fastball when you think a curve is coming is (slightly) more effective than a curve when you think a fastball is coming.

  • templeton “brendog” peck

    Great write up sir. I agree with this. It makes me all squishy on the inside thinking the yanks may have developed an ace.

  • Mike HC

    Not that I have even really seen any problem with Hughes, but the “not putting hitters away” thing kinda focuses on situations with two strikes on the batter. I don’t think anyone had a problem with Hughes missing bats in general. Just with two strikes, everyone knows a fastball is coming and its tough to throw 90-93 mph fastballs by Major League hitters when they not only know its coming but have also shortened there swing with two strikes.

  • YankeesJunkie

    The big thing for Hughes moving forward would be to develop his change up to the point he feels confident with it and can use. Other than that though he has been developing nicely for a 23 yr old pitcher who has a fastball and cutter both at 2 runs above average per 100 pitches.