A little missing from Phil’s fastball

Fan Confidence Poll: July 26th, 2010
A look at the Yankees' trade deadline history, 2005-2007

There is no doubt that Phil Hughes‘s fastball has been his most effective weapon this season. FanGraphs’ pitch type values rates it as 12.7 runs above average, and he has gotten the majority of his swings and misses this season with the four-seamer. It has been the main difference between Hughes the starter in 2008/2009 and Hughes the starter in 2010.

Photo credit: Elaine Thompson/AP

After gaining a reputation in the minors for throwing 92-94 and touching the upper 90s, Hughes had trouble cracking 91 on the radar gun during his early years. This was less noticeable in 2007, when PitchFX data wasn’t widely analyzed. But in 2008 his velocity was front and center. After suffering a hamstring injury in 2007 Hughes might have been tentative with his fastball in 2008, but even in 2009 he wasn’t hitting 92 with any consistency as a starter. It took a move to the bullpen for him to rediscover his fastball.

Given the opportunity to empty the tank in short spurts, Hughes took advantage. His fastball averaged around 95 mph while pitching out of the pen, and he took those lessons with him to camp this year. His fastball now averages 92.5 mph, made all the better by his newfound cut fastball. That one comes across a bit slower, but it substitutes speed for movement, giving Hughes two different looks with the fastball. He has played them off each other well, and has generally been effective with both.

Lately we’ve seen a big of change in Phil. He has gotten hit a bit harder, resulting in an ERA that has gone from 2.54 at the beginning of June to 4.04 following yesterday’s game. Not all of his starts have been bad in that span, but he hasn’t been particularly effective or efficient in general. For instance, he pitched seven innings only three times in the past two months, while he reached that mark four times in May alone. He’s still throwing strikes, but it seems like they’re not of as high a quality as earlier in the year. Part of that rests on his fastball.

That’s not to say that there are problems with his fastball. He’s actually been pretty consistent with the speed, as you can see in his velocity chart:

Click for larger

Yesterday his velocity was a bit down from normal, averaging just under 92 mph and maxing out at just 93, while he had consistently broken 94 in nearly every previous start. That’s not a huge dip, though. What caught my eye, though, was the loss of vertical break. For the season Hughes’s fastball has averaged 9.9 inches of vertical break, which is right in line with where it’s been for most of his career. Just last Tuesday, when Hughes faced Anaheim, the vertical break on his fastball was above 10 inches. That resulted in five swinging strikes, a good rate for him this season. Yesterday, however, that break fell all the way to 8.91 inches, which is fairly pedestrian for Hughes.

A high vertical break number usually leads to what commentators will call a sneaky fastball. It doesn’t necessarily travel at breakneck speeds, but it kind of sneaks up on the batter. This was said of David Robertson last season, and to no surprise he averaged 11.2 inches of vertical break on his fastball. Hughes just didn’t have that sneaky aspect of his fastball going yesterday, and unsurprisingly he saw a lower than normal swinging strike rate, just 3 of 56 fastballs. Against the Angels last Tuesday he induced swinging strikes in five of 61 pitches. In his July 4 start he got seven swings and misses on 61 fastballs.

Normally we could just see this as a blip and move on — possibly being a bit thankful that it came against the Royals and not a team that could really capitalize. But with Hughes we’re moving into rough waters. He’s now past his innings total from last year, which wouldn’t be a big deal if he’d thrown more than 75 innings in 2008 and 105 innings in 2007. Instead he hasn’t hit the 111.1 inning mark since 2006. It makes projecting the remainder of his season a difficult proposal.

One thing we for which we can be thankful: Phil Hughes is not Joba Chamberlain. They’ve taken different paths to the bigs and have developed in distinctly different manners. There is no guarantee that Phil experiences the same issues that Chamberlain did last year when he hit his previous innings high. But underscores the big point: we don’t know how Hughes will react from here on out. That’s a bit scary for a team that need to continue its strong play for another two-plus months.

The good news is that Hughes has used his curveball a bit more. It’s gotten hit a bit, but it should become a more effective weapon as he uses it more. Yesterday he throw it 20 times, a healthy number considering his overall pitch total (95). If he does lose a little bit off the fastball due to fatigue, it’s the curveball he’ll need to get him out of jams. That seems like a positive for his development. The Yankees can only hope that it’s also a positive in terms of 2010 results.

Fan Confidence Poll: July 26th, 2010
A look at the Yankees' trade deadline history, 2005-2007
  • The Three Amigos

    The use of the curve was much better yesterday, now he only needs to throw 10/15 change-ups. As you mentioned the biggest thing going forward is uncharted waters. I think fatigue is going to be the biggest factor down the stretch.

    Girardi’s recent comments about Hughes innings limits being taken off in the post season and how he does not want to move him to the bullpen later in the year could end up being problematic.

    • Doug

      remember him throwing a few changes yesterday (not many for strikes though)….do you know the count?

      • http://www.riveraveblues.com Joseph Pawlikowski

        He threw 4, 2 for strikes.

        • Doug

          thanks, joe.

          seemed like more, but i guess since he throws so few of them, when he does throw one, it stands out that much more.

      • Mike HC

        He also threw at least 4-5 changes in the start before this as well.

        Along with fatigue, is it possible the inclusion of the change and curve more into the routine are subtly effecting the fastballs, negatively? I don’t know.

        • http://www.riveraveblues.com Joseph Pawlikowski

          He threw 12 changeups against the Angels, though only 3 for strikes.

    • Doug

      also, personally don’t understand how innings limits don’t apply to the postseason. could someone please explain?

      • CountryClub

        All hands on deck in the playoffs. Right or wrong, that’s how they view it.

        • Doug

          obviously, but makes little to no sense to me. if anything, they should count more since they’re more stressful by default.

          • CountryClub

            I don’t disagree with you. But I guess teams figure that once you get to the 2nd season, it’s worth any possible damage to win the title.

          • whozat

            Yes, but essentially the tradeoff point for the organization has changed. The risk is the same to the pitcher, perhaps even greater. But the upside to the org of taking on that risk is higher as well. Flags fly forever, postseason games bring in money, being a consistent contender brings in money and helps recruit players…

            You’re always trying to maximize long-term benefit for the organization. One way to do that is to protect your young arms, so that you have cost-controlled quality pitching. Another is to win championships. Once you’re in the postseason, you’re willing to risk more to increase your odds of achieving that increased upside.

            • Doug

              thanks, whozat. you too, CC

        • Pete

          the thing that i don’t get is, if a guy is considerably past his innings limit, wouldn’t he likely be losing effectiveness fast, and therefore be an unwise choice for significant innings in the playoffs?

  • Mike HC

    You’re the man Joe. You are excellent at this type of player analysis. Nothing to add.

    • pat

      Get a room!

      • Mike HC


        It is just a very easy to read and understand, flowing article, without feeling the need to have an “angle” or overload us with information.

        They are some of the best articles on the site, in my opinion of course.

        • pat

          Haha, I agree. Joe breaks it down for us simple folk without beating us over the head with stats.

  • http://mystiqueandaura.com Steve H

    While Phil and Joba were developed differently, it’s kind of eery that Joba’s numbers last year thru July 26th are pretty similar, though Joba’s BB rates were much worse.

    Let’s hope that Hughes doesn’t follow the same path, but like you said, we don’t know.

    • ZZ

      I think it is interesting a few people in the comments have mentioned the similarities in the numbers.

      In general it seems that people on this site lean on FIP and xFIP fairly frequently, but I haven’t really seen it mentioned in regard to Joba last season.

      • http://mystiqueandaura.com Steve H

        That’s why I left out ERA (and didn’t calculate FIP). Joba’s FIP would obviously be higher due to the higher walk total, but the numbers are still pretty close. Joba’s K rates were very promising and just about every pitcher, ever, had high BB rates in (at least) their first full season starting. Heading into this year Phil had essentially a full seasons worth of starts (28) vs. 12 for Joba. That’s a huge difference in the development of a young pitcher. In Phil’s first 21 starts his BB rate was 3.7/9. Joba’s thru July 26th last year was 4.23/9. Pretty comparable.

        • Rob

          Joba has a higher K rate as a starter.

        • Jose the Satirist

          I did a quick calculation for you.

          Joba 2009 thru July 26th: 4.75 FIP, 3.86 ERA
          Hughes 2010 thru July 26th: 4.00 FIP, 4.04 ERA

          • http://mystiqueandaura.com Steve H

            Yeah, so that’s all tied to the BB rate. Considering the experience variances, I don’t think that’s a huge difference. With the K and HR rates where they were for Joba, the odds were solid that he would improve his BB rate and get his FIP more in line.

            • Rob


    • jsbrendog (returns)

      uh oh, don’t say eerie or mondesi will come after you….

      • http://mystiqueandaura.com Steve H

        I’ll throw him a chicken wing to fend him off.

  • bonestock94

    I guess correction and exhaustion needed to be expected with Hughes. Makes Pettitte’s vacant slot a little more worrisome, hopefully things will go better than saturday.

    • CountryClub

      Correct. I don’t think enough is being made that his career innings high came in 2006. What is Phil going to have left in the tank when he gets to 170 later this year?

  • Rob

    “One thing we for which we can be thankful: Phil Hughes is not Joba Chamberlain.”

    Yet Joba has been the better major league starter.

  • forensicnucchem

    I think Hughes is/should be a huge concern for the team right now. Since his first 6 starts of the year his ERA is nearly 5. In those 12 starts he has only 5 quality starts. Those 5 quality starts have come against the 3 lowest scoring teams in baseball (one of them twice) and the Mets who are the 8th lowest scoring team in baseball.

    Obviously, he wasn’t quite Mitre-ish yesterday, and you don’t know what might have happened if he was able to continue, but that was not a performance that would or should instill any confidence in people, IMO.

    • Mike HC

      It is a bit of a transition time for Hughes I think. He dominated the league with two pitches for a little while, the league adjusted, and he is now in the process of making adjustments of his own, namely the incorporating the curve and change. It will take some time and hopefully by the end of his season, he will get it down pat.

      • JohnnyC


    • Ross in Jersey

      He was pretty far from Mitre-ish, actually. He gave up one well-struck ball (The Ankeil bomb) everything else was a dunker and Scotty Pod’s foul-ball-that-somehow-stayed-fair homer. He didn’t walk anyone, which is a good sign. He couldn’t quite put guys away, but it was definite improvement.

      • Doug

        “He couldn’t quite put guys away”

        this has been a problem for a while now. and it’s not good with all the fly balls he’s giving up.

      • forensicnucchem

        Well, once again though it came against the 5th lowest scoring offense in the league and the 2nd lowest walking offense in the league, so again, it’s not overly impressive considering his actual line.

  • YankeesJunkie

    I would like to mention Hughes’s home/away splits. On the road Hughes has given up 0 home runs while at home he has given up 2.06 HR/9. Neither of those rates are sustainable so maybe part of it is that Hughes has not quite learn how to pitch well in a park that does tend to its fair share of home runs. This is all part of the development of a young starter and there are going to be ups and downs, but hopefully he will take this year and have a better next year.

  • http://www.lessthismorethat.com/author/ddarrell Jamal G.

    Does the decrease in the vertical break of his four-seamer have anything to do with what you hear about a pitcher “not getting on top” of the heater? Essentially, does anyone know enough about pitching mechanics to comment on whether this could be logically attributed to it?

  • theyankeewarrior

    His fastball will produce more swing-and-misses when he develops his changeup. Sure, his curve is a nice off-speed pitch, but when he doesn’t have his “best hook” (AJ’d) it allows hitters to look for one or the other in terms of velocity.

    Yes, his cutter has helped too, but it’s still a form of a fastball, and the velocity is similar to that of his 4-seamer.

    He really needs to develop his changeup, and I hope that throwing it 4 times a week is not their plan to make it a plus pitch.

    Ankiel, Podsednik, and the rest of KC’s league average lefties would have been the perfect team to start utilizing it on.

    • theyankeewarrior

      Btw, I like the post. I didn’t mean for my response to sound otherwise.

      I just wanted to note that a reliable changeup will help a guy like Hughes to get through times when his heater isn’t necessarily blowing the world away.

  • Betsy

    Phil was pitching through a rib injury in 2008 – that explains the diminished velocity