For Hughes, an outing most foul

Hughes exits early in 6-3 loss to Jays
A welcome day of rest
Hughes gears up for a curveball (AP Photo/Mike Carlson)

As the first inning of last night’s game unfolded, one of the quirks of Phil Hughes‘ 2010 campaign came to the forefront. The Toronto Blue Jays’ hitters were fouling off pitch after pitch from the Yanks’ young right-hander, and the Jays’ offense simply wore down Hughes.

When Phil’s night ended rather abruptly with two outs in the fourth inning, he had thrown 102 pitches, and they weren’t half bad. The Pitch f/x gun — seemingly a few miles an hour too fast in Toronto — had him averaging 93 and touching 95 last night while he added in 25 curve balls and just a pair of change-ups. Of the 102 pitches he threw, he induced a whopping 19 swing-and-misses, but Blue Jays’ batters knocked out 25 foul balls. Out of the 66 strikes he threw, 39 percent of them were fouls, and Hughes was forced to make mistakes.

The real problem though came with two strikes. Despite the six strike outs, Hughes had problems putting the Blue Jays’ hitters away. Of the 26 foul balls, 13 of them came with two strikes, and 11 of those 13 came in the first two innings of the game. Fred Lewis’ at-bat to start the Toronto half of the first was indicative of Hughes’ problems. Lewis fouled off the first pitch, took the second for a ball and then fouled off the third. Ahead 1-2, Hughes couldn’t get Lewis, a Punch-and-Judy hitter who would, at worst, hit a double, out. Another ball, two fouls and a fourth ball — all fastballs — led to a leadoff walk, and Lewis would come around to score.

Similar sequences would repeat for the 3.2 innings of Hughes’ start. The first-inning Vernon Wells at-bat went foul, foul, foul, ball, foul, ball, triple. Vernon Wells may not be the hitter he once was, but show him enough low-to-mid 90s fastballs and he’ll tee off on it. The second-inning Aaron Hill at-bat, in which Hughes walked a guy with a .276 on-base percentage, went ball, foul, foul, foul, foul, ball, foul, ball, foul, foul, ball. It’s a little bit of a problem.

For Hughes, this foul ball epidemic has been a season-long concern. Prior to his start last night, his 34 percent foul ball strikes percentage — the number of foul balls divided the number of total strikes — was tops in the Majors and seven points above league average. At the same time, his strikes looking percentage sits at 24 percent, and he’s last out of all Major League starters to qualify for the ERA title.

The numbers are all well and good, but the trick lies in figuring out what they mean for Phil Hughes. First, it’s clear that he has a live fastball. It’s marked at 1.19 runs above average per 100 pitches. He can throw it for strikes, and he can blow it by hitters. But he also suffers at the bats of Major Leaguers who are particularly adept at making contact with fastballs. Where Hughes suffers and where the foul ball problem comes into play is with the deuce. His curve ball this year is rated at -1.75 runs below average per 100 pitches, and last night’s game did nothing to solve that problem. He can’t seem to throw the curve ball for strikes — hence the low called strike rate — and when it does land in the strike zone, it gets hit hard.

For the Yankees and for Hughes, 24 and rounding out his first season as a full-time big league starter, this strike problem is an envious one to have. In a nutshell, Phil Hughes is throwing too many strikes with his fastball, and he will have to develop better breaking pitches and a more reliable change-up. The need for an outpitch is a drum I’ve beaten many times this year, and last night’s outing showed us why. The Yankees have seemingly been stymied of late by pitchers with average-to-great change-ups, and if Phil Hughes can find consistency with his curveball and a slow pitch to match, his ability to get the fastball into the strike zone will do wonders for his long-term success.

Hughes exits early in 6-3 loss to Jays
A welcome day of rest
  • Steve H

    Considering the amount of success Hughes has had, his struggles with 2 strikes and with 2 outs have been pretty pronounced. If he gets these issues cleared up (and there’s no reason to think he’s not capable of it), dude is going to be lights out.

    Every time Hughes struggles I remind myself that he’s two years younger than Clay Buchholz, who himself is just finally figuring it out now (though will likely regress next year anyway).

  • Frank

    Hughes is still developing as a front line pitcher. Agree he needs to master his secondary pitches. He also needs to improve on his cutter. His FB is often on too straight. But overall, I have no complaints about Hughes. He’s having a nice year and his future looks bright.

    • ledavidisrael

      The cutter is dope. And makes the fastball that much better. We just need the curve or change.

      • Reggie C.

        Hughes’s changeup is likely in an infantile state of development. Its CB or nothing. Merely relying on a FB/cutter makes Hughes a solid middle of the order guy. Though Hughes doesnt have Buchholz’s arsenal, i believe Hughes’s ceiling isnt too far off from Buchholz.

        • Chris

          Buchholz is having a ridiculous season so far – on par with Dice-K 2008. His big problem in his career has been a high HR rate, which all of a sudden is the third best in the AL. In 2008 and 2009, his HR rate would have been among the 10 worst in the AL for qualified starters. Maybe he figured something out, but I certainly wouldn’t bet on him going forward.

  • A.D.

    When you think about it, it’s amazing Phil’s success this year since it’s essentially all fastball

    • ledavidisrael


      I made a 50 dollar bet that Vazquez would have a better WAR then Hughes by seasons end. After the first 3 weeks into the season. Mostly because I thought Vazquez would throw more innings (because of hughes cap) and because I thought Hughes all fast ball approach would eventually get hit.

      I remember saying to my self if Hughes discovers another pitch or gets by on just his fastballs I will gladly hand over 50 dollars. So it was win win.

      • Rivera Venue Blues

        Or technically, also lose-lose. Or winlose-winlose really.

  • Steve H

    I know pitching in the bullpen last year and having success against major league hitters did a lot for his confidence, but it certainly could have had a negative impact on his secondary pitches. He either thinks he can get everyone out with the fastball, or lost a feel for his secondary stuff and is afraid to throw it, or maybe it’s totally different. I think there is something to be said that there were both positives and negatives (besides not boosting his innings limits) to Hughes’ success in the pen last year.

    Maybe he just needs Jason Varitek calling games for him?

    • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside the Elder

      4 NO HITTAZ!!!!

      • Steve H

        Technically 4, but actually 5.

        He had his 5th no-hitter in the bag and that asshat Curt Schilling shook him off! What happens when you shake off the almighty game caller Jason Varitek with 2 outs in the 9th during a no-hitter?

        You lose the no-hitter. You can’t pin that one on Varitek, so give him 5.

    • ledavidisrael

      I believe that the bullpen allowed him to reach back and rediscover his heater. Being able to carve up the strike zone with his breaking stuff is another battle. The kid will figure it out.

    • larryf

      He shouldn’t be afraid to throw it. Don’t we score tons of runs for him usually? He has had ample opportunity to throw the slow stuff.

    • Chris

      His fastball is so effective, why should he throw his offspeed stuff more? He threw 68 fastballs last night and had 12 swinging strikes.

      • larryf

        Because he is not Nolan Ryan?

      • Steve H

        Because he has trouble putting batters away. I have absolutely zero concern with his performance this year and am pleasantly surprised. That being said, it’s not like he doesn’t have things to work on. One of those things is his struggles with 2 strikes, which can be helped by mixing his pitches more.

        • Chris

          I agree about last night, but not in general. He’s had success this year throwing the fastball and cutter as his primary weapons (62% and 21% of pitches, respectively). Last night, he threw less cutters and more curveballs. He has a very good cutter and he should use it more than he did last night.

  • C-Mac

    I kind of wish the Yanks would have him bring back that slider they had him shelve all those years ago. He’s so aggressive now that I think a slider would be a nice compliment to his pitch repertoire. Of course, that won’t happen, especially since he has the cutter, but here’s hoping his curve gets figured out. As a fan I know nothing obviously, but even to me it seems that the curve really doesn’t have quite the same look that we saw back in his debut year. I remember being at the stadium for that game and when he first broke the hammer curve out there was a little “oohh” that spread through my section at the stadium. It was very cool.

    • Not Tank the Frank

      I was just about to post this very thing. I feel like a slider would be a great compliment to his fastball/cutter combo with a change hopefuly developed for good measure.

      For years we read about how Hughes scrapped the slider for a curve and that it was working wonders for him and had become one of the best in the system. Even all the way back in 2007, I don’t remember seeing a curve that was so supposedly impressive. That being said, his curve has shown flashes of a being a plus pitch, but those times are few and far between.

      What would it take – or how long would it take – for Hughes to go back to the slider that he grew up on and made him such a huge draft prospect in the first place?

  • Ivan

    I think Hughes is one step closer to being a great pitcher once he refine his secondary pitches. Hughes needs a put away pitch.

  • what-now

    Hughes has more upside then any Jays pitcher except maybe Morrow, I could care less about one bad pitching performance against a garbage team

  • tc

    To me it’s plain: Hughes is not gonna have success with only fastballs and curves, he MUST USE THE CHANGE-UP MORE. Why, and what does this non-MLB-player schmuck know about it? Simple logic: his fastball sets it up since the hitter absolutely has to be prepared to swing quick. If the change-up’s slow enough it’s almost an automatic strike. He apparently has lost faith in it since the beginning of the season. The results are on record. But maybe I am wrong…

    • tc

      Sorry, let me clarify, since re-reading it I realize most of you probably already understand why a change-up can be effective! For those who might not know, Hughes was using it more earlier this season after not having used it much at all previously. He worked on it in the off season. He admits it’s his least comfortable pitch. My point is his success has declined since he stopped using it as much and that he has to go back to it and have faith in it, but ONLY if he can slow it down enough to make it effective.

    • Tank Foster

      I have no doubt that if Phil could throw a good changeup, it would help him. But this is true of any pitcher….sure, if you add a new pitch, you have more weapons.

      But it’s not like Phil is lacking weapons. He has three pitches (regular fastball, cutter, and curve) which all vary in speed and movement, and he has good control of the fastballs and decent control of the curve. I just think he got a little unlucky with foul balls last night. I also think he will improve when he learns the hitters better and can keep them off balance a little more (see my comment below).


    Phil needs to throw his offspeed stuff to get hitters off his FB. The curve had a lot of bite last night, just not enough strikes. As far as the low # of strikes with it, I think some of that is by design. With 2 strikes he tries to throw it down and out of the zone to get hitters to chase. Nothing wrong with that, Cone and Leiter talk about doing that all the time. Problem is hitters do not swing. They may be picking it up too soon or maybe Phil needs to throw some for strikes early in the count to get hitters to respect it.

  • Tank Foster

    Maybe they just got lucky last night fouling balls off.

    In some ways, it’s a catch-22. If some of the pitches were less nasty, they would be put in play, rather than fouled off, right? Pitchers who strike out alot of guys are going to get more fouled off pitches, too, since the foul off is close to the swing and miss.

    I think it’s possible that he’s too predictable. Swings and misses come from overpowering “stuff,” but also from the surprise element, when the batter is off balance for some reason. Maybe he could improve at this…situational pitch selection.

    I remember reading an article on Greg Maddux when he was at his peak, and he was discussing how he got Mike Schmidt out on one particular occasion. Basically, Maddux knews that Schmidt hated being beaten with a fastball, and Maddux used that against Schmidt to get him out with a changeup….or something along those lines. I think there is a long maturation process for a pitcher as they learn the hitters better and how to be economical. Pettitte has less overpowering stuff than Hughes right now, as did Mussina in his last season. But the “crafty” veterans know how to use it, as it were.

    Phil is going to be a great pitcher. There is no reason to worry.