After tossing six innings yesterday afternoon against the Red Sox, Phil Hughes had accrued 128.2 innings on the season in 21 starts. He’s averaging just over six innings per outing, and as his current pace, as ESPN’s Ian Begley noted, he’ll reach his soft innings limit of 175 at around September 18 in Baltimore with two weeks of the regular season and the October slate remaining. The Yankees will have to be creative to get the most out of the right-hander who has emerged as the team’s third best starter.
Already this year, we’ve seen how the Yankees plan to get the most out of Hughes. They’ve skipped his starts twice but with less than stellar rests. On four or five days’ rest, Hughes is 12-3 with a 3.35 ERA in 113 IP. In just three starts following six or more days of rest, Hughes is 1-2 with an 8.04 ERA, and in those 15.2 innings, batters are hitting .367/.451/.650. Notwithstanding the small sample size, those results are like night and day.
The Yankees, we know, would love to skip Hughes a handful of times. His start against the Royals next weekend, for one, seems largely unnecessary because the Yanks could beat the Royals without Hughes on the mound. They’d rather just use him for the key starts down the stretch. Hughes, though, prefers to be a creature of habit. “That’s what I’m used to,” he said of pitching every five days. “Just going out and getting the ball and doing my normal schedule. But if they feel like something needs to be adjusted in that way then that’s up to them.”
He doesn’t, however, think his struggles were anything more than a coincidence. Nothing, he said, felt physically wrong when he was pitching on extended rest. Still, the narrative runs strong here, and the results, so far, have been widely divergent. Hughes, as with any starter, thrives on regularity.
How then can the Yankees limit Hughes’ workload without giving him too much rest? The answer should lie with Dustin Moseley and Andy Pettitte. Yesterday prior to the Yankees/Red Sox affair, Pettitte threw a simulated inning in the bullpen. He threw 20 pitches and felt only fatigue and not pain in his injured groin. He’ll throw another simulated game on Thursday before heading out on a rehab assignment for one start. He could be back by the time the Yankees play the Mariners at home next weekend, but the Yankees are going to be cautious with Hughes.
And then, we have Dustin Moseley. Through 30 innings with the Yanks, Moseley has been more than adequate. His strike out totals — 16 with a K/9 IP of 4.7 — are low, but opponents are hitting just .239/.303/.413 off of him. His 1.50 ground out-to-fly out ratio allows him to succeed without a high strike out total, and the Yankee scouts have been high on his sinking pitches. He’ll draw the Royals later in the week.
With these three pitchers in play, the Yankees have six legitimate starters, and the opportunity to use them all. They could employ an abridged six-man rotation, giving Hughes and Pettitte extra days when necessary but keeping Sabathia and Burnett on track. Moseley would act as the swing man, and Hughes’ innings could be stretched out by another week or so.
What the Yankees can’t do, however, is shut down Phil Hughes. There isn’t enough time to ramp down his innings and then ramp them back up before the playoffs, and as Joba Chamberlain showed last year, that strategy wasn’t quite effective. So the team will have to get creative with the rest. With Moseley, the team has the flexibility to rest Hughes or extend his time between starts, and that’s a luxury that could be a key factor come the stretch drive.