Phil Hughes and the developing curveball

Yanks survive late surge, top Royals in opener
The ever-changing Curtis Granderson
Hughes gears up for a curveball (AP Photo/Mike Carlson)

Part of becoming a major league starter is developing a full repertoire. That seemed to be the one thing holding back Phil Hughes in the past. When the Yankees drafted him in 2004 he seemed to have a formidable arsenal, featuring a fastball, slider, and changeup. Here’s what Baseball America said when they rated him the team’s No. 3 prospect, behind Eric Duncan and Robinson Cano, before the 2005 season:

His fastball also has late life up in the strike zone. Hughes changes a hitter’s sightline with a slider that at times has good bite and depth. He’s also shown good arm action on his changeup, and both his secondary offerings project as at least average pitches.

We certainly see the late life on that fastball, but we don’t see either of the other offerings. The changeup seemed to come and go in the minors and up to the majors. Its reemergence this year was said to be one of the reasons why the Yankees named Hughes the fifth starter, but we haven’t seen much of it to date. He’s thrown just 43 all season, accounting for a mere two percent of his pitches. The slider he has abandoned altogether, replacing it with a curveball. That started in 2005. Here’s what Baseball America said about the curve after that season.

His curve progressed significantly and is now an above-average pitch. … At times he throws his curve in the low 70s just to get it over, and he needs to throw it in the 78-80 mph range for it to be a plus pitch.

Apparently he used it with success in 2006. Baseball America wrote a glowing review of Hughes before the 2007 season, before which they ranked him the No. 4 overall prospect, and the No. 1 pitching prospect, in baseball.

Hughes’ greatest accomplishment as a pro has been to forsake his slider in favor of a knockout curveball, which is more of a strikeout pitch and produces less stress on his arm. It’s a true power breaking ball that sits in the low 80s with 1-to-7 break. Club officials call it the best in the system because Hughes can throw it for quality strikes or bury it out of the zone, and because he uses the same arm slot and release point he uses for his fastball.

It sounds like the curveball should be something we see more often from Hughes, but instead we’ve seen him rely on his fastballs, both the four-seamer and the cutter, for most of the season. He’s thrown those pitches a combined 76.4 percent of the time, while using the curveball with just 15.6 percent of his pitches. He’s thrown it a bit more lately, 17.9 percent since the beginning of June and 19.8 percent since the beginning of July. Yet we’ve seen batters swing and miss at it less often. In April and May they swung and missed 8.4 percent of the time. Since June 1 that is down to 5.9 percent. Since July 1 it is 5.5 percent.

Opposing hitters have fared well when Hughes throws the curve. According to FanGraphs’ Pitch Type Values, his curve rates as his worst pitch, 3.9 runs below average overall and 1.16 runs below average per 100 pitches. Since both of his fastball rate more than a run above average per 100 pitches, it’s no wonder that he’s been sticking with those. I suspect, however, that if he continues throwing these pitches while neglecting his curveball that we’ll see those fastball numbers decline. It’s hard for any pitcher, never mind one pitching in the AL East, to survive on just two fastballs. The curve is a necessary weapon.

This is just an observation, not a call to change this or that. I’m not a pitching coach so I don’t have all the relevant information. I also know that it’s difficult to develop a pitch on the fly, especially when your team needs you to go out there and put them in a position to win a game. In the long run curveball development is necessary. In the short run, he needs to do whatever is necessary to win the ballgame at hand. It’s a tough balance to strike, and while we’ve seen Hughes start to work in his curveball more we’ve also seen him realize worse results on it.

Bonus graphs

Using Joe Lefkowitz’s PitchFX tool, I created a few graphs with Hughes’s curveball. I’m not sure what we can glean from these, but they’re pretty damn neat in any case.

Pitches taken by lefties
Pitches taken by righties
Swinging out of the zone
Strikes called a ball
Balls called strikes
Yanks survive late surge, top Royals in opener
The ever-changing Curtis Granderson
  • larryf

    If he’s throwing a curve in that pic it looks a bit like a Mussina knuckle curve. Hopefully we can get him a big lead in one of his upcoming starts so he can throw it a bit more in low leverage situations to gain confidence…

    • Chris

      Hughes does throw a knuckle curve. Oddly enough, Mussina actually stopped using that grip towards the end of his career and was just using a regular curveball grip.

  • Am I the only Kevin?

    I really liked the last start where it seemed like they were calling for the curve early in the count and early in the game. Letting him throw a few of the “get me over” variety helps him get a feel for the pitch and make his fastball look better. He previously was just so predictable. 0-0 fastball, 0-1 fastball, 0-2 curve (bounced in the dirt and taken), then all fastballs until the end of the at bat.

    The only way to improve a pitch is to throw it.

  • Simon B.

    He and Eiland sped up the curveball at the beginning of 2009 so it would be more of a “strikeout pitch”.

    It’s been way worse since…

    • Dick Whitman

      Yeah, I seem to remember that, too. It has since gained approximately 5 mph according to fangraphs. After the increase in velocity, which probably decreased movement, it has ranked as a negative pitch type value. Before it was positive.

  • YanksFan in MA

    I agree with the opinion that he needs to be dropping the curve in the 78-80 MPH range rather than 73-76 like we’ve been accustomed to. A pitch that slow will allow major league hitters to adjust and at worse foul it off even if they are intially fooled. That being said he really needs a changeup more. Look at Joba last year even. I forget what start it was, maybe it was Cleveland, but he really had a feel for the change that night and he pitched an amazing game. If Hughes can throw 10 legit changeups each game he will transcend his current solid 2-3 status and become a bonafide ace.

    • larryf

      The change is a huge pitch for CC as well. He can throw it for strikes when he is behind in the count-the nastiest weapon.

    • Chris

      Hughes really needs to improve his changeup before he throws it more. He basically never throws it for a strike, and it won’t be a weapon until he can keep it in the strike zone.

  • zzzz

    remember the curve from hughes’ arlington no-hitter/hamstring start? where is THAT curve????

  • Accent Shallow

    I thought the bender was more or less fully developed, and am disappointed that he’s having issues with it. But like Joe said, IANAPC. Could be a minor tweak, or a complete overhaul.

    • Not Tank the Frank

      Yeah, this.

      I’ve been very unimpressed with his curve since last season before he went to the pen. I’m glad Joe included some of the scouting reports. From everything I was reading, Hughes’ curve was a legit, major league put away pitch and perhaps his greatest weapon…like it said above, “the best in the system.”

      So far, although there have been flashes, I don’t see a plus 1-7 strikeout curveball. It seems to me like a tight 12-6 with very little break that doesn’t stay in the zone long enough for hitters to offer at it. Again, this probably comes from my expectations of Phil after reading the glowing scouting reports.

      I know I was expecting a number one starter who threw sat in the mid 90’s, with a put away curveball, and an average major league changeup and cutter. We haven’t consistently seen that yet.

      That being said I’m very optimistic for Hughes because he obviously has a shit ton of talent and I believe it’s just a matter of time before he realizes his true potential in this rotation. I think we’re only getting a glimpse this season.

  • Lucas AA, aka don’t_bring_in_the_lefty

    I don’t get this. The Baseball America review said that in 2006, Hughes’ curve was a power-pitch in the low 80s; however, from 2007 to 2008 his curveball averaged in the low 70s.

  • Brian in NH

    You know…some of those Balls called in the Strike zone seem like no-doubters. I can understand along the edges of the zone (no one is perfect) but damn umps! they must have been sleeping