Cutting out the cutter the key to Game Three

Open Thread: Yanks win even when they don't play
Fan Confidence Poll: October 11th, 2010
Right at 'em. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

All season long, one of the staples of Phil Hughes starts were complaints about him relying too much on his fastball and cutter. Batters seemed to foul the pitches off at will, yet he continued to throw them deep in the count instead of trying to get swings-and-misses or weak contact on offspeed pitches. The changeup that supposedly won him the fifth starter’s job in Spring Training all but disappeared until a late season cameo. It worked fine for the first few weeks of the season, but after that it was a bit of a struggle.

Hughes threw his four-seam fastball 63.6% of the time this year, the cutter 16.4%, and the offspeed stuff the remaining 20%. He was even more predictable with two strikes, throwing either a four-seamer or cutter almost 85% of the time (I have it at 84.75%, unofficially). When you’re throwing some kind of fastball four out of every five pitches, it’s easy to see why hitters fouled off more than a quarter of his total pitches this season. Hughes simply got predictable, even more so the second and third times through the league.

On Saturday night though, Hughes and catcher Jorge Posada changed up their plan, but not by incorporating more offspeed stuff. They threw more four-seamers and fewer cutters, go with straight power over deception and movement. Just seven of the 99 pitches Hughes threw were cut fastballs, and five of those came in the first four innings (two in the same at-bat).  The 18 curveballs he threw equals his regular season usage of the pitch for all intents and purposes, ditto the two changeups. It was a very straight forward attack plan, go right after them with the four-seam fastball and dare them to hit it.

There’s two reason why this approach worked. One, Hughes’ fastball was just that good that night, both in terms of life and location. That was obvious from the very first inning. Second, the Twins are nothing more than a league average hitting team against the old numbero uno, clocking in at just 0.05 runs above average for every 100 fastballs they see. In fact, they’re essentially league average against cutters (+0.36) and curveballs (-0.25) as well, so when the opponent has no discernible weakness against the specific offering, just stick with the pitcher’s strength. No reason to over-think things.

I think that Game Three was a bit of an outlier for Hughes with regards to his pitch selection. You certainly don’t want him or any pitcher to throw 70% four-seamers or more on a consistent basis, but for that one night it just all came together. He had plenty of oomph on it, was able to command it to both sides of the plate, and he was staked to a big enough lead that he could be fearless with the pitch when needed. He’ll be well rested for his first ALCS start, whenever that may be, so with any luck he’ll show the same kind of crispness next time out.

Open Thread: Yanks win even when they don't play
Fan Confidence Poll: October 11th, 2010
  • Esteban

    h/t to Frankie Piliere?

    • Mike Axisa

      Nah, I was going to write this article after I saw Eiland’s quote last night and looked at the PFX data. Seeing Piliere’s article this afternoon reassured me that I wasn’t talking out of my ass.

      • Esteban

        Ok, didn’t mean to infer anything, just wondering.

        • Esteban

          infer should be imply

  • Avi

    Wow! The percentages of each of his pitches and the amount of foul balls is great stuff. Definitely aa excellent way to break down and better understand a pitcher’s performance and effectiveness.
    I think the twelve days between his last two starts had something to do with the “oomph” on the four seamer. This is a guy who has thrown more innings this year than any other in his life (Hughes).
    Like Mike says, hopefully the long layoff till his next start produces similar results!

  • Sayid J.

    so when the opponent has no discernible weakness against the specific offering, just stick with the pitcher’s strength.

    I see what you’re getting at here, but at a certain point can’t overuse of a given pitch can become an issue? The Twins may have been an average team this year when facing four seamers, but in the majority of those situations they didn’t know the fastball was coming. If Hughes becomes overly reliant on that four seamer, the Twins, or any other team, would likely improve when they can assume its coming 80+% of the time.

    • Jake LaMotta’s Left Hook

      That’s basically Hughes’ approach. “You know it’s coming, now try and hit it.” He has a very short deceiving arm motion when he pitches, and it has a lot of late life. He makes it look faster and heavier than it actually is.

      I do see what you mean though, and it is a valid argument.

  • Betsy

    Mike, I saw your reply re: Phil on another twitter board (I guess that’s what it’s called). Maybe I read it wrong, but it doesn’t sound like you think he’s got the potential to be a #1 based on what he’s shown thus far? If I’m wrong, I apologize.

    • Mike Axisa

      I think he does have the potential to be a legit ace, but to fulfill that potential he’ll have to improve his changeup. Lefties had a .311 OBP with a .417 SLG off of him this year, so he needs to improve on that, and the changeup will help him do it.

      He’s still young, there’s plenty of time to reach that ceiling. CC Sabathia didn’t become the beast he is today until his sixth full season. Hughes has plenty of time.

      • Ivan

        Basically his secondary pitches. The FB is legit no question, however he needs to improve the secondary pitches and have legit put away pitch.

      • Avi

        I can see Hughes following a similar career path to that of Adam Wainwright’s.
        After dominating out of the pen in ’06 (just ask carlos beltran) Wainwright was solid, but not spectacular in ’07 and ’08 as a starter. Then in ’09 his 4th year in the majors and third as a starting pitcher, he put it all together and became the pitcher he pitcher he is today – one of the best in the game. Hughes dominated last year as a reliever but still seems to have room to grow as a starter.
        I think the improvement comes from them learning to conserve their energy as a starter, using it when they need it most and learning how to set up hitters by throwing the right pitch in the right location in any given count.

  • Betsy

    It worked, so I don’t see the problem. He’d intended to use the change up, but he didn’t need it on Saturday; he didn’t need the cutter, either. Phil’s a smart kid; I’m not worried about him.

    • whozat

      I don’t see anywhere in the article that speaks about Saturday’s start as a “problem”. That said, Phil has gotten in trouble by being too predictable in the past, so it’s interesting to know that his excellent results on Saturday were not a result of mixing in more offspeed pitches in order to become less predictable. Why do we care? Well, because it’s interesting to understand why and how things happen, and not just say “it was good, why are we talking about it?”

  • OldYanksFan

    Well…. If on a given day ya got that extra “oomph”, maybe a bit more late movement, and your location is good… yeah, you’re going to have a very good outing.

    But those things don’t all come together that often, and I think we are all a bit vary of using this ‘approach’ frequently.

    It’s great to have a nice FB. But whether it’s Andy, Moose or even Moyer, knowing how to mix it up is what really makes the difference. In his prime, Pedro had a pretty nice FB, but wsn’t it his change up that was often his out pitch? Doesn’t Doc H. has a good change?

    Having an excellent fastball is like having a big dick. Yeah, it’s defintiely an asset, but by itself, it’s not the whole story, and doesn’t alway make for an excellent ‘outing’.

    I really hope Phil continues to work on the change… and didn’t he used to have a nasty 12-6 curveball? I won’t say he got lucky last night, but over relying on his FB will make him and very inconsistant pitcher.

  • CBean

    I was lucky enough to be at the game, and it was amazing to see just how on Hughes was. I was at Phil’s first start this year and while I’d been pleased with what I saw back then, this was just awesome stuff. I kept glancing at the board, looking at his pitch count, and being amazed. Have no pitching outside of CC, my a**.

  • Matt

    Interesting article… Texas is a great fastball hitting team; if they are the ALCS opponent, it will be interesting to see how Hughes and Jorge adjust.

    • pete

      Oddly enough, Hughes has manhandled Texas throughout his career. Not really a big enough sample against this particular lineup to justify excessive confidence, but worth pointing out, I think.

      Hughes is most effective when he can expand the strike zone. Teams like Boston typically handle him pretty well because they force him to throw strikes, which massively compromises his effectiveness. His extreme preference of the fastball may have the somewhat-free-swinging RH hitters on the Rangers licking their chops so much that they chase a lot of FBs out of the zone.

  • pete

    I think this year was all about developing the explosive fastball along with command of it for Hughes. He has the ability to through a good curve, his cutter is already pretty excellent, and he has the makings of a solid changeup in place. His command of those pitches, however, possibly excepting the cutter, is average at best. I do think that after a full year’s worth of intense focus on the fastball, which enabled him to improve his command, control, movement, and confidence with the pitch, he’ll be able to focus more in the future on his secondary pitches, because he’ll be able to more easily rely on the FB to allow him to escape trouble.

    I dunno, though. As anyone who has read my lengthy and self-assuring rationales of an eventual return to the rotation for Joba could tell you, I’m a pretty extreme optimist.

  • ColoYank

    Didn’t see Hughsie’s outing the other night, but I’m sure the key was that he was able to pinpoint the 4-seamer on the inside or the outside. He did that early in the season and was one of the top 5 pitchers in the league.