For Hughes, cutter could be the difference

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Let's not see this scene again tonight (Chris O'Meara/AP)

In his first two playoff starts Phil Hughes has realized markedly different results. Against Minnesota he shined, throwing seven innings of shutout ball. That left the team with high hopes for his Game 2 start against Texas, but it didn’t go as expected. It started small, with a cheapie run in the first, but it ballooned to seven earned runs before he recorded an out in the fifth. The Yankees cannot afford a repeat performance tonight.

If you take a look at Hughes’s pitch breakdowns from the Twins game and then the Rangers game, you might notice something obvious. When he dominated against Minnesota he threw just seven cutters. Against Texas not only did he throw over three times that many, he also saw disastrous results. Just look at the Linear Weights column. The Rangers absolutely murdered his cutter, twice as badly as they did his four-seamer. That suggest Hughes should cut down on his cutter usage, right?

PitchFX is great. It provides us with information that previously only teams had. Even then, teams had to watch every pitch, classify it, and plot it. There is certainly potential for error there. PitchFX leaves everything up to high-speed cameras, so there is a greater degree of precision. But it is still prone to error, especially when it comes to pitch classification. As it turns out, Hughes didn’t throw a ton of cutters. It’s his four-seamer that got destroyed.

When I first sat down to write this I planned to center it on the cutter usage between the two games, because it seems like an obviously important factor in tonight’s game. If Texas is killing his cutter, Hughes has no choice but to scale back its usage and try to mix it in with more cunning. But after looking at the first two pitches he threw to Elvis Andrus, both classified cutters, it’s clear that PitchFX made a few errors. The first pitch had 10 inches of vertical break and 4 inches of horizontal break; the second had 12 inches of vertical break and 3 inches of horizontal. Those are in line with Hughes’s four-seamer rather than his cutter. Scrolling down to Vladimir Guerrero, we see a cutter with 7 inches of vertical break and 6 inches of horizontal, and at 89 mph. That’s more like his cutter.

By my count Hughes threw just 11 cutters against the Rangers, and only one caused serious damage. That came in the fifth, with Nelson Cruz at the plate. Hughes started him with a cutter up and Cruz fouled it off. Then he missed with a curveball away. The next cutter was also up, but was a bit more inside. Cruz fouled that one off also. On the fourth pitch Hughes delivered a cutter to the exact same spot as the first one. It’s no wonder that Cruz laid into it. Additionally, Cruz had seen one cutter in each of his first two at-bats, and each time he fouled it off. It was only a matter of time.

The fourth pitch completely covers up the first one.

What appeared to be Texas’s two biggest hits off the cutter — David Murphy’s second-inning home run and Michael Young’s RBI double four batters later — were both fastballs. In fact, they had the same vertical and horizontal breaks, 11 and 4 inches. This fastball futility came as something of a surprise, considering Hughes used it to finish off each of his three first-inning strikeouts. But after that it appeared to lose some effectiveness. In the fourth he was lucky that Vlad hit a fastball right to Nick Swisher. In the fifth Ian Kinsler hit a fastball, the third of the at-bat, for a triple.

Hughes’s lack of fastball success as the game went along was no secret. It played a big role in Frankie Piliere’s breakdown of the game:

The big issue, however, was that Hughes was unable to locate those pitches. On top of that, the fastball command he had against the Twins was also gone. Working at 93-94 mph with his short arm action, he still had more than enough to miss bats early. But, as the game rolled along the Rangers made the adjustment Hughes had to know they’d eventually make. They began to sit on the fastball early in the count as it was more than evident that Hughes had nothing else to offer them.

Another sign of ineffectiveness of the four-seamer and cutter was the rate at which the Rangers fouled off the pitches. Of his 68 four-seamers and cutters the Rangers fouled off 22, 32.4 percent. This is a problem for two reasons. First, Hughes led the AL in percentage of strikes as foul balls, and by no slim margin. Of the 3,003 pitches he threw in the regular season, Hughes got a strike 1,982 times. Of those strikes, 674 were foul balls (34 percent). The next closest pitchers threw 31 percent of their strikes for fouls. Only 10 qualified starters even broke the 30 percent mark.

Second, the Rangers have been fouling off pitches, especially two-strike pitches, at a torrid rate in this series. This requires a thorough explanation, so I will point you to friend of RAB Larry Koestler at Yankeeist, who breaks down the Rangers’ foul ball tendencies, especially when they have two strikes. Try to keep your cool as you look at his chart and see Hughes’s results once he got two strikes on the hitter.

What precedes leads to a fairly obvious conclusion: Hughes cannot rely on his fastball to get through the Rangers lineup. That’s not to say he should put it in his back pocket; it is still his best pitch and he’s going to need it in order to succeed. But he’ll also need his other pitches so that the Rangers can’t just wait on a fastball. It won’t be easy; reading Piliere’s scouting review makes it clear why Hughes hasn’t been able to get over his curveball consistently. But tonight, in the biggest start of his four-year career, he’ll need it more than ever.

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  • Big Stein

    The fastball count is too damn high!

  • First Time Poster

    Hamilton fairs just slightly above average against cutters… so that’s a plus.

    • Accent Shallow

      Hughes’ cutter terrifies me against lefty hitters, since if he doesn’t get it in enough, it’s 86-90 mph on the inner half.


  • vin

    “The big issue, however, was that Hughes was unable to locate those pitches. On top of that, the fastball command he had against the Twins was also gone.”

    I think that was the key to the game. He threw too many pitches up and out over the plate.

    IIRC, the strike zone was pretty large that day. Hughes, as opposed to Lewis, didn’t have the control to cash in on the wide strike zone.

  • YanksFan in MA

    Hughes rarely pitches backwards. We should see more 1st pitch curveballs to set up a fastball rather than vice versa. The changeup has looked better in the last month or so and it would be nice if that was used more often. That being said, it all depends on whether he is spotting the old number 1. If he isn’t hitting his spots, the Rangers will eat him up. I think he goes about 6 strong 2 runs tonight. That should be enough.

    • RL

      6 & 2 would be super. Hope he’s got his good stuff tonight!

  • tc

    He has GOT to keep trying his offspeed stuff no matter what. He tends to miss a few of them and then give up on it. But when he stays with it, and mixes all 4 of his pitches well, he can be dominant. He’s either going to do that tonight or make an early exit because I don’t think you can beat Texas with fastballs unless they got crazy movement or unless your initials are M.R.

    • Guest

      Very much this. The Rangers are not the Twins. Too many guys can make you pay if you bring nothing but heat. The fastball is Hughes’ best pitch, so he should definitely still rely on it. But he has to mix in his other pitches. Has to. Or its see you in February.

      • MikeD

        If he had the command of his fastball against Texas that he did against the Twins, he would have been fine. I do think he needs to mix his pitches more, but having command of his fastball is the most important part. He did not have that his last start.

  • UncleArgyle

    The best thing for Hughes would be a 5 run lead in the first two innings.

    • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside the Elder

      You got it, buddy.

      Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson, Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano, Nick Swisher, and Jorge Posada

      • Dave the Ox

        and, not least, Lance Berkman.

        Lance will have a big game tonight, head-, neck-, backache notwithstanding.

      • Nostradamus

        It has been written. It shall be done.

        • moxie

          Love your attitude N.

      • JerseyDutch

        Look for a big home run from Marcus Thames tonight. Yes, I’m calling it.

  • nathan

    There could be a potential changeup.

    I just checked the Arlington area weather and its brutal with T-storms predicted all day today and tomorrow.

    I live in the mid west am in the middle of it right now.

    I donno if this game gets played today. Weather for tomorrow calls the same.

    I donno if then we will see a CC vs Lee game 6.

    • UncleArgyle

      I doubt Washington moves Lee up to game 6 if theres a rain out. I’d assume they’d want to hold him in reserve for Game 7, or Game 1 of the World Series.

      • nathan

        Its gonnab interesting.

        What happens if tonight gets rained out. A chance that Hughes gets skipped and Joe goes Andy-CC tomorrow and Sunday.

        • A.D.

          I would hope so, regardless of faith in Hughes I’d imagine one would rather see Pettitte & CC then Hughes and Pettitte, even if CC is on 3 days rest

    • RL

      Weather Underground calling for heavy rains in the area (at least for today, if I’m understanding the data correctly :-) ). Guessing we see a Pettitte start possibly against Lee if today’s game gets rained out.

      • CP

        All of the various sites have a relatively slim (40% or less) chance of rain. There may be a delay, but I doubt they’ll postpone it.

    • A.D.

      Wonder if Texas would go with Lee, or hope to save him for game 1 of the WS.

      • nathan

        Dont you have to seal the deal if you were Texas? Do you want the Yanks on a 2 game streak.

        Our chances will improve very well with one day being rained out.

        Gonnab interesting

    • Mike HC

      Definitely good for the Yanks if it does happen. And there is no doubt that Hughes would then get skipped. Pettitte then CC.

      • Mike HC

        I should add that I never trust weather forecasts, so I’m still betting on the game getting played.

        • nathan

          Yeah, you never know. But its raining hard right now (am not in Arlington, but the whole are is being buffeted with rain and lightning.

        • RL

          I hope MLB doesn’t start the game unless they are reasonably sure they can complete it without a break. Worst thing would be for the game to go 2-4 innings and then have a rain delay or rainout!

  • Mike HC

    Hughes just needs to locate his fastballs. Of course the curve is important, but not nearly as important as fastball location. If he hits his spots, he should pitch well. If he is all over place, the Rangers are good enough to take advantage 9 times out of 10.

    • Tank Foster

      Although at least with Hamilton, Tampa had great success with curve balls.

      • Mike HC

        Hamilton is a different beast. I’m not even going to pretend I know how to get him out. I would prefer to pitch around him.

        But you are right. If I do have to attack him, I would definitely make sure to mix the curve and change in unless I had a 99 mph fastball.

  • Nostradamus

    No. Wrong. Rangers eat fastballs in any location. They cannot hit 75mph curveballs.

  • Big Bertha

    There won’t be a rainout. Tonight’s game will define Hughes’s legacy as a Yankee and if he fails again then I wouldn’t be surprised to see him as trade bait during the offseason.

    • nathan
      • RL

        Why, because they’ll be rained out tonight and Pettitte will start when the game is rescheduled?


      • Riddering

        Defining a player’s legacy in their first full-season at their position makes about as much sense as writing a Justin Bieber biography.

        • Riddering

          And reply fail. I’ll be on the bench with Kearns.

    • RL

      Doubt he’d be trade bait. These aren’t the early GMS years. The organization is much more patient now.

    • JerseyDutch

      You think he’s going to be traded based on one outing?

    • gc

      The “legacy” of Phil Hughes as a Yankee won’t be written for many many years. You’re making this sound as if it’s make or break for entire career. Get a grip. He’s 24 years old for crying out loud, and unless the Yankee are trading for a #1 type pitcher, Phil Hughes will not be traded. Come down off the freaking ledge.

    • detroit_yankee

      “Tonight’s game will define Hughes’s legacy as a Yankee and if he fails again then I wouldn’t be surprised to see him as trade bait during the offseason.”

      1. If Hughes wins the game, it may begin his legacy, but it will not define it.

      2. If Hughes loses the game, it will have no impact on his legacy because it will only just have begun.

      – Hughes alone is not responsible for the 3-2 hole the Yankees are in.

      – The Yankees aren’t trading Phil Hughes simply because of his performance in the playoffs (did they trade A-Rod after his 2004-2008 failures? No.) That’s a ridiculous assumption on your part.

  • DaveinMD

    He needs to throw his changeup. His lack of usage of that pitch is disconcerting.

  • Big Bertha

    And CC should be working out of the pen tonight and tomorrow. Boone Logan should not be used at all for the rest of the series, especially against Hamilton.

    • Mike HC

      I doubt we see CC tonight unless we are down to our last option or two. And even then, I don’t know.

  • Just Win

    Yankees had some luck with the rain last year, i think. I want to see the game tonight and cant wait, but if i have to, its in Yankees favor. Game6 Andy, Game 7 CC with Phil and AJ in the pen. But we dont need no stinking rain. The boys got this.

  • Nostradamus

    Any suggestion of Hughes leaving is just wackadoodle. He’s gonna be a real ace very soon, he just has a few little kinks to work out. Oh, yeah, and Eiland needs to be replaced.

    • Mike HC

      Yea, I love Hughes. He is a future ace in a year or two.

      And I could give or take Eiland. Wouldn’t really care either way.