Looking at Phil Hughes’ changeup curveball

Camp Notes: Rotation, Burnett, Jeter, CC, More
The RAB Radio Show: February 14, 2011
Changeup! (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Last year was really a tale of two seasons for Phil Hughes. He was brilliant early on, striking out close to a batter per inning (8.1 K/9) and earning a trip to the All-Star Game. Things started to come apart down the stretch, as his strikeout rate fell (6.6 K/9) and he suddenly become homer prone. Opponents had just a .295 wOBA (.138 ISO) off Hughes in the first half (which exactly matches Jeff Francoeur’s 2010 mark, for perspective) compared to a .330 wOBA (.181 ISO) in the second. Although most of our focus was on Phil’s changeup, perhaps we should have been paying attention to one of his other pitches.

For the most part, Hughes is a three-pitch guy. He throws a regular old four-seam fastball that sat right in the 92-94 mph range all season, a sneaky little cutter in the high 80’s, and a big breaking over-the-top curveball. That last one is the offering we’re going to focus on. The table on the right shows how often Hughes threw his curve, plus how often the batter swung at it and how often they swung and missed, broken down between the two halves of the season.

The first thing that (should have) jumped out at you was the whiff rate. Hitters swung and missed at Hughes’ curve 8.6% of the time in the first half, but that fell all the way down to 3.4% in the second half. That 5.2% drop is drastic, and it’s compounded by the fact that he started throwing the pitch a whole lot more often down the stretch. Turning to PitchFX, we can see that the vertical break of the curve was fairly consistent throughout the season, but the pitch was drifting all over the place horizontally…

Click the image for a larger view or better yet, look at this gif of the two graphs overlaid onto each other. It’s easier to compare them that way. The curve is the splotch of blue in the lower right quadrant.

The majority of Phil’s second half curves ended up about three or four pitches from the center of the plate to his glove side, which for all intents and purposes is right down the middle. In the first half it was more like five to seven inches off center, a pretty big difference. Hughes’ bender was was just far enough away from righties and too far inside on lefties for them to do any major damage in the first half, but they had a little easier time getting to it after the break.

Not only was Hughes’ curve finding the heart of the plate with more regularity in the second half, but he also lost about two miles an hour off the pitch. Hitters had that much more time to react to a pitch over the plate, a straight up bad combination. A power curve that generated swings and misses becamee a little more loopy down the stretch and simply wasn’t missing any bats. The decline of the curveball (theoretically) explains the decline in Hughes’ whiff rate, which in turn explains the decline in his overall strikeout rate.

There’s two things I should mention because they seem relevant enough. First of all, the All-Star break is right around when Hughes eclipsed his innings total from the previous year. He threw 105.1 total innings in 2009, and following his first start after the break in 2010, he was already at 106 IP. Could be a coincidence, could be meaningful (fatigue?). The other thing is that his release point changed, raising about six inches from the first half to the second. Here’s a gif comparing before and after. Again, it could mean something, it could mean nothing.

The changeup is undoubtedly going to be priority number one for the Yankees’ young hurler in 2011, but getting the curveball back to where it was in the first half will be key as well. Hopefully it’s nothing more than a fatigue issue and an offseason of rest does the trick. If it’s a mechanical issue, well those can be a pain in the ass.

Big ups to Texas Leaguers for PitchFX data and graphs.

Camp Notes: Rotation, Burnett, Jeter, CC, More
The RAB Radio Show: February 14, 2011
  • Daniel

    why is he wearing number 34!? or is it an old picture

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Mike Axisa

      It’s from 2008.

  • The Real JobaWockeeZ

    Fatigue? It’s possible but he’s pitched more innings in the past during one season.

    • http://twitter.com/steveh_MandAura Steve H

      Last year the innings were a lot more stressful however, and his number of pitches was much, much higher than any previous season.

      • felixbanuelos

        That means nothing, this kid is built like a linebacker and should have no issues with fatigue going forward.

        • king of fruitless hypotheticals

          really? cause there’s a whole science devoted to young pitchers tiring and getting injured right around their previous innings limits.

          • felixbanuelos

            Lmao. You actually believe in that pitch count crap? Tell me about Walter Johnson, cy young, Nolan Ryan, bob feller, and Randy Johnson to name a few pitchers with long lasting careers and big inning jumps

            • http://Twitter.com/marcos_aguirre Marcos

              You DO know that we are not built to throw a ball (or anything) overhand, much less at 90-100mph. So while those examples of pitchers are amazing, they are the exception, not the rule. I’d prefer to be somewhat cautious of young pitchers.

  • Andy in Sunny Daytona

    His stuff plays up in the bullpen.


  • Dream of Electric Sheeps

    Good stuff. So better command of his CU? CU by it’s natural movement (vertical and horizon) is a tough pitch to command. I say it’s vital for him mix in a changeup that can be played off his fastball.

    In short, I think it’s easier for hughes to throw a quality change up than to have impeccable command of his CU, cuz it’s hard to do.

    Disclaimer: I have zero expertises in the field of pitching, just a layman though.

    • pete

      oddly enough, my experience pitching (disclaimer: experience limited to high school) disagrees with that. I found that because the tendency is to throw the curve in basically the same place 80% of the time, commanding it to that part of the zone (generally low and away vs. righties/low and inside vs. lefties) is even easier than commanding a fastball, where there are 5-6 spots you throw at with regularity. Hitting a different spot with a curve (backdoor on a lefty/freezing a righty, for example) is tougher to do b/c you do it less often. Ultimately, command comes down to repetitions – not just of a particular pitch, but of a particular pitch to a particular location.

      My guess would be that fatigue and/or the shifting release point played a bigger part in his losing command of the pitch than the inherent difficulty of throwing a curveball, since fatigue can affect your command no matter how good your command is when you are on form.

      (The same logic applies to throwing changeups, but with the caveat being that you don’t have the added control of your index finger, thereby making it one of the more difficult pitches to command)

      • Dream of Electric Sheeps

        Heh, that make sense.

  • Monteroisdinero

    What is very important but only few do effectively is to be able to throw a curve or changeup for strikes on ANY count. Most guys can hit fastballs when they are ahead in the count. Guys like CC can throw an offspeed pitch on a 2-1 or 3-1 count.

    • pete

      see, that’s something you hear announcers talk about all the time, but it’s misleading. What’s difficult is throwing a good offspeed pitch in the strike zone, period, since the angle at which they are released (and thereby the ultimate location of the pitch) has a significant impact on the break of the ball. That’s why tall pitchers with good command are so valuable – a guy like CC can throw effective breaking balls and changeups within the strike zone.

      No matter what, the higher up you throw a pitch, the “flatter” it gets. Each pitcher, though, based on his release point and natural ability/”stuff”, has a different threshold above which his offspeed pitches will lose too much mojo and simply become a bad pitch.

      For pitchers whose thresholds are low – say, an inch or two above the bottom of the zone, throwing an offspeed pitch when they need to throw a strike can be a very unwise choice.

  • http://dontbringinthelefty.blogspot.com Lucas Apostoleris

    Be careful of PITCHf/x calibration issues when looking closely at spin deflection. I’d assume those curveballs way off to the right in the post all-star break graph were from a game at Tropicana Field, where the horizontal movement reported was screwed up from June or so onward.

  • Tank the Frank

    I have a question: Wouldn’t the fact that his release point rose six inches indicate that the mechanical change was something purposful? Perhaps implimented by Hughes himself or the Yankees pitching coaches? The logic being that once a pitcher tires or becomes fatigued – as we guess Hughes may have been after the All Star break – he drops his arm slot and thus his release point.

    I find it curious that the release point was higher and not lower.

    • Johnny O

      I spoke to his pediatrician, it was a late growth spurt

    • CS Yankee

      Heard Gossage speak a few times about pitching and he said that he doesn’t really believe in PC’s but rather when the ball is released higher or finishes higher, that is the time to pull a guy.

      He added, when your arm is tired it can release earlier than you think and you won’t finish that pitch the way you normally do. at times he was done after 40 pitches due to balance and mechanics, and other times he felt strong after 140 pitches. A bad 40 could make you sore for 2-3 days and a good 100 plus had no affect a day later.

      • pete

        the whole point of pitch counts is taking guys out before they tire

        • CS Yankee

          I think they are a piece of the puzzle (or a guage), but not the whole picture. If you managed only to pitch counts, you could do more harm in certain cases.

          Pitching coaches know this and they typically have a rough limit on each pitcher, but won’t limit their plans to pitch counts by themselves.

  • Lance

    CC in better shape then Hughes, going by this picture…

    • Lance
      • pat

        I don’t see any difference.

        • AndrewYF

          It looks like Hughes has got a bit of a gut going on.

          • http://twitter.com/AndrewLeighNYC Andrew

            Hughes looks pretty much the same as he’s always looked, no? The takeaway from that photo is CC looks legitimately svelte.

            • CS Yankee

              CC has the better shoes, svelte, arm and agent.

              Hopefuuly Phil will pick up those finer qualities.

            • Mike HC

              Yea. After ripping on CC a bit for thinking 25 pounds would make any difference in a previous thread, I am definitely wrong. It has definitely made a legitimate positive difference. The people who got on me in the other thread were definitely right.

          • pat

            I think it’s a sweat stain.

      • king of fruitless hypotheticals

        LOL. Phranchise walking to the left and slightly behind, like a young lieutenant walking with a commander…

  • Chip

    I would agree with some previous comments where Hughes was simply releasing the curve a bit earlier and that causes the release point to look different to PitchFX. The huge problem with this is the ball stays around the shoulders longer and has an up-level-down movement from the hitter’s prospective which is a sign to a good hitter that it’s both a curve and that it is going to be quite hittable. If the curve starts out level and falls, it first appears to be a fastball until it’s too late.

    I threw the curve in college and I would start doing the same thing when I got tired. I’d attempt to compensate for a little lost arm speed by trying to over rotate the ball which caused it to come out of my hand earlier. I would be interested to see some sort of analysis between curves thrown in the first 50 or so pitches in a start vs the last 50 or so but I think the sample sizes might get too small.

  • king of fruitless hypotheticals

    would a shorter stride raise his release point? fatigue would definitely cause a shorter stride, and you could see that combination of fatigue taking a toll…

  • Michael

    Even if he does get the whiff rate on his curve back to 8.6%, that is still below average, right? He would be so much better if he had a legitimate swing-and-miss offspeed pitch.

    • http://dontbringinthelefty.blogspot.com Lucas Apostoleris

      Yes. Compared to league averages, his fastball is his best pest pitch at getting swings-and-misses, but it’s not nearly good enough to be able to put away hitters consistently. Too much contact, both in the form of foul balls and balls in play.