2011 Season Preview: Phil Hughes

Cashman denies $54M+ offer to Chapman
A-Rod's place among all-time third basemen

As we count down the days and weeks leading up to the season, we’re going to preview the 2011 Yankees by looking at each of their core players and many, many more. A new preview will go up every day, Monday through Friday, from now until Opening Day.

(AP Photo/David Goldman)

Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think there was anything more exciting to watch in 2010 than Phil Hughes coming into his own as a big league starter. He made every start without incident (except when they skipped him), made the All-Star Team, and tossed up an absolute gem in his first career playoff start against the Twins in the ALDS. There’s not much more anyone could have asked from the kid in his first full season as the member of a Major League rotation.

Heading into 2011, Hughes is no longer the young, interesting guy in the fifth starter’s spot. He’s being counted on as one of the team’s top three starters, and could very easily start the second game of the season behind CC Sabathia. There were plenty of positives as well as a handful of negatives to be taken away from last season, which is why pinning down what Hughes will do in 2011 is so tough.

Best Case

It’s very, very easy to dream on a young pitcher like Hughes. He was so dominant early in the season, with a sub-3.00 FIP in his first eleven starts and an ERA to match, that you can’t help but fantasize about him doing that over a full season. Hitters couldn’t catch up to his fastball or lay off the breaking ball in the dirt, and the cutter moved just late enough to induce weak contact or swings and misses. It was glorious.

Well, the best case scenario has Hughes repeating that level of performance over a full season. How would he go about doing that? By mastering a changeup, first of all, which would be akin to Jorge Posada suddenly turning into a Gold Glove caliber catcher. That pitch is what Phil needs to better combat left-handers, who tagged him for a .323 wOBA in 2010 and .343 over his entire career. Being able to consistently retire lefties will also help control the homerun issues that surfaced last in the season; 17 of the 25 homers Hughes allowed came off the bat of a lefty.

(AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Developing a changeup and limiting the damage caused by left-handers would certainly be a step in the right direction for Phil, but we’re looking at the best case scenario here. For that to be realized, Hughes would also have to get back to being the ground ball machine he was in the minors, when he boasted a stellar 54.9% grounder rate. Strikeouts and grounders are a wonderful way to live life, and would vault the Yankees’ young right-hander into the game’s upper echelon of starting pitchers.

The last thing that needs to be addressed is durability. Hughes held up pretty well over the largest workload of his career last season, throwing 192 total innings between the regular season and playoffs. The Yankees say he’ll be without limits last year, so 200+ is no longer some nice round number to target down the road, it’s an expectation. If Hughes can boost his strikeout rate to eight per nine while keeping his walk rate around three per nine with a 50% ground ball rate, we’re talking about a right-handed Sabathia, a five win pitcher at the minimum and a seven win monster at the peak.

Worst Case

Young pitchers can be a risky proposition, especially when you stick them in the AL East. Hughes passed the test in 2010, but there were definite red flags down the stretch. He became very homer prone in the second half, allowing 17 long balls in his final 88.1 IP (1.73 HR/9). His strikeout rate dropped while his walk rate climbed as the season went progressed, and Phil’s two starts against the Rangers in the ALCS left a lot to be desired.

The worst case for both Hughes and the Yankees would be if those trends proved to be indicative of the right-hander’s true talent level instead of simply being a late season slump. In fact, the peripheral stats could continue to decline to the point where we’re looking at a pitcher struggling to get strike three or keep the ball in the park. The 2010 version of Javy Vazquez does a damn good job of approximating what Hughes’ worst case scenario would be this summer.

Beyond performance, there’s also the whole injury issue, which applies to any pitcher regardless of age, size, and track record. Hughes threw 80.1 more innings in 2010 than he did in 2009, and 46 more than his previous career high set half-a-decade ago. A jump like that can be dangerous, and one of the last things the team can afford this year is to lose one of their top three starters for an extended period of time.

(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

What’s Likely To Happen

The range of expectations for Hughes is pretty large this season. He could take his game to another level and emerge as one of baseball’s elite starters, or he could be replacement level cannon fodder. I don’t think many of us would be surprised if either happened.

Hughes has already said he’s aware that he hurt himself by not throwing his changeup enough last year, particularly early on, so I expect him to be a little more aggressive with the pitch out of the gate. That doesn’t mean he’s going to come out and starting throwing 25 a game, just enough to keep hitters off balance and honest. Phil doesn’t need it to be a bonafide put away pitch, just a show-me fourth offering that gives hitters something else to think about is plenty.

As Joe detailed a few months ago, most of the homerun issues stemmed from an ugly, eight-start stretch in the middle in the season. The Blue Jays were also especially unkind to Hughes, accounting for more than a quarter of his homers allowed despite being just 13.2% of his batters faced. He’s a fly ball guy (36.1% in 2010, 35.8% career), so homers are inevitable in Yankee Stadium, but giving up one homer for every ten fly balls like he did last year probably won’t happen again; that’s a rate just one-third of the game’s starters experienced.

One last thing I want to mention is that Hughes is still only 24 years old. That seems to get skipped over quite a bit. Believe it or not, talented pitchers that young have this weird, unexpected tendency to actually, you know, get better with experience. It’s strange, but trust me, it’s happened once or twice in the past. Hughes could improve his performance this season just because he has a better idea of what he’ll face as a starting pitcher over the course of a 162-game season.

If the Yankees get 175 IP out of Hughes with an FIP in the low-4.00’s like they did last year, it would be a win overall because he’ll be a productive starter. It’s reasonable to expect some improvement, though it might not be a major step forward. It could be incremental, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all.

Cashman denies $54M+ offer to Chapman
A-Rod's place among all-time third basemen
  • FachoinaNYY

    I’m excited to see Phil this season, I too enjoyed his last year immensely.

    The wait for this season is killing me.

    • Mike

      I enjoyed half of it.

  • The Three Amigos

    I agree, I think if he pitches near as well as he did last year with an improvement in his change it would be a huge win. Since, the 80 IP increase is a bit scary a healthy season around 4 FIP would be awesome and set him up perfectly for a break out year 3 at 25 years old.

  • theyankeewarrior

    I’m ready for Phil to be what they drafted him to be: A front of the rotation starter.

    /more than 2 pitches

    /more than 175 innings.

    /less than 4 ERA/FIP

    /don’t disappear in July

    /don’t lose both your starts in the ALCS

    • Ted Nelson

      I don’t think it’s fair to call him a 2 pitch guy… He used the cutter and curve equally as much and did use the change even if he underutilized it.

      Otherwise, yeah, I hope he takes a step forward in 2011 too.

      • theyankeewarrior

        Yeah, the cutter being his 3rd pitch is not ideal… It’s basically a variation of his fastball. What I was getting at was that he hadn’t developed his change. Sure, it’s nice to have a cutter, but that shouldn’t be a key to your secondary offerings. That just smells like a #4 starter.

        Changeup baby! Find it! Love it. Feel it. Be the ball.

        • Ted Nelson

          Hughes’ cutter has been his 2nd most effective pitch the past two seasons after his fastball. His curve was his biggest problem in 2010. Improving his curve could go at least as far throwing the change more.

          Roy Halladay uses the cutter as his 2nd pitch in terms of frequency and best in terms of effectiveness. Before 2010 his change was actually average or below in terms of effectiveness and he never threw it. His curve was a plus pitch, though. I have a hard time calling Halladay a #4 starter, and the cutter has been his 2nd pitch for four seasons now.

          Billingsly throws in an occasional change or slider, but is primarily FB, cutter, curve and cutter is his more effective pitch.

    • http://youcantpredictbaseball.wordpress.com/ bexarama

      /don’t disappear in July

      Meh, pitchers are historically good in some months and historically not good in others. I don’t think anyone would argue Lester’s not an absolute front-end starter and he’s got a career 4.76 ERA in April and 4.60 in August.

      • theyankeewarrior

        I meant from July on… he was not very good in July-October as a whole

  • http://twitter.com/bryanl26 Bryan L

    I’d be satisfied if Hughes can pull off a 3.75 FIP and the HR/9 dips to about 1.0. I still feel like there is an “Ace-like” pitcher in Hughes, and hope we’ll see him in the next few years.

  • JZ

    I wonder if this year won’t tell us jack about his true potential. The RAB boys have written quite a bit about the problems pitches often have the year after a huge jump in innings. Think Cole Hammels in ’09. So while I’m hopeful Hughes will take a step forward this year, I won’t be despondent if he actually slips a bit. I have faith he’s going to be a monster some day.

    • Ted Nelson

      I agree that 2011 doesn’t necessarily seal Phil’s fate in any direction. However, I don’t think the Cole Hamels comparison is a great one. For one thing Hamels’ FIP remained the same in 2008, 2009, and 2010. His BABIP jumped considerably from 2008 to 2009. Certainly could be that he just got hit harder in 2009, but could be at least some luck involved and possibly all luck. Hamels was also better than Hughes to start with. His ERA jumped by a run and was still around Phil’s starting ERA (as in 2010 ERA). If Hughes follow’s Hamels 2008-10 path from 2010-12… he’s a 5+ ERA guy in 2011 and a 4+ ERA guy in 2012.

  • Nemesis

    Follow Phil on twitter


    • Drew

      It doesn’t say varivied athlete or whatever so it might not be him.

      • Nemesis

        It’s him…

      • http://youcantpredictbaseball.wordpress.com/ bexarama

        Just got confirmed by the beat writers.

  • Ted Nelson

    Great analysis.

  • Accent Shallow

    Here’s hoping that he turns into a right-handed Sabathia in production only, not in weight.

  • dkidd

    even worst-case hughes won’t resemble last year’s javy vazquez. worst-case hughes has a fastball

    i’m expecting a slight bump up in 2011 and a breakout 2012 (assuming the mayans were incorrect)

    • Accent Shallow

      Even if the Mayans are right, that’s not until December of 2012, so we’ve got time.

    • Ted Nelson

      Worst-case something in his shoulder snaps and he never pitches again…

      • Andy in Sunny Daytona

        Worst case: He blows up the universe.

        • dkidd

          which would still be better than vazquez in 2010

          /can’t let it go’d

          • Ted Nelson

            It’s unlikely he falls apart to that extent and is that volatile (just as it was for Javy going into 2010), but it’s certainly possible that he pitches the way Javy did in 2010. Which overall was to a 5.32 ERA in 157 innings. That level is pretty possible anyway, but especially if he were to have an injury that bothered him but wasn’t serious enough to sideline him.

  • pete

    I think he’ll take some steps forward, but still have some inconsistency with his fastball at times. I’m gonna say 194 IP, 3.92 ERA, 4.03 FIP, 7.8 K/9, 2.84 BB/9, 1.13 HR/9

  • Steve

    I’d be shocked if he’s replacement level fodder- do people really think he’ll be that bad? I’d also be shocked if he takes that quantum leap because in order to do that he’d need to master a pitch (the change) that he says is never going to be more than decent for him and also the curve – which is too inconsistent at this point. I think he’s much more likely to be a solid #3 or #4 type, which is fine – although a long way from what the Yanks thought he’d be.

    • Ted Nelson

      I also think replacement level is unlikely and sort of agree it would be shocking, but for a young guy without much of a track record coming off a career high in innings it’s more possibly than with a lot of pitchers.

      I think some improvement is the norm for solid 25 year old pitchers coming off their first full season as MLB starters.

      The guy was already a #3 or #4 type at 24. I don’t know what you mean by “quantum leap,” but I think he can certainly improve to a solid #2 starter pretty easily in the coming years. There are just too many examples of guys who seriously improved after that age to assume Hughes isn’t getting any better from here on out. Doesn’t mean he will improve going forward, but if he stays healthy there’s a pretty solid chance.

      If he maintains a plus/plus FB and plus cutter (where both pitches have been across 2009 and 2010) he doesn’t really need his other 2 pitches to be that great. His curve was better when he first came up–he threw it more often for better success–and could return to that level. His change was actually effective last season when he threw it.

  • jaremy

    Honestly i’d be surprised if he was replacement level cannnon fodder. Injury is a major issue no doubt, but he would have to take a pretty big step back to rank with the Sergio Mitres of the world.

    • Ted Nelson

      I’m expecting a step forward or remaining the same, but he wasn’t really that far from replacement level last season at 2.4 WAR. If he took a step back he wouldn’t be that far from replacement level. 2 steps back and he’s replacement.

  • Steve

    Ted, I’m skeptical about Phil’s breaking pitches. I agree young pitchers often improve, but there’s a reason why they improve. I can’t say Phil is going to do that because he still has issues with his curve, nevermind his change. I don’t even love his cutter. I’d rather see him throw a 2 seamer……..I never saw him pitch in the minors, but how does someone change from a GB to a fly ball pitcher?

    I thought his 2nd half was really bad last year – I can’t get over the HRs or the bloated ERA. That’s why, much as I like him, I’m in wait and see mode on him.

    • Ted Nelson

      I’m also in wait and see mode. However, in your original comment you said Hughes might be a solid #4 starter going forward (3 or 4, hence might be 4). I think that’s underselling him considerably.
      On the Phillies, for example, he might be a #5 starter technically, but that doesn’t make him a solid #5. It makes him a great #5, and a solid option higher in the rotation. Last season he was about the 65th most valuable starter in MLB according to fangraph’s WAR. That coming as a 24 year old in the AL East in a season where he only threw 174.1 innings as a starter. He’s already basically a good #3 starter or weak #2 starter if you figure 30 teams, 6xth best starter (before accounting for AL and AL East). And expectation should be that he improves going forward. Whether that’s actually improving one or more pitches, gaining more stamina throughout the season, learning how to use the stuff he has better… whatever. So, in terms of a reasonable expectation I think solid #2 is pretty fair. Doesn’t mean it’s going to happen, but that’s what I’d probably expect.

      I don’t know why you’re skeptical of his breaking pitches, so can’t really argue. His curveball was a better pitch when he first came up in terms of effectiveness. He was throwing it 23% of the time and it got above average results in 2007 and 2008. In 2010 he was only throwing it 16.5% of the time and it was well below average. Early success may have been a fluke in a small sample, but maybe it’s a good sign he can improve the effectiveness of the pitch.

      His cutter has been well above average for 2 seasons and he throws it 16% of the time. Whether you love it or not, MLB hitters haven’t liked it since he started throwing it.

  • king of fruitless hypotheticals

    I was hoping there would be no write up, no story, just 19-8, 3.25 ERA :)

  • Steve

    Ted, he just gives up a lot of HRs with that cutter…………..

    • Ted Nelson

      (You can hit “REPLY” and reply directly to a certain comment.)

      Have you quantified that?


      Scroll down to pitch type values and notice that his cutter was 5 runs above average, and his best pitch per 100 of each type thrown in 2010. If he was allowing a lot of HRs with the cutter, he was also getting a whole lot of outs with the cutter to compensate for it.

      • Steve

        Hi Ted

        I overreacted on the cutter, but I do think Phil could use a 2-seamer. For whatever reason, he’s now a FB pitcher and YS is just not built for him. I think a 2-seamer could really help…what do you think?

        • Ted Nelson

          He does have a two-seamer, he just doesn’t use it much. About the same as a the change last season (I’m not sure about the effectiveness).


          I definitely agree improving and/or utilizing his two seamer could help him get his ground ball rate up. A lot of the talk has been about the change this offseason and I’m sure he’s working on it, but hopefully also all his other pitches. I guess opponents will figure out what you’re throwing pretty quickly into the season anyway, but doesn’t seem like you’d have a totally open hand in talking publicly about what pitches you’re working on in the offseason.

  • jb

    I just can’t annoint Phil to stardom yet. Too many two- out hits and runs. Alsohas trouble stopping the bleeding when things start going south. Lastly, has to go deeper into games by missing more bats early on. Don’t know the stats but how many times was he over 100 pitches by the 6th inning. Also, what is the holdup with working on and developing the changeup, its been two seasons, make him throw it during the off season and spring.

  • Mike

    Jury is still out. Will he be the good Phil (first half of the season)? or the bad Phil (second half + playoffs). I’m hoping he doesn’t regress. I don’t want him to be “Joba 2.0”.

    • RuleoftheBone86

      really, the playoffs?

      Where were all you haters after his brilliant performance against the Twins? Did you ignore it or say screw’em it doesn’t count because of his bad two starts in the following series?

      Be fair, haters, Phil was a legit All-Star pitcher in his 1st full seasin as a ML starter in the toughest division in the modern era of such play. And like the smart folks constantly remind everyone, he did it with a limited arsenal of pitches & at age 24!!

      Does that matter to any of you critics. Do you you except every touted pitcher to come up and be Andy Pettite? For the vast majority of prospects, it takes a few years to judge what sort of pitcher you really have and Phil is nowhere near his peak performance.

      How do I know? It was first year and he dominated with restrictions on his prized arm and a simplistic idea of how to put away hitters.

      Call me a homer but I think he’ll learn something between last year and ten years from now. Its all about health with Phil, for if the Good Lord lets him have that then time, and patience, is all we need until the prime version of Hughes will appear.

      • fire levine


  • jb

    Not a hater but really, brilliant against the Twins? Wasn’t Morneau out, Mauer hurting, ext. Let’s see a couple 7 inning starts vs the red six and others.

  • Steve

    The Twins were also toast by that point; Phil was awful in two other starts against the Rangers. He’s talented, but I don’t see anything particularly special about him, certainly I don’t see why he was so hyped. I think he’ll carve out a solid career as a mid-rotation starter, but a frontline pitcher? I don’t see it.

  • jb