Hughes reintroduces a slider

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(Kathy Willens/AP)

The fastball has always been Phil Hughes‘s best pitch. Even when the Yankees drafted him out of high school in 2004 they liked it for a number of reasons: the velocity, the late life, and the way Hughes commanded it. Through years of development, both in the minors and majors, the fastball has been the only consistent part of Hughes’s repertoire. All of his other pitches have been in flux.

In his breakout 2006 season he featured a curveball that projected to be a plus pitch. It’s a testament to Hughes’s talent, since he had added the pitch after turning pro. But by the time he hit the majors full-time in 2009 he had changed his grip on the curve, utilizing the same knuckle grip that served Mike Mussina well throughout his 18-year career. Hughes also changed his secondary fastball, from a two-seamer in the minors to a cutter in the bigs. Yet even that is changing.

For his entire career Hughes has worked to add a serviceable changeup to his repertoire. As we’ve seen, that project hasn’t progressed particularly well. Before the 2005 season Baseball America said that Hughes had good arm action on the change and that it projected to be at least an average pitch. There was similar optimism in 2006. But by 2007, when Hughes was the No. 4 prospect in baseball, Baseball America had lost faith in the pitch’s development. We’ve seen Hughes emphasis his work on the changeup during the last two spring trainings, but we’ve yet to see him implement it effectively. Chances are it won’t play a prominent role in his 2011 repertoire.

Still, Hughes isn’t headed into the season with the same four-seamer, cutter, knuckle curve arsenal that he featured in 2010. Last night The Star-Ledger’s Marc Carig noted that Hughes changed the grip on his cutter, and that it now breaks more like a slider. “Slower, but more break,” wrote Carig. That appears to be an additional weapon against righties, who hit .253/.292/.381 against him last year. This is nothing new for Hughes. In fact, his slider was once thought to be his best complimentary pitch.

Baseball America provides a telling timeline. We can look at their profiles of Hughes from the year he was drafted through the year they ranked him the No. 4 prospect in the game to see how his slider developed — or, in this case, declined. In its 2005 Yankees prospects list, BA had this to say about the slider:

“Hughes changes a hitter’s sightline with a slider that at times has good bite and depth.”

I’ve heard more glowing reports of that slider, including the one from’s draft tracker, which read: “Flashes major league slider w/ late bite, good down plane.”

Hughes came into his own in 2005, dominating Low-A Charleston and heading up to High-A Tampa before an injury ended his season. It was the first time many Yanks fans heard the name Hughes, as he had been connected to many teams in trade rumors (the most prominent of which I remember being Mark Kotsay). After the season, BA made another note about his slider:

“He has a hard, late-biting slider that the Yankees wouldn’t let him throw in last year, but he likes it better than his curveball and has the go-ahead to use it again in 2006. … As he reintroduces his slider, he should become a starter with well-above-average control and above-average command who throws three plus pitches for strikes.”

Only that reintroduction didn’t happen in 2006. Not that it mattered. Hughes steamrolled both High-A Tampa and AA Trenton, earning him accolades from nearly every scouting source. And he did it all without his slider. From BA 2007:

“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. … While his slider is still a good pitch, he rarely throws it in games anymore.”

We haven’t really seen the pitch since. It was a bit of a disappointment to see him scrap an above-average — or at least potentially above-average — offering, especially has the effectiveness of his curveball has ostensibly faded. One thing I’d hoped to see from Hughes this year was a change back to his straight-grip curve, rather than the knuckle grip. But perhaps altering his cutter grip to more resemble a slider can produce a similar effect.

The change will undoubtedly improve his performance against righties. Against lefties he’ll still feature the cutter, which he can throw inside, a la Mariano Rivera. But unless he starts throwing his curve for strikes, he’s going to struggle to put away lefties. There will be days when he’s feeling strong and his fastball will be enough to dominate them; we saw that in the ALDS when he tore through the Twins’ tough lefties. But on days when his fastball isn’t at 100 percent he’ll need that other offering. So while the development of his slider can be seen as a positive, it still doesn’t address his most glaring flaw: an out pitch against lefties.

Don’t be surprised to see Hughes go to the slider fairly often against right-handed hitters this season. The pitch is an old friend, one of the weapons that put him high on draft boards in 2004. It should prove an effective addition and help Hughes improve during his second full season as a starter. Lefties might still pose a problem, but the slider will go a long way in making him a more complete pitcher.

Biz Notes: It's good to be the richest
2011 Season Preview: Joe Girardi & Co.
  • BigDavey88

    Hughes for Mark Kotsay.


  • Gmat2

    Great post, Joe. The slider looked pretty good the few times I saw it last night. If he can get it to a level where he can bury it down and in on LHB it’d be a nice out pitch, but if he doesn’t like to throw it to lefties then hopefully the curve will be effective enough to keep them honest. I’m very excited to watch him pitch this year.

  • mason

    Couldn’t figure out what that pitch was initially, i thought the low broadcast angle was to blame. Nice to see Hughes continue to tweak the arsenal, but i hope he finds more consistency with the curveball. Throwing the curve more frequently along with the cutter/slider, could eliminate the need for a changeup. I think he threw less than 10 curveballs last night??

  • S

    Great thing too is that since he avoided the slider until now, his body (more specifically ligaments in his arm, which take roughly until ages 23-25 to be completely matured) is now at the best capable point to handle the stress associated with the slider.

  • A.D.

    So his pitches would be:

    or is the cutter scrapped for the slider?

    • Mike Axisa

      He told Carig last night that he’s still going to throw the cutter to lefties.

      • A.D.

        Excellent, thanks

    • Joe Pawlikowski

      Cutter to lefties, slider to righties.

      • Smallz

        That makes alot of sense. Every year the progression of Hughes is more and more exciting.

        • king of fruitless hypotheticals

          ^^^^^^ yup. How awesome would two 20 game winners be?

  • steve (different one)

    This is just my opinion, so take it with a grain of salt:

    It seems to me that the Yankees as an organization believe that sliders cause the most injuries in young pitchers. I think they believe that the 12-6 curve places the least stress on the elbow.

    So I think they had Hughes scrap his slider for the curve in an effort to protect his arm, but now that he is physically matured, it could be time to break it back out.

    Obviously they let Joba keep his slider, perhaps they treat college pitchers differently? Maybe it was b/c Hughes had a few injuries his first pro year?

    Just my $.02.

    • A.D.

      now that he is physically matured, it could be time to break it back out.

      I think its more he’s struggling finding another offspeed pitch and the curve hasn’t been that strong in the majors as main reasons he’s breaking it back out. I.e. if Hughes was killing it with a change curve and the fastballs they wouldn’t bother with the slider.

      Otherwise agree the Yanks definitely seem to favor curves over sliders

    • Mike Axisa

      I think it had to do with Joba’s slider being so effective more than anything else. Remember, that pitch was unhittable when he first came up. No sense in taking a weapon like that away.

  • YanksFan in MA

    If he could develop that Greg Maddux 2 seamer that starts at the lefty batter and comes back toward the inside corner he’d be a machine.

    • Monteroisdinero

      I think this pitch has been working well for Colon in ST. It also is a good pitch for AJ when he is good AJ.

      • YanksFan in MA

        Derek Lowe had a wicked one is his day too. See Oakland playoff where he gave the notorious DX suck it to the Oakland bench.

        • king of fruitless hypotheticals

          I think you’re confused…The Notorios DX was an Oakland rapper…

    • Am I the only Kevin?

      Agreed. The front hip 2-seamer is a nasty out pitch to lefties. I really don’t know if it is really teachable, however. I remember once reading about somebody (Moose?) telling Hughes that he had no clue how he threw it.

  • Fair Weather Freddy

    The cutter was the pitch Hughes fell in love with last year. Thats the one that got him in trouble cause he threw it too much and when he missed, it got hammered.

  • theyankeewarrior

    Dear slider,

    Please be effective. This year. And if you see your friend changeup, tell him to join the party as well. He’s always invited.



  • T.J.

    Which pitch is farther along, Hughes’ slider or changeup?

  • Urban

    A couple of questions. Why would he have changed the grip on his curveball. It was rated above average, and then he moved to more of a knuckle curve grip, and that is a much more difficult grip to command. More depressing, he had a good slider, and was asked to shelve that, too.

    So my take away was after the Yankees started working with him his curve got worse and he lost his slider.

    I don’t want to sound negative, but maybe the Yankees really aren’t good at developing pitcher. Sounds like regression, not progression.

    • Ted Nelson

      Fangraphs actually has Hughes throwing a slider 5% of the time in 2007 and 10% in 2008, but it not being a particularly effective pitch. In 2009 they have him switching to a cutter and the pitch is instantly much more effective and he’s used it 16% of the time in 2009 and 2010. I don’t have tape to go back and look at, but from the results it certainly seems like the moved to a much more effective pitch in 2009 than whatever he threw before that.

      I have no idea about the curveball, but I would not be so quick to blame the organization. Hughes might have felt better throwing the knuckle curve. The organization might even have told him not to. I wouldn’t jump to any conclusions. If you start showing up to work in a bathing suit and sandles every day, doesn’t mean your boss told you to do it. They’d probably just fire you, but if you were crucial to the success of the company they might just put up with your eccentricity. Maybe the org agreed with Hughes’ changing his curve, maybe they disagreed, or maybe opinion was split.

      • Urban

        I’m not assuming guilt on the part of the Yankees. They were more questions, although the questions were leading me to a negative conclusion. Unfortunately, we can only speculate as to why certain decisions were made.

        It is interesting that both Nova and Hughes are breaking out sliders more reguarly. Perhaps that going to be a signature of Rothschild, and we’ll see it more from more of our pitchers.

        • Tank the Frank

          Good point about Rothschild.

        • Urban

          …we’ll see “more sliders” from our pitchers.

          I butchered that last line!

      • Joe Pawlikowski

        This is pure speculation, but something to add for thought. Hughes popped his hammy against Texas when throwing the curve. Maybe it was in reaction to that. Not saying it was a good decision, but it might have played into it.

    • A.D.

      <iSo my take away was after the Yankees started working with him his curve got worse and he lost his slider.

      I also believe they taught him the curve in the first place

  • Frigidevil

    Does anyone remember that gif of Hughes’ filthy 12-6 curveball that made someone back out of the way before it dropped in for a strike? I miss that pitch.

    • bexarama

      Wasn’t it Pedroia? Definitely a Red Sox player. Ooooh, someone find that.

      • king of fruitless hypotheticals

        Wasn’t it Joba who broke out his against the Sox and made somebody fall down? Who/what was that, or did I not take my meds? AGAIN.

  • Tank the Frank

    Agreed. The cutter is, by all accounts, a good pitch for Phil. I also recall a few times where he floated one up in the zone and it got tattooed, but to say it’s a bad pitch would be confirmation bias.

    I look at this as a positive in regards to the Yankees development of Hughes. He breezed through the minors with a curveball and it was supposed to be a strikeout pitch, but we’ve seen very inconsistent results with it so far. It’s gotten worse, not better, over the years and I applaud the Yankees for recognizing that. It seems to me like they’ve asked him to incorporate what could be another potential strikeout pitch, and it just so happens to be the pitch that put him on the map. I’m excited.

    • Am I the only Kevin?

      I honestly don’t think I agree that his cutter is an objectively good pitch. The data (purely based upon results) may rate it as a good pitch, but subjectively I see a pitch with subpar movement and for which he has little control and consistency. Perhaps his statistical success with the cutter is more a reflection of being effectively wild with it (coupled with unintentional varying of break), it being his primary secondary pitch, and his great fastball as opposed to the cutter itself being good? In some respects, his cutter is more like a nuckler – he aims it in a general area and lets it rip. Sometimes it dives, sometimes it sails, and sometimes it just hangs.

      Is there any way to use PitchFX to rate the characteristics of the cutter vs other cutters, as opposed to merely looking at classifying a pitch and looking at its pitch outcomes?

      • Ted Nelson

        At some point if a pitch works it works… It’s certainly possible that a pitch is set-up by other pitches and to improve even a good pitch, but 9 out of 10 times I’d take a reasonably large sample of data over anyone’s subjective opinion in saying whether something is objectively good. If it was one season I’d be more open to subjective opinion, but as it’s been two seasons at very similar usage and effectiveness since he started using it… I’m more swayed by the data.

        Even if your contention that it’s like a knuckle ball is completely accurate, would you not have said in his prime (or even last season) that Tim Wakefield objectively threw a good knuckleball? (Just as a recent example.)

  • Brandon

    So let me get this straight. Hughes now has 5 pitches in his repertoire: 4 seamer(definitely a plus to plus plus pitch), a cutter(plus pitch), a knuckle curve(potential to be a plus pitch), a changeup(rarely used, hasnt developed that much, i’d go below average to average, I guess), and now the reintroduction of the slider(used to be regarded as his best pitch, had plus to plus plus potential-no idea where we are now with it, i’ll list it as average until I see more of it and if he will go back to it). Really? 5 pitches now. 1 plus to plus plus, 1 plus, 1 plus potential, 1 average(i’ll give it the benefit of the doubt for arguments sake) and the reintroduction of what used to be the best pitch in his repertoire according to many?

    I really hope to see this slider and what comes of it, if it truly is a good pitch. I also want to see this changeup develop some more. Even if the changeup doesnt develop more, but the slider is deadly, I think we will see hitters start to fear Hughes even more. I do think that the development of the knuckle curve needs to happen. We’ve seen it be deadly, but we’ve also seen it be stagnant. I think Larry Rothschild will help it though because of what he is as a pitching coach, one of the better strikeout guys in the game. In my opinion, if Hughes will ever become an ace pitcher like he can be, it will happen this year or next year with Rothschild as the pitching coach. I think he can really help Hughes’ knuckle curve, changeup and slider.