There has been something lacking from Phil Hughes’s game lately. The focus for the past couple of years has been on his changeup, a perpetually in-development pitch, but the problem is greater than that. I’ll refer you back to the Baseball America Prospect Handbook 2007, which featured Hughes on the cover and rated him the Yankees No. 1 prospect (and, later, the No. 4 prospect in all of baseball):
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. It’s a true power breaking ball that sits in the low 80s with 1-to-7 break. Club officials call it the best in the system because Hughes can throw it for quality strikes or bury it out of the zone, and because he uses the same arm slot and release point he uses for his fastball.
The last time we saw anything that resembled a knockout curve from Hughes was back in May, 2007, when he was working on a no-hitter against Texas. With two strikes on Mark Teixeira, Hughes reached back and tried to bury one of those curveballs, but he flubbed the landing. The ball sailed inside, and Hughes limped around the mound. He hasn’t been the same since.
One of the bigger changes Hughes implemented since then was a new grip on his curveball. Instead of the 1-to-7 power curve, he employed a knuckle grip, a la Mike Mussina and A.J. Burnett. It has worked from time to time, but overall it hasn’t been anything close to the knockout pitch that he displayed while mowing down the minors in 2006. In today’s New York Post, Mark Hale helps shed light on the issue.
Essentially, Hughes finally realized what everyone else had seen: the knuckle grip just wasn’t working. He tried to make it work, by speeding up his arm, but no matter what he did the pitch was average at best, and it although I’m not a scout I’m fairly certain that a good number would call it below average. He did throw it both for strikes and in the dirt, but in the zone it seemed a bit flat, and in the dirt it didn’t fool anyone — “It never looks like a strike,” Hughes said. And so, on Sunday he will likely re-implement the original grip. “It’s a lot more like a power curveball now,” said Hughes.
Another interesting change Hughes has worked on this week: changing his mechanics. We often hear about changes in mechanics, and most times it means nothing. But when it comes to his plant leg, eyebrows raise. That’s the hamstring he pulled on that night in Texas, the night he showed so much promise. Hughes acknowledges that the issues could stem from that incident, too. “I just felt like over the years, basically starting from my hamstring injury, I’ve kind of formed a couple of bad habits,” he said. That he’s consciously working to correct these bad habits is certainly encouraging.
This type of story is usually reserved for spring training, a time of hopes and dreams for the upcoming season. To see it in the middle of the season is somewhat odd, but inspiring at the same time. Essentially, Hughes is admitting that many of his issues stem from the injury that cost him most of the 2007 season. If he can get back to the pitcher he was before that, with both his mechanics and his curveball, he could yet turn into the pitcher who, according to Baseball America, had the “combination of stuff, feel and command to profile as a No. 1 starter.”