Oct
31

Can Phil Hughes be saved?

By

(Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

Last week at TYA I wrote about the plight of Phil Hughes, recapping the right-hander’s many ups and downs (though mostly downs) since debuting in the Major Leagues on April 26, 2007. I’d hazard a guess that many in Yankeeland have just about reached their limit with Hughes, and it seems the general consensus is that the Yankees would be lucky if their formerly prized righty developed into a reliable number three starter. I don’t necessarily disagree, although that’s a pretty big fall from grace for a pitcher who was near-universally regarded as a future number-one starter (if you’re in the mood to weep, have a look at our own Mike Axisa’s prospect profile of Hughes in the pre-RAB days), as he rocketed his way through the Yankees’ minor league system.

Given that last week’s piece was primarily prose-driven and fairly unencumbered by statistics, I wanted to take a deeper dive into the numbers to see whether there was anything noteworthy that might signal that perhaps Hughes hasn’t reached his peak yet.

For the purposes of this post, I’ve divided Hughes’ career into 11 segments dating back to the beginning of the 2008 season (I’d have gone further, except ’08 is the first season we have PITCHf/x data for): (1) his messy April 2008 as a starter; (2) his brief reappearance in September of that season; (3) his stint as a starter in 2009; (4) his stint as a reliever in 2009; (5) his stint as a reliever in the 2009 postseason; (6) the first 12 starts of his dominant first half in 2010; (7) his considerably uglier second-half of 2010; (8) his three starts in the 2010 postseason; (9) his three terrible starts at the beginning of 2011; (10) his improved second-half as a starter in 2011; and (11) his final four appearances of 2011 as a reliever.

I’m also taking a look at the three main pitches Hughes has thrown the most over his career: the four-seamer, curveball and cutter. Though Hughes has offered a changeup periodically throughout the years, it’s never been a successful pitch by any metric. PITCHf/x also has Hughes as having thrown a number of sliders in 2008 and 2009, although the Yankees rather famously asked Hughes to scrap his slider (ready for more weeping? Per the aforelinked Axisa piece, “Hughes’ slider reportedly puts his other pitches to shame; it’s a power pitch that breaks hard and late and induces plenty of swings and misses, however the Yankees made Hughes keep it in his pocket in an attempt to develop his other pitches”), and while he’s shown flashes of some sort of slider here and there — this 2008 piece from The Hardball Times refers to it as more of a “slurve,” while it most recently turned up again this past spring, as something of a cutter-slider hybrid — there’s not enough of a sample to do any meaningful analysis.

A handful of two-seamers also showed up during my research, though I’m not sure it’s accurate to say “Phil Hughes has a two-seamer,” given that people with far more advanced understanding of PITCHf/x than I have noted that technically there doesn’t appear to be a tremendous difference between his four- and two-seam fastballs, not to mention the fact that if he does have one, he hasn’t thrown it with any consistency since last season (according to PITCHf/x he only threw one two-seamer this year).

Additionally, given what we know about the limitations of PITCHf/x, there are likely some classification issues as it is, but I can only go on the data we have available to us.

Four-Seamer

The following table (all data in this post courtesy of TexasLeaguers.com) shows the evolution of Hughes’ four-seam fastball over the 11 delineated periods. The light blue highlights denote Hughes’ relief stints, while the yellow highlights signal when Hughes was better than league average in a given category.

Hughes’ four-seamer has always been his best pitch, but as we saw back in April when the velocity’s not there he may as well be throwing batting practice. The most effective it’s ever been as a starter — and this is certainly open to debate — is during his lost second half of 2010. During that time his four-seamer was averaging 93mph, he recorded a career-high (as a starter) 9.6% Whiff%, got hitters to foul it off 25% of the time (down from 30% during his superior first half) and put it in play less than 18% of the time, marking the last time he was below league-average in the latter category as a starter.

Though he was still missing one mph off his heater in the second half of 2011, the pitch was actually still pretty good, netting a slightly above-average Whiff% and ultimately clocking in at a fairly robust 0.57 wFB/C, which would have made it one of the most effective in the AL had he enough innings to qualify.

Curveball

The only breaking pitch presently in Hughes’ arsenal is his curveball, which again, at varying points in his career, was expected to be a major weapon. For even more weeping, here’s a Baseball America quote circa 2006 from a piece by our own Joe Pawlikowski written in August of last year (emphasis mine):

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.”

Sob sob sob. I’m pretty sure none of those superlatives accurately describe Hughes’ present-day curveball.

Since becoming a full-time starter at the outset of the 2010 season, he’s never thrown it for strikes at above a league-average rate. Though this may partially be by design, it also hadn’t generated an above-average percentage of swings until this past season. It’s also never been an above-average swing-and-miss pitch for any significant stretch of time as a starting pitcher, which is a major problem when you’re a Major League pitcher in need of a good breaking ball.

That said, second-half-2011 Hughes did seem to show some promise with what appeared to be yet another variation on his curveball. The pitch still has a ways to go, but he appeared to be getting a good deal more comfortable in deploying the curve when getting ahead of hitters with two strikes.

Cutter

And here’s a look at Hughes’ cutter:

Hughes didn’t start throwing the cutter until 2009 and had great success with it in relief that season. The pitched peaked for Hughes as a starter in 2010, and then seemingly out of nowhere the cutter became useless in 2011. This development may have been the most baffling of all for Hughes during this past season. While much of the cutter’s decline can likely be tied to his overall decrease in velocity, I’m not sure I’ve seen an explanation as to why he was able to regain roughly three of the missing four mph on his four-seamer, while only two of the missing four mph on his cutter came back. As such, Hughes was ostensibly a two-pitch pitcher during the second-half of 2011, although in one sense that makes his relative success — though Hughes posted a 4.55 ERA over 11 second-half starts, he actually pitched pretty well if you take away his two random disaster outings against Oakland, with an ERA of 3.13 over 54 2/3 innings — perhaps a bit more heartening.

Conclusion

Phil Hughes clearly still has plenty of work to do if he has any hopes of representing a top-of-the-rotation solution for the Yankees — or any team in MLB for that matter — although I do think some of the data we’ve looked at today provides a glimmer of hope. I’m definitely curious to see what a Phil Hughes who’s hopefully back at 92-93mph with his fastball can do with a still-developing-but-hopefully-finally-usable curveball, and the most important piece of the development puzzle for Hughes is that expectations have been lowered dramatically — think Ivan Nova heading into last season.

At this point no one’s expecting anything better than a #4, and probably more like a #5 starter-type performance out of Hughes, but I think he could surprise a lot of people next season. Another reason I’m somewhat bullish on Hughes for next year is that though his rate stats were basically uniformly down in 2011, if you look at the daily graphs his numbers were almost universally trending in the right direction across nearly all 10 categories following his return to the rotation in early July. It may not be much, but it’s a start.

The tools and ability are there, which should enable him to exceed even the lowest expectations, but it’ll require an enhanced focus, commitment to his craft and also a professional to help him harness his natural talent. I realize that all sounds like a bunch of intangible crap, particularly after spending an entire post focused on the numbers, but I can only encourage #65 to “throw harder” and “develop a non-fastball out pitch so that you don’t lead the world in foul balls,” so many times before I go hoarse. He knows he needs to do these things, and it’s incumbent upon him to effect the changes that can turn his career around. If I’m Phil Hughes I would not only be intent on completely rededicating myself this winter, but I’d also be banging down Larry Rothschild’s door for as many one-on-one tutorials as possible, as 2012 may represent the last opportunity the soon-to-be 26-year-old will have to show he can hack it as a front-line starter in the Majors.

Categories : Analysis
  • FachoinaNYY

    Damn, impressive post.

    Great Read!

  • http://twitter.com/#!/EricDKoch Eric

    Not buying it still– as I said a few weeks ago on a post about Hughes. I’ve never liked his arm action/mechanics [dating from when I saw him dominate in a minor league game in Trenton] and always figured he would wear down – which he has.

    • http://www.bronxbaseballdaily,com Alex Taffet

      While I agree that Hughes’ arm motion does seem to put a lot of stress on the shoulder, I do not see how that would disprove any of the analysis of this post. Based on the numbers, there is hope for Hughes in 2012. Whether or not his mechanics will allow him any long term success is another story.

    • http://twitter.com/clintholzner Clint Holzner

      I mean, that’s fine I guess. If you want to simply choose not to believe research, that is your choice.

      • http://twitter.com/#!/EricDKoch Eric

        Obviously there is a ‘chance’ — but I just don’t see him remaining healthy with the way he currently throws to have much short or long term success.

  • BJ

    Great piece. I still have hope for Hughes, and if he regain a measure of his former stuff, it’ll make me considerably less worried about next year’s rotation.

  • JobaWockeeZ

    First pitch first homer for Larry. Good stuff.

  • http://yankeeanalysts.com Matt Imbrogno

    Great stuff as always, Larry. The foul percentages on the fastball scare the hell out of me, but it was nice to see his recovery in the later part of 2011. Whenever I see pitch breakdowns of Hughes, though, I always get all hindsighty. If only they’d never ditched the slider…

    Perhaps we’d be singing a different tune if the organization let him keep the slider and focused on developing his changeup instead of a curve or cutter.

    • Larry Koestler

      Yeah, the ditching of the slider really stings, though I believe at the time there was some concern about the arm slot/arm action being detrimental to Hughes’ development. Still, if he’d been able to keep the slider, maybe he actually ends up developing a usable changeup.

      Without the change he’s near-useless against lefties, who hit him 26% better than league average (126 sOPS+) in 2011, and whom he has a career 119 tOPS+ against.

    • caldr62np

      They should’ve definitely made him develop the change up. Even if he could only get it to be an average pitch it may have helped him not throw 15 straight 2-strike fastballs to every hitter.

    • Cris Pengiucci

      If only … Perhaps he’d be having TJ or shoulder surgery now, but he could also have continued to develop into a top-teir pitcher. We’ll never know.

      What we do know is that he had the ability. I’m hopefull that he’ll build upon the late-season success he had, follow a good conditioning regimin in the offseason and come back stron in ’12.

      Great start Larry, as expected. Now you need to continue your development and grow into the top-tier writer we know you can be. :-) (Most of us know you’ve already done that while writing at other blogs.)

  • duzzi23

    I agree with this entire segment 1000%. Great analysis

  • Jose M. Vazquez..

    Very good analysis provided with many examples to prove your point. Like you I have not given up on Phil. In the past, I have seen many pitchers who came into their own in their late twenties and even some in their early thirties. So please don’t give up on him just yet.

    • Reg

      Look up Cliff Lee.

      • caldr62np

        Look up Roy Halladay and Chris Carpenter.

        • Stevis

          look up Phil Hughes…no & no

  • Reg

    I think it was game 5 last year in the ALCS that I started to notice that his inconsistency was due to the fact that his landing spot on the mound was all over the place. Plus there was way too much movement going on with his leg kick. He needs to smooth out his windup if he wants to be a starter in the MLB

  • Reg

    Sorry it was game 2

  • mbonzo

    This is exactly what needs to be said on Hughes. He regained a lot of stuff throughout the season, and many don’t remember that if you cut the previous 2 years in half and made his season from mid-June 2009 to mid-June 2010, he posted a 2.44 ERA. If that was a season total, he may have been the best AL East pitcher to accumulate so many innings.

    Looking at these charts, I’d be interested to know how Nova progressed this year, and if we can expect the same next year.

  • Pants Lendelton

    Terrific work man.

  • Bavarian Yankee

    great read. Welcome to RAB, Larry.

  • Rich in NJ

    I wonder if Hughes could learn a split-finger? It might make his fastball appear to have more velo to batters and it could be a strikeout pitch if thrown well.

    And yes, nice job, Larry.

  • craig

    Great stuff…welcome aboard!

  • http://bleedingyankeeblue.com Jesse

    Why can’t Hughes just go back to his slider? It’s worth a shot, no? Just ditch the cutter and go back to the slider. Work on it during the off-season and Spring Training and see how it goes. It probably won’t happen, but just a thought. I bet he’ll step up and be a number 3 starter for the Yankees next year. And I’m glad you pointed out those two random starts against the A’s, Larry. I’ve said the same thing earlier and I’m glad someone of more credibility than I pointed that out.

    • MannyB ace2be

      I agree if nova can develop a slider midseason why can’t Hughes do the same with more time ie the offseason/ ST

  • http://www.bronxbaseballdaily,com Alex Taffet

    Anyone feel maybe Hughes will attempt to re-learn that knockout slider we were once all salivating over?

    Btw, Awesome post Larry.

  • Jumpin’ Jack Swisher (formerly Jorge)

    Well ain’t this a hell of a nice start to Larry on RAB. Congrats, and a great read for an eternal member of the Phil Phucking Hughes Phan Club.

    • http://bleedingyankeeblue.com Phil Phuckin’ Hughes

      Phuck Yeah!

      • Jumpin’ Jack Swisher (formerly Jorge)

        You’re phucking welcome.

  • http://www.yankeeanalysts.com Eric

    Great debut Larry! RAB readers can expect more of the same going forward.

    The ditching the slider thing bothers me less than the major regression in Hughes’ curveball, which was considered a legitimate plus pitch in the minors. I’m not sure if it was the injuries or mechanical changes, but it went from one of the best hooks in the minors to basically a show-me pitch. The change was never consistently great, though I remember it looking pretty good in the almost no-hitter against Texas way back when.

    One of the major strengths of Hughes as a prospect was his polish and ability to pick up new pitches, but for whatever reason his secondary offerings have regressed. As he showed in 2010 he can still be reasonably successful despite relying heavily on the fastball (provided the velocity and command are good), but barring major improvements in secondary offerings it’s hard to imagine him being more than a #3 starter.

    Hughes is definitely a mystifying case, and was as close to a sure thing as any Yankee pitching prospect in recent memory. It goes to show the unpredictability of pitching development, and how big of a role injuries can play.

    • JohnnyC

      No to pile on but Phil’s development really stalled due to injuries, uncertainty over starter/reliever role and…wait for it…Dave Eiland’s performance as PC. Is it a coincidence that Phil, Joba, IPK, et al. regressed at the major league level under the tutelage of Eiland? How ironic that they hired Eiland specifically because of his “familiarity” with the Yanks’ higher-level pitching prospects. Fortunately, although belatedly, Cashman made the change to Rothschild.

      • CP

        Injuries have been the key to Hughes’ poor and/or slow development.

        As for Eiland, is it a coincidence that all three of them developed just fine in the minors while he was their pitching coach?

  • http://RiverAveBlues.com Matt Warden

    Nice post, Lar. Welcome aboard.

  • Reggie C.

    I’ll bet the my friend’s house Hughes kicks off next season as the fifth starter.

    That said , Hughes isn’t in AJ’s position where ineffectiveness wouldn’t result in rotation removal. As much as we all await Banuelos promotion , I temper my expectations as its hard to forget the success Hughes experienced as well before his promotion.

  • http://bleedingyankeeblue.com Jesse

    This is pretty interesting. Some commenters above compared Cliff Lee, Chris Carpenter, and Roy Halladay to Phil Hughes. (I’m sure they were implying that those three also struggled earlier in their careers.) But look at what those three have done in the beginning of their careers:

    Chris Carpenter: 152 games, 135 starts, 4.83 ERA, 1.51 WHIP, 10.2 H/9, 6.3 K/9, 3.4 BB/9, 99 ERA+

    Roy Halladay: 57 games, 33 starts, 5.77 ERA, 1.70 WHIP, 10.6 H/9, 5.4 K/9, 4.8 BB/9, 86 ERA+

    Cliff Lee: 129 games, 125 starts, 4.64 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 9.3 H/9, 6.7 K/9, 3.1 BB/9, 94 ERA+

    Phil Hughes: 120 games, 71 starts, 4.66 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 8.5 H/9, 7.5 K/9, 3.2 BB/9, 100 ERA+

    • Mike HC

      Yea, but there are far more guys who put up those numbers and went on to continue to suck or be mediocre.

      But point taken, that you don’t just give up on guys if they get off to rough starts. There is hope.

      • http://bleedingyankeeblue.com Jesse

        Agreed.

      • http://twitter.com/clintholzner Clint Holzner

        Exactly right. I mean I hope as much ans anyone that Phil Hughes turns into one of those guys, but that is by no means “the norm”. In fact, that is really rare. Doesn’t mean give up but just because three other pitchers have done it doesn’t mean it is any more or less likely to happen to Phil Hughes.

        • CP

          In fact, that is really rare.

          Is it really?

          Obviously, struggling early and then turning into Roy Halladay (the best pitcher in baseball) is really rare. Is it true that struggling early and then turning into a solid mid-rotation starter is rare? I’m not so sure about that.

          Those are a few names listed, but Hughes’ top two comparable pitchers through age 25 are John Lackey and Gil Meche. Neither is an ace, but they’re both solid pitchers. Would it be so bad if Hughes had a career similar to one of them?

  • Monteroisdinero

    Terrific post.

    Phil needs to go on a “pitching retreat” with Cory Wade and learn how to command a changeup.

    The simple answer.

  • BaltimoreYankee

    Phil Hughes already is saved.

  • Mike HC

    I basically agree with the article. He definitely still has the potential to put together some top notch seasons with dedication and if things break his way a little bit. You obviously can’t count on it, but giving up on him at this point would be a terrible idea.

  • Larry Koestler

    By the way, thanks all for the kind words, on Twitter, this morning’s post announcing the site news and now. Much appreciated.

  • Kosmo

    What to expect from Hughes going forward ? Hughes has shown that vs. the AL East he is pretty much a disaster, 13-13 WL , 5.70 ERA , 2-5 6.65 ERA vs Boston. Hughes will be 26 yrs old in 2012, certainly a make or break season. I´m sure if his struggles continue in 2012 the Yanks will unload him for cheap.

    • Mike K

      No, they’ll move him to the bullpen and see if he can rebuild some value there first. Either to the team or as a trade piece.

    • The Big City of Dreams

      What to expect from Hughes going forward

      ————————–

      Hope that he improves and believe his bumps in the road are behind him. If not he’ll end up in the pen. The Yankees haven’t given up on him yet.

  • Alibaba

    Welcome aboard, Larry.

    Excellent piece. I also am not willing to throw the towel and believe that he will come back as a dominant pitcher in 2012. By the way, Jesus joined the Yankees and Hughes was saved.

  • Rockdog!

    Good post, good comments. I don’t really have anything to add, but I love reading this stuff. It may even make the winter (which apparently starts in late October now) pass faster.

  • This Year

    Getting in shape might be a start.

    • The Big City of Dreams

      I know it’s early but has there been any news on what he plans to do?

  • Jumpin’ Jack Swisher (formerly Jorge)

    “2012 may represent the last opportunity the soon-to-be 26-year-old will have to show he can hack it as a front-line starter in the Majors.”

    I’d be nitpicky, I guess, with this one line. I’d agree that it may be his last shot in the foreseable future, but a lesser team would give a guy like Hughes, even if he were to fail in 2012, more opportunities than one would think.

    • Larry Koestler

      Fair point; that last sentence should probably read “2012 may represent the last opportunity the soon-to-be 26-year-old will have to show the Yankees he can hack it as a front-line starter in the Majors.”

  • BK2ATL

    Wow!!! Great 1st article. I think we’re gonna like you around here with articles like that. Best of luck!!

    I just say….let Hughes battle Noesi and Burnett for a spot at the back-end of the rotation and let’s see what happens. No restraints. No limits. No contract talk. Let’s just see who performs the best and take it from there.

  • Steve

    I just don’t think Phil is all that talented, so even though he’s not that old (he’s not that young either), I think it would take a lot of luck and hard work on his part to become a decent starter……..especially in this league and this division. Phil picked up the slider again in the last couple of years after getting permission to do so from the organization, but it wasn’t any good anymore. That’s one issue with him that’s a problem – if he doesn’t use a pitch for awhile, it goes away and never really comes back. Look at his curve – it’s so mediocre now. I don’t think his future is on this team. He’s got, IMO, half a year to show the Yankees that he means business. If not, I think he goes to the pen until either he’s traded or he’s allowed to walk as a free agent.

  • cranky

    The Yanks are completely befuddled with regard to Phil Hughes.
    They don’t understand how to communicate with him. They don’t understand what’s wrong or how to fix him. He’d be better off with a different organization. Three seasons of trying to “fix Phil Hughes” is enough.
    AJ Burnett is one thing–they’ve got a huge financial investment in him–but Hughes? NO.

    Trade Hughes+Romine+Laird to the Twins for Liriano+Perkins.

  • SoCalYankeesFan

    I really enjoyed this post. I believe Phil Hughes will really work during the offseason to get his mechanics right and hopefully redevelop that nasty slider of his and maybe work on his change up. I haven’t lost hope on Hughes and I’m sure the Yankees haven’t either. I expect a dominant #3 starter in 2012

  • aluislugo

    Hughes is a AJ Burnett in disguise without the durability…a TEASE!!! Let him increase his value next year and trade him IMO.