Can Phil Hughes be saved?By
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.