Phil Hughes’ Fifth Starter Case


(AP Photo/Eric Gay)

In the third and final installment of this Fifth Starter Case series (here’s the cases for A.J. Burnett and Freddy Garcia), we’re going to cover Phil Hughes. Believe it or not, he’s the fifth longest tenured player and second longest tenured pitcher on the Yankees, behind only Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Alex Rodriguez, and Robinson Cano. The rest of the roster has completely turned over since April of 2007.

Anyway, the 2011 season was a disaster for Hughes, who missed a bunch of time with a dead arm and back spams. He was unable to build on his solid 2010 campaign, finishing the year with a 5.79 ERA and a 4.58 FIP in 74.2 IP. His strikeout (5.67 K/9 and 14.1 K%), walk (3.25 BB/9 and 8.1 BB%), and ground ball (32.0%) rates declined from the year before, and his fastball velocity disappeared following the dead arm…

(click to embiggen)

The velocity did come back a bit later in the season, but not to where it was last year. But still, he definitely didn’t look right physically at any point during the season. Joe already listed some reasons why you could be optimistic about Hughes in 2012, but it’s very easy to be down on the young right-hander after last year. Let’s see why he belongs in the rotation next year…

He’s Healthy

Injuries have followed Hughes his entire career, starting way down in the minors and continuing last year with the dead arm. The 80.1 IP jump from 2010 to 2011 probably didn’t help, but he won’t have to worry about that next season. He’s had an offseason of rest and is apparently taking his conditioning more seriously, so the Yankees do kinda owe it to themselves to see what he can do when he’s physically right. There’s no lingering dead arm, no innings jump, no excuses.

He Was Better Than His Numbers Indicate (for part of the season)

As a whole, Phil’s 2011 season was a train wreck. No denying that. He did, however, run off a nice eleven start stretch from July 6th (when he came off the DL) to September 12th (when the back spasms sidelined him), allowing more than two runs just three times. Those three times were complete duds — 19 total runs in 12.2 IP, with two of those three starts coming against the Athletics of all teams — but the other eight starts were at least five innings and no more than two runs. The only time he failed to complete six innings in those eight starts was his first one back from injury, against the Indians in Cleveland. Two runs or less in eight of eleven starts will more than get it done as a fifth starter.

He’s Got A Chance To Be Part Of The Future

When it comes to both Burnett and Garcia, we know their days in pinstripes are numbered. Both guys will be gone when their contracts expire and they’re both well into their mid-30′s. Even though he will become a free agent after the 2013 season, Hughes at least has a remote chance of becoming part of the Yankees’ pitching equation in the future by virtue of his age. He’s still just 25, an age where it’s reasonable to say that his best years are probably still ahead of him. With Burnett and Garcia, there’s no doubt that their best work is already in the rear-view mirror.

* * *

To make a long story short, Hughes’ case for the fifth starter job boils down to “he’s younger and has more long-term upside than the other two guys.” That’s basically it, you’re banking on him improving instead of banking on the other guys not declining with age. That’s it in a nutshell. The Yankees don’t need Hughes to be their number three starter like last year, giving him yet another shot to make it work as a starter in the fifth spot makes more sense than trying to squeeze water out of the aging veteran rock on some level.

One thing to keep in mind is the money, and I’m not talking about each player’s current salary. Garcia and Burnett have already made their millions, but Hughes has significant financial motivation to perform well over the next two seasons. He’s scheduled to hit free agency at age 27 (!), and if he shows that he can be a competent big league starter in 2012 and 2013, he’s looking at a serious payday on the open market. There’s no greater motivator than financial gain, and that extra motivation could work to the Yankees advantage.

Categories : Pitching


  1. Dropped Third says:

    Id like to think the owl eyes in the picture will be cash’s come the spring.

  2. Monterowasdinero says:

    But is his stuff as good as that Campos guy’s?

  3. CJ says:

    Hughes has the upside. It’s now or never for Phil. 5th starter or trade or pen. I hate the idea of starting a former 18 game winner in AAA. Yanks have to roll the dice for the upside here.

    • Preston says:

      I would rather send him to AAA as a starter to start the season then send him to the pen, which in essence is a permanent move at this point. Obviously I’d rather he comes out and dominates in ST and gets the spot though.

      • CJ says:

        I dont think Hughes AJ or Freddy will be dominant in ST or get bombed off the mound. I don’t think there will be a clear choice based in ST performance. An injury to a starter is always possible, even if it’s just a hamstring.

    • Ted Nelson says:

      Why do you keep referring to his win total?

      • CJ says:

        Sorry. I can’t get past referring to wins hr or RBI. I also use era, k/9, bb/9, whip, obp, sb. Games played and innings pitched and splits too. I can’t get into FIP woba or WAR. I understand the limitations and I’m not doubting the value if other measures. Just not willing to dismiss the traditionals. In a case of wins, 18 wins means something, it does not mean that a pitcher is better than all pitchers with less than 18 wins. The exotic stats have their place when comparing like players under a microscope but in most generalized cases the triple crown stats are enough.

        • Mykey says:

          Nice case. Well done.

        • Ted Nelson says:

          The reason Wins don’t mean anything for pitchers is run support (and bullpen too). It’s not an individual stat. It’s a team stat. It’s like ranking hitters based on their team’s pitching staff.

          • CJ says:

            I understand. Wins as a stat can be limited even misleading. Still 18 wins means something, one has to pitch well at times to be in a position to win 18. Clearly, it’s not enough to compare against Felix Hernandez 13 wins in 2010.

            • thenamestsam says:

              Sure it means something. But why use a number that means less when a number that means more is just as available? In 30 seconds you could know his FIP or his WAR. Why ever use wins?

              • hogsmog says:

                Yeah I totally agree, why not just use the metric that contains more information? Just think about what you’d say if you were trying to explain it to someone who knows nothing about baseball and doesn’t have emotional attachment to stats- it just wouldn’t make sense to them that AJ Burnett had the same record as Hernandez last year and a better one than Tim Lincecum, and that you were trying to tell them how much worse he was than the other two players.

                • Preston says:

                  I agree, yet wins are the goal. And those 18 wins didn’t come in some alternate situation. They came as a member of the NYY in the AL East. So saying he had 18 wins with great run support, this defense, against similar competition means something. It means he could get around 18 wins in this situation in 2012. If the guy we slot in as our fifth starter wins 18 games I’m willing to bet the house that we win the AL East.

            • Ted Nelson says:

              In measuring offensive output of an individual player would you consider his team’s pitching?

              As said above there are better stats to measure pitchers.

  4. CMP says:

    I see no reason not to put Hughes in the 5th spot and give him 15 starts to see whether or not he can be a viable part of the Yankees future. If he bombs, you could always put him in the pen and replace him with Burnett or Garcia.

    If he does well, he very well could be a long term part of the rotation or he could still be used as a trade chip to bring in a bat, if needed .

    • Cris Pengiucci says:

      There are plenty of reasons not to put Phil in the 5th starter’s spot. Not all of them are good, but there are reasons.

  5. Preston says:

    I think we’ve seen in these Spring Training competitions that the Yankees have pretty much made up their mind going into it. Joba v. Phil in 2010, Freddy v Bartolo in 2011, so unless someone is utterly dominant, while the other is completely atrocious, they already know what they’re doing. I hope upon hope that it’s Phil.

  6. Matt DiBari says:

    I’m not even going to begin to pretend to understand the inner workings of arbitrary innings limits and the great success they have brought us thus far, so I have to ask, does Phil Hughes’ 88 IP last year mean we have to start the whole silly process over again?

    • Mike HC says:

      All restrictions are off theoretically. But that doesn’t mean that if he pitches 210 innings his arm will be just as strong at the end of the year than it was in the beginning or middle.

    • Ted Nelson says:

      Yeah, the Yankees are the only MLB team using inning limits for their young arms because there is no scientific evidence that connective tissue isn’t fully formed until the early-to-mid 20s. Yankees just made it all up.

      Heck, throwing a baseball 90+ feet at speeds above 90 MPH doesn’t take a physical toll at all. The Yankees just want you to think it does. It’s actually what the human shoulder was designed to do.

      • Matt DiBari says:

        And I’ve yet to see any evidence that the Yankees have any kind of cohesive plan or, frankly, any clue that they know what they’re doing on that front. The Joba Chamberlain 2009 debacle alone killed my faith in them. The secret starts, the 3 inning starts, the completely random skipped starts, *none* of it reads like something that was planned out ahead.

        Its like someone just said “hey, other people are limiting innings! We should do that too! We’ll figure it out when we get there!”

        • Mike HC says:

          Joba was a disaster, but I think they learned from their mistakes. Never again will that be seen.

        • Ted Nelson says:

          “I don’t think they had a plan, so they didn’t have a plan.” Ok…

          I have no idea whether the Yankees had a plan. I have no idea what Joba would have been doing if they’d have handled him differently. My point is that innings limits on young starters are in no way unique to the Yankees.

          (I do know that many considered Joba a long-term reliever when he was draft and that he was noticeably worse after the Texas incident.)

          • Mike HC says:

            The “Joba Rules” were unique though with those 3 inning starts. And it was a disaster and most likely never to be seen again.

            I disagree with Matt, and think they did have a plan, it was just a miserable plan.

            • Kevin Winters says:

              And now we have a middle reliever on our hands smh.

              • Cris Pengiucci says:

                Joba was more of a set-up guy before his elbow injury. I don’t consider that a “middle reliever” (perhaps you do). He was used in high-leverage situations, as DRob was after injuries to Joba and Soriano. There’s value in that. They may have been looking at possibly a closer of the future. (then again, there’ll be another one of those this season….)

                • Kevin Winters says:

                  I don’t consider that a “middle reliever


                  That’s what he’ll be when he comes back. The Yankees aren’t going to throw him into the fire when he comes back and there are already guys ahead of him on the depth chart.

            • Ted Nelson says:

              I don’t know. One reason it might be unique is other teams just plowing through innings limits, so I can see where the Yankees were coming from.

            • Matt DiBari says:

              If they had a plan, they didn’t stick to it. They went from the (bad) three inning starts, to the (awful) secret starts to skipping starts where they at least gave him the courtesy of telling him when he would start, to just deciding he was a reliever for life.

              All within the span of like three months.

          • CJ says:

            The Yankees plan was anti-Torre counterplan. Since torre didn’t have a plan it was difficult to counter. Good thing girardi is an engineer, nothing happens without a plan and a plan B.

        • Kevin Winters says:

          The Joba Chamberlain 2009 debacle alone killed my faith in them. The secret starts, the 3 inning starts, the completely random skipped starts, *none* of it reads like something that was planned out ahead.


          It was so dumb I don’t see how anyone can defend it. It really felt like they put the suggestions in a hat and picked one out whenever the previous idea didn’t work.

        • Robinson Tilapia says:

          I would assume the Yankees could, and did, come up with a better plan than any of us would.

          • Cris Pengiucci says:


            If so many of the posters here are smarter than the Yankee brain trust, we should all be employed by MLB teams. Not saying they’re always right or we can’t discagree with them, but they do have much more info than we ever will.

            • Kevin Winters says:

              And yet with all that info they f’d up a prize arm that they had high hopes for. Did they honestly believe jumping from one idea to the next was a good plan for a young pitcher who sustained an injury the yr before.

              • Ted Nelson says:

                Right. Every time a prospect fails it’s the org’s fault. Why assign any personal responsibility to the player or luck when you can just blame the org?

                • Kevin Winters says:

                  Of course players take some of the blame. Joba was stubborn, needed to be motivated, and ignored his catchers from time to time but what the Yankees dud was idiotic. No one can sit here and say their plan was a good one. Even the thought of putting either B in the pen to get experience/play a role is shot down immediately by Cashman. They messed up Ted and they know it but you don’t have to keep defending them.

          • Matt DiBari says:

            So Joba was a lost cause all along?

  7. CP says:

    It wouldn’t surprise me to see the Yankees start Hughes off in AAA this year (assuming they don’t trade AJ or Freddy). Particularly coming off the injuries last season, I think it would do him some good to focus on pitching in a lower pressure environment for a month or two.

    • vin says:

      It does makes sense, I just don’t see the Yankees doing it, or Phil being too happy about it. Remember, he requested to go to the bullpen in ’09 when CMW came back from his injury. The reason these guys even make it to professional baseball is because they have an extreme sense of self-worth and drive. For a guy like Hughes, accepting a demotion would be a major blow to his ego – which may (speculating) have tangible side effects, which will only make matters worse. I like to think the Yankees take pride in treating their players well, so sending Phil down seems out of character to me.

      On paper it makes sense, but I’m not counting on it.

      • Time Traveler says:

        They sent Nova down, and he came back with an improved 3rd pitch.

        • Bo Knows says:

          You just proved Vin’s case, the demotion was a blow to Nova’s ego, he just flipped it into something positive improving both his breaking pitches (which in itself is unusual, how many starters actually throw both a slider and curve with neither being just a “show me” pitch)….oh and the slider is Nova’s 4th pitch he throws a change up

  8. Will says:

    Its a make or break kind of year for Hughes. If he doesn’t show his 2010 first half self, I doubt he’s part of the Yankees’ future. Even right now I’d put Banuelos, Betances, Campos, Phelps and Warren ahead of him on the depth chart. Saying he has to prove himself in 2012 is an understatement.

    • vin says:

      Yeah, Campos is nowhere near the other guys on the depth chart, let alone Hughes. If we’re lucky, he may be a big league option by 2015.

    • Mike HC says:

      He is still going to be very important next year, maybe moreso than this year. Garcia and Kuroda will both be free agents and AJ will be AJ or hopefully gone. All the guys you named in the minors are either supposed to be back end guys at best or will be completely unpredictable as to what they could offer in 2013. Mo and Soriano also might be gone.

      Lot of unknowns pitching wise in 2013. Hughes is going to be very useful somewhere.

      • Landry says:


        I don’t know why everyone is so quick to want the Yankees to trade him away. Find out which Hughes you have now and see how he fits into the future plans and budgets before shipping him out of town.

  9. Mike HC says:

    Trade AJ, use either Hughes or Garcia in the fifth spot and then be certain that the “loser” of the competition will still end up pitching like over 100 innings, like the 6th starter does every year. Remember Joe Paw’s article that says 40% of a starting staff is likely to hit the DL at some point. Six good starters are going to be needed, and probably more.

  10. vin says:

    Given the insane logjam for 5th and 6th starters, it’s imperative that AJ gets moved. It’s bad enough that he gives below average production, but to do so at the expense of blocking Hughes, Warren, Phelps, Mitchell, Banuelos, and Betances is unfortunate.

    Not to say that all those guys will be better in 2012 than AJ (or even healthy), but at some point they need to see what they’ve got – especially with Warren, Mitchell and Phelps. I’m sure those three guys can at least find a home at the back-end of a non-contender’s rotation or as contributor’s out of the bullpen. At worst, they can be cut from the same cloth as McCutchen, Ohlendorf, Karstens, Clippard, etc. And I think it’s incumbent upon the Yankees to see if they can be more.

    • Mike HC says:

      Yea, the key with Warren, Mitchell and Phelps is to give them “Noesi” type innings, build up enough trade value, and then deal them for an area we are more in need of. And if we can move AJ, and they become our 7th-9th starters, a couple of them could get some starts.

      I think Banuelos and Betances will be in AAA all year short of just dominating.

      • vin says:

        “I think Banuelos and Betances will be in AAA all year short of just dominating.”

        Totally agree. The presence of Garcia/Hughes, Warren, Mitchell and Phelps makes that possible.

        The last team to get through a whole season with just 5 starters was the ’03 Mariners, and most teams from the past decade use between 8-9 starters over the course of a season (I calc’d it out a couple years ago). Typically 6 guys get the lion’s share of the starts, with guys like Betances, Gordon and Noesi getting a couple mid-season and in late September.

        • Mike HC says:

          Thanks for that extra information. Just reinforces the idea that you can never have enough starting pitching. It is cliche for a reason.

        • RetroRob says:

          Not only are the ’03 team the last team to do that, they are the only team to do that…ever.

    • CP says:

      There’s nothing wrong with slightly below average production from the 5th starter.

      • vin says:

        Exactly, that’s why I’d be OK if Warren, Mitchell, Phelps, Banuelos, or Betances had to step into the rotation. The first three guys can’t be blocked forever. I’d rather take a .5-1 win hit by giving AJ’s starts to one of the aforementioned pitchers if it means clearing payroll and giving the team an idea of what they have in these young guys.

        If everyone stays healthy between now and opening day, there just doesn’t seem to be room for AJ on the roster. When you account for his production, salary, and the team’s depth, he’s not worth the roster spot.

        • Sweet Dick Willie says:

          Even if the Yanks are successful in moving AJ, that will only clear a minimum amount of payroll, as the Yankees will obviously be required to pick up a significant portion of his salary.

          How much? Well, if AJ were a FA this year, what kind of deal do you think he would get? If he could command (and I’m not certain he could) 2/$4mil, that means the Yanks should pay $29mil of the remaining $33mil, or 88%. Un-fucking-likely.

          Therein lies the problem of moving AJ.

  11. Robinson Tilapia says:

    If it were up to me, it’s his spot to lose. This team will be best off with a healthy, effective Phil Hughes in the rotation.

    We can trash him all we want, but we knew innings were going to be an issue going into last season. Until he shows otherwise, to me, that’s what I chalk up last season to.

    Phil Phuckin’ Hughes Phorever.

    • nsalem says:

      It would be nice to have an effective and healthy Phil Hughes as a starter. He has shown flashes of brilliance but unfortunately he has not been effective or healthy in his times with the Yankees. His injuries have been mysterious and/or vague. He has failed to properly report his injuries on more than one occasion. From my point of view he hasn’t established a consistency on a mental and physical level in his 5 years in New York and I think the chances of him not succeeding as a starter are greater than his chances of succeeding. I hope my opinion on this matter is proven to be wrong

  12. Daniel says:

    Amazing how phil hughes, freddy, banuelous could be our 5th starter..any of those guys could be a 3 anywhere else..god i love the yankees..

  13. Gonzo says:

    Hopefully he earns his spot. If not, it’s up to the Yankees to decide how to extract maximum value from him. Not the easiest decision.

  14. Dead Horse says:

    Hughes needs to regain the velocity he showed the first couple of months in 2010 to be a solid MLB starter. Reasons to be optimistic is he came into camp in 2010 in top shape knowing he was fighting for a spot, and all indications are he will be in top shape again in 2012 once again knowing he’s fighting for a spot (and this time for real), plus he’ll be a year removed from the big innings increase.

    Reasons not to be optimistic? He’s lost velocity. He’s lost the snap on his curve. He hasn’t developed a strong enough third pitch. He’s heading into year six of pitching at various times for the Yankees and is not getting better. He’s been going backwards.

    Yet he’s the guy I’m still most interested in seeing in spring training. He still offers the most upside if he can regain his velocity and he’s the guy I want to win the 5th spot. This is probably his last chance to be a starter for the Yankees, who will put him in the pen, an area where he has shown success, unless he shows improvement.

    Pitchers aren’t like position players. Their path to success in the majors can be uneven, some not putting it together until later. Hoping Hughes is one of those.

  15. Paul VuvuZuvella says:

    Last time Phil had competition for a rotation spot (vs Joba) in ST, he pitched pretty damn well and earned a spot. If his off season conditioning news is true, I expect something similar this year. I expect AJ to be traded between now and ST. If that doesn’t happen though, I think Freddy will be traded during ST as long as he shows something (he’ll ok a trade to start elsewhere and maybe the yanks only need to add $1million to get that done.) Either way, I see Freddy or AJ in the pen on opening day and ready if one of the starters gets hurt.

  16. Tomm says:

    Keep dreaming about Phil Hughes, someday your dream will come true. Maybe by about 2016 he will learn to pitch.

  17. Phil Hughes says:

    Every pitcher needs a rub

  18. Mykey says:

    Foolish or not, I’ll always hold out hope that Hughes can get back to where he once was. I’ve always been a big fan of his and was really disappointed last season when he struggled so greatly.

    That said, I see no harm in giving him a chance at 5th starter. With recent transactions, we have reason to imagine a much less erratic level of production out of our rotation this season, and resultingly have a little more room for experimentation with our 5th starter role. (Although, I’m not sure there’s anything more experimental than having 6 starters for a month like last year, but that’s neither here nor there).

    I’m done envisioning 2009 AJ. That ship has sailed for me. Was a big fan of Freddy’s last year, and happy to have him back, but in all honesty I rather roll the dice with a presumably healthy 25 Hughes and play it by ear than wrestle with father time on our other options. That’s just me though. I can see people wanting to move on from Hughes. (Maybe this is why I never learn to not draft Jake Peavy in the later rounds of my fantasy baseball team…)

    • bpdelia says:

      Agreed and lil about peavy, that has been Vernon wells for me. Every year i take a late round glide thinking this is the year he gets sick of it and i have the best bench player in the league. Did it with sheets for years too.

  19. nedro says:

    Mmmmm…. back spams…. Sounds good.

  20. forensic says:

    Nice of you to use Burnett’s and Garcia’s ages for next season to make them look older and yet use Hughes’ age for last season to make him look younger. I’m hoping it was a subconscious mistake and not an overt act of trying to convince more people toward your bias.

    And, how can health be used as a reason? I bet you Burnett and Garcia are just as healthy as him right now. That’ll all change when he comes into camp, pitches poorly, and they try to make some excuse for him again though.

    Let’s not even get started on the weak offenses he faced during that ‘nice’ stretch.

    I guess that really just shows how hard it is to realistically support him getting the spot.

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