Reasons to be optimistic about Phil Hughes

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You don’t have to wait one month and eight days for pitchers and catchers report to hear about Phil Hughes. It’s pretty obvious what he’ll say: “I’m in the best shape of my life.” After a disappointing 2011 season, in which he got hurt and showed diminished stuff when healthy, Hughes took a head-first dive into his off-season training regimen. He has worked out at Athlete’s Performance, the same place he spent the 2009-2010 off-season. That will help him avoid what the Yankees term fat camp in spring training, but will it bring actual results?

We’ve seen plenty of players report to camp in phenomenal shape and then fail to deliver. Why, then, should we think that Hughes will miraculously return to form? On Sunday Moshe tempered expectations for Hughes, but I’m a bit more optimistic. There are a few reasons to think that he can hold down a middle of the rotation spot in 2012.

His 2010 workload

It’s easy to cite Hughes’s 2010 workload as one reason he failed in 2011. His previous innings high was 146 innings, and that came in 2006 — at A and AA, no less. But really, innings aren’t the greatest gauge here. Minor league games simply aren’t as intense as major league ones. In addition, Hughes had a relatively easy time finishing those 146 innings. He faced 558 batters that year, or 3.82 per inning. During his 2010 campaign he faced 730 batters in 176.1 innings, or 4.14 per inning. That’s quite a bit of added stress, especially for a guy who hadn’t faced that many batters in four years.

Then we get to the postseason. Not only did Hughes add another 15.2 innings to his ledger, but he struggled in those innings. While he did dispose of the Twins with relative ease, he faltered against the Rangers. All told he faced 71 batters in the postseason, or 4.53 per inning. The stressors add up.

His 2010 recovery period

Not only did Hughes throw far more innings in 2010 than he ever had previously, but he pitched deeper into the season as well. While he did pitch in the Arizona Fall League in 2008, that came after a long layoff during the season, in which he threw only 70 innings between the majors and the minors. The stress wasn’t nearly as great as it was in 2010, when he had already far surpassed his previous workload limits.

The baseball season takes a toll on every player. Pitchers abuse their entire bodies all season, repeatedly throwing a baseball with maximum effort with an unnatural motion. After the season players need rest. Some vets might be able to get by with just a few weeks on the shelf, but younger players unaccustomed to these workloads, might need more. Again, Hughes put his body through considerably more stress in 2010 than he ever had previously in his life. And then he had a short off-season to recover and recondition.

Just look at Cole Hamels. In 2007 he threw 183.1 innings, facing 743 batters. In 2008 he threw 227.1 innings and faced 914 batters in the regular season, and then upped that total to 252.1 innings and 1,045 batters with his postseason performance. That’s 302 more batters faced than ever before in his career — or 41 percent of his previous innings high. In 2009 he saw a drop-off in his performance. It wasn’t to Hughes’s degree, but different bodies respond in different ways. Yet Hamels rebounded for his best year yet in 2010, and then topped that in 2011.

His curveball

From the 2007 Baseball America scouting report on Hughes, when they rated him the No. 4 prospect in the game:

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.

Yet by 2009 he was working more with a spike curve, a la Mike Mussina and A.J. Burnett. The problem is that it didn’t fit with his repertoire. He didn’t throw it particularly hard like Burnett, and he didn’t have many, if any, other pitches to keep hitters off balance, like Mussina. He has since changed back to the straight curve that earned him so much praise. It’s no surprise that it didn’t make much of a difference last season, since he implemented it mid-season. But with an off-season and spring training to work on it, perhaps he can use it to his advantage.

Baby steps

Hughes wasn’t exactly good after returning from the DL, pitching to a 4.67 ERA in 61.2 innings over 11 starts. He didn’t miss many bats either, striking out just 42. But he did do a few things well. For instance, he limited opponents to just five home runs, or 0.73 per nine. He also kept the Yankees in many of those games; six of those 11 starts were considered quality starts. Again, the Yankees don’t need Hughes to be an ace or a No. 2. They need him to be a serviceable middle of the rotation arm. Piling up the quality starts is an easy way to accomplish that.

To expect Hughes will return to form in 2012 is foolish. Little in his last 18 months of work suggests he’ll ever approach his ceiling. But we can still look at the situation and see some optimism. The problem, as Moshe related on Sunday, is that the optimism is for a mid-rotation starter rather than an elite one. But at this point, we’d take it from Hughes. If a few things break right for him, we just might see that in 2012.

The Yankees And Pace
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  • TheOneWhoKnocks

    Reasons to not be optimistic about Phil Hughes: You’ve seen him pitch at any point over the past 5 years.

    • The Big City of Dreams

      Exactly. Not trying to dump on Hughes but it’s his body of work that is under scrutiny not just his 2011 season.

    • Need Pitching

      right, because he clearly hasn’t been good at any point over the past 5 years

      • The Big City of Dreams

        Certain moments here and there but nothing to write home about. Even the 2010 season that everyone points too is incomplete

  • Tomm

    Two reasons not to be optimistic about Phil Hughes: he has no command of his curveball and his change-up.

    • Mike Axisa

      “Two reasons not to be optimistic about Phil Hughes: he has no command of his curveball and his change-up.”


      • Tomm

        If only it were that easy.

        • Short Porch

          Seriously, the guy has been terrible. We’re all rooting for him, but at some point it becomes almost pathetic. He’s clearly a relief pitcher.

  • RetroRob

    The one point you missed, or perhaps I missed it when I read the article, was the poor shape Hughes was in heading into 2011. It’s the opposite of the “best shape of his life” concept. Couple that with the workload form 2010 and it’s not hard to see why he regressed. He needs the fastball velocity he showed out of the pen in 2009 and the first part of 2010, otherwise he’s going to have issues. Hoping the offseason workout program addresses that.

    I’ve lowered expectations on Phil quite a bit, with the hopes of a front-end starter gone. If he could actually achieve mid-rotation staus we’d all be happy.

  • Mister Delaware

    I kept hoping for a paragraph titled “his fastball now has some movement”. :(

  • Opus

    If his curve was so good, why was it changed in 2009? Mel Stottlemyre decree?

    • Jim

      Great question.

  • Tomm

    You’re not suggesting he has command of his curveball, are you?

    • Joe Pawlikowski

      Did you find any line in the article that suggests that?

      • Tomm

        I would say the entire section on curveball does in fact suggest that.

        • The Honorable Congressman Mondesi

          We must be reading different articles. Point out where he said that, with quotes.

        • Joe Pawlikowski

          All it suggests is that the straight curve could work better for Hughes. There’s nothing in there about how he’s commanded it.

          • Tomm

            Well, what’s the point of that section? That he has a great curveball, right? That implies command. Pitching in the big leagues is about command.

          • Tomm

            “Club officials call it the best in the system because Hughes can throw it for quality strikes or bury it out of the zone.”


            • The Honorable Congressman Mondesi

              Conveniently eft out this little lead-in detail:

              “From the 2007 Baseball America scouting report on Hughes…”

              Not exactly airtight evidence that the author of the post was “suggesting he has command of his curveball.”

              • Tomm

                why put that quote in the article at all then? Why was this tidbit mentioned? To suggest the guy has command? Or will have?

                Fans get all worked up about farm system guys. Why not admit the truth? Hughes turns 26 years old in June. He may eventually become a very good pitcher, but next year? Not likely.

                • The Honorable Congressman Mondesi

                  The point was that he changed his curveball along the way and recently went back to his old curve, so we’ll see what happens with that now that he’s had some time to work on it. The point was clearly not to suggest he has command of his curveball.

                  Jeebus, give it up man. The words you implied were there, aren’t there. No shame in making a mistake.

                  • Tomm

                    No, the point was that we should be optimistic that he will have command. That’s what the article is about. Being optimistic about a mediocre pitcher.

                    • The Honorable Congressman Mondesi

                      You’re a moron.

                    • The Big City of Dreams

                      Being optimistic about a mediocre pitcher.


                      He isn’t mediocre just really really unlucky

                  • Tomm

                    And I’d be more optimistic if they had somebody else in the rotation, apparently you’re happy with Hughes in there.

                    • The Honorable Congressman Mondesi

                      Do you hear voices?

              • Dave

                I saw Hughes pitch a few times in ’07. He had terrific command of his curveball. There was a reason Michael wanted to call him up for the playoffs (I think that was ’07.) I’ve also read that he stopped throwing it after he got hurt in the Texas game his rookie year because he and the organization thought it put too much stress on his arm. No way to know if he can get it back, but he hadn’t thrown it in something like three years when he tried again this summer. No way to know if he can get it back, but I don’t think it’s hopeless.

            • Sweet Dick Willie

              Except that was a quote from 2007.

  • Mike Myers

    maybe preston mattingly can give him some advice now.

    did you guys know there is a bar called “phil huges” on the upper east side…its the biggest dump ever.

    • Mike Myers

      “phil hughes” —-oops

  • Flying Choppers

    Count me optimistic that he started 2011 with a dead arm and never really recovered. I’m just not sure he’ll ever have a great fastball as a starter. Look at the velo numbers on his 1:

    2007: 91.4
    2008: 91.0
    2009: 93.7
    2010: 92.5
    2011: 91.3

    The only year he wasn’t a starter was 2009. And in 2010 they had him coming rearing out of the gates like he was a reliever. That was supposedly what he had learned from 2009. Now it looks like he may just be a much better reliever. I bet the Yankees will be watching the velo numbers ver closely when he reports.

    Why don’t any teams take the Mo in 1996 approach? Maybe Hughes’ limit is 100 innings a year. That could be be worth 2.5 bWAR where he was 2.4 in 2010 over 176 innings. Maybe guys like Hughes should just pitch two or three innings at a time? That’s still plenty valuable. Hell, go that route with Joba too and that’s good be 200 very good innings.

    • thenamestsam

      It’s a great idea, but teams really seem afraid to try anything creative with their bullpens. Teams seem to think in terms of the ideal bullpen usage too often, by which I mean the way you would use them if everyone was entirely healthy. That’s why you have your “7th inning guy”, your “lefty specialist”, your closer. Over the course of a season in which often times that idealized bullpen isn’t available it might make sense to try alternate arrangements, but I’d bet good money that if Hughes heads to the pen he ends up throwing 55-60 innings as basically the “6th inning guy”.

    • Mariano’s Pimp Hand

      In 2006 Hughes was seen as being a power pitcher with comparisons to Clemens and Johnson. WTF happened to that guy?

  • Jose M. Vazquez..

    I have projected 15 wins from Hughes in 2012. He will come in in great shape and his fastball will be between 93-94. He will work more on his change up and his curve in Spring training so that by the time the season starts he will have honed those into almost perfect pitches. So what if you call him no.2 or no.3 What matters is that he give us innings and wins. It is difficult for me to accept the little faith our fans have in our young players.

    • Flying Choppers

      I declare unicorns beautiful.

      • jsbrendog

        and elusive

      • Rainbow Connection

        Stop being mean!

    • pat

      Hahaha how exactly did you “project” 15 wins? Do you mean predict?

      • Jose M. Vazquez..

        I mean predict, sorry. He has the stuff and the body to still be a very good ML pitcher. My gut tells me that this is the year for Phil.

        • Bubba

          I think we would need to know the size of your gut in order to determine your confidence level in your prediction.

          • Jose M. Vazquez..

            Not too big not too small.

            • Darren

              I just want to say that I always enjoy Jose’s comments. he seems to be a nice, normal guy, and I appreciate that an elder statesman such as yourslef is willing to come and play in the sanbox with the yammring babies!

              LOL great answer not too big not too small.

              I fear that Hughes will be bad to average.

              I think Hughes will be good.

              I hope Hughes can be very good.

              I dream of Hughes being the no hit blown hammy Hughes. That was electrifying; he had No. 1 A+++ ace stuff that day.

              I think

              • Jose M. Vazquez..

                I appreciate your comment. Thanks.

              • Rainbow Connection

                Also, almost everyone here treats every comment as if it is testimony under oath in a federal trial.

                • Cris Pengiucci

                  They’re not????

        • The Big City of Dreams

          My gut tells me that this is the year for Phil.


          Wasn’t that suppose to be last yr?

          • Need Pitching

            no, I think most thought Hughes might have a bit of Verducci effect going on in 2011 after having a huge innings increase including a mediocre second half of the season

            • The Big City of Dreams

              Are you sure? because most of the talk surrounding Phil was he’s the number 2 and the only one besides CC that we could count on.

  • Monteroisdinero

    I like the optimism. We can always fall back on the Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee story. Success takes time.

    • Jose M. Vazquez..

      Thanks. The first time I saw Lee he pitched very well against us and I believe he had a 96MPH fastball and I said to myself, where did this guy come from? Next time I heard of him, he was in the minors. So as you know, baseball is difficult to predict.

    • JMK

      Golson = 2012 MVP. He just needs time.

  • Tomm

    One more thing — the guy doesn’t really even have a good fastball half the time. His arm is sometimes strong, sometimes not. When he is strong, he is effective because hitters can’t really see that fastball too well. He’s a nice kid and he’s our own and we are rooting for him, but he is a long way from being a good starter.

    • Jose M. Vazquez..

      That is why he is getting in very good shape this Winter.

      • Tomm

        Well is pitching a question of shape? David Wells wasn’t in shape — and he was a knucklehead besides — but he had command of his pitches.

        • Jose M. Vazquez..

          That is correct. Different body shapes need different preparation. Hughes should be a lean tall guy. Last year he wasn’t. Where as Wells did not take care of his body, Hughes needs to do so.

          • Tomm

            Wells was a great pitcher for the Yankees, the best starter they had during those championship years. When he dropped that rainbow curve, it invariably hit the plate.

        • Monteroisdinero

          Pitching is like real estate.

          Location location location.

          It also helps to throw non fbs for strikes when behind in the count.

          Can Cory Wade start?

          • Rainbow Connection

            “Pitching is like real estate.”

            It’s been revolutionized by Craigslist???

  • DZ

    Not that I have any more info than anyone else, but something tells me Hughes will have a monster year, albeit with an innings limit. I see him throwing 160 innings, having a 3.6 era, and around 140K’s. I feel like every year, we say things close to this, and he doesn’t show up. But, with him hopefully being in better shape, and not having arm issues, I see him breaking out as long as he’s given the opportunity.

    As someone who’s had dead arm (what Hughes had) I can tell you that it takes consistent shoulder workouts and a long time to get back to where you feel comfortable throwing, and getting velocity back. Personally, I’ve had physical therapy for a year, and my arm is just getting back to where it was. Regardless, watch for Hughes to have his best season yet.

    • Jose M. Vazquez..

      Hooray for that.

      • Jose M. Vazquez..

        And I hope your arm gets well soon.

    • The Big City of Dreams

      I feel like every year, we say things close to this

      Every year people say things exactly like that.

  • thenamestsam

    I understand why people view it as making excuses for him, but I really think there are reasons to treat last year as an aberration, and I think it will turn out to be. Now, that doesn’t mean I think he’s going to be a super-stud, just that my expectations for 2012 are not much lower than what they were for 2011 a year ago. I think he can make a slight improvement on his 2010 and give us something very similar to Nova’s 2011. A 4 FIP in about 175 innings which would be worth about 3 fWAR. This is probably a best case scenario, and I’m not usually that kind of guy, but with Phil I can’t help it I guess.

    • Flying Choppers

      And yet he gave over 2 WAR in 2009 in one-third the time. Why risk his health for only a marginal difference?

  • tyrone sharpton

    Don’t care what no one says about Hughes. Kid is a stud when fully healthy. They gotta sign my man E-Jac(ulation) though, they’d get him real cheap. No what Im sayin

    • Flying Choppers

      Have you been skiing recently?

  • chcmh

    I’d rather these guys reported over-weight and then kept a strict dietary regime during the season, as opposed to reporting in great shape and adding pounds and out of shape habits DURING the season.
    How does it happen that CC gains weight during the season? Shouldn’t it be like ‘Biggest Loser’ during the season, then after the season they can go to Cheeseburger Heaven in the off-season, instead of the other way around? Isn’t the idea to try to end the regular season in the best shape, as opposed to beginning the season in the best shape and going downhill from there?

    • thenamestsam

      The professional baseball schedule makes that extremely difficult. The season is so jam packed that finding time and strength to maintain the level of workouts that you can during the offseason isn’t really realistic. Then there’s the food. During the off-season you can keep a regular schedule, and many have nutrition guys preparing meals for them. During the regular season we’re talking about finding a meal in a city you don’t know well, often at strange times.

      Ideally, you’d want the peak of your condition to be playoff time, but it just doesn’t work that way. You make it your goal to be as fit as possible when you start the season (ideally much fitter than the level required to perform well) so that even with the inevitable degradation you’re still at a high level at the end of the year.

    • Monteroisdinero

      I think even ARod put on weight after being so trimmed down last ST. Yanks can’t let guys put on too much weight during the season.

    • Fin

      I wonder how mlb players stay in shape during the regular season. They rarely get days off. IT wouldnt seem a hard workout before the game would be productive. A workout after the game maybe, but that has to be tough, after playing 3hrs of ball, and being close to midnight before they could get to workout. Not to mention it cant be easy to eat right, being on the road in hotels non stop. LOL, at those points in my career when I have traveled extenively, man have I gotten fat and out of shape. THere is nothing to do on the road but eat and drink.

    • Preston

      I like that CC knows that his body is an issue and wants to use his off-season to get healthy. In season I would rather see him rest his legs and the golden money maker on the left side of his body. Additionally I think that his mental health is what’s important in a 162 game grind. If Fruit Loops make him happy, eat the damn Fruit Loops. Baseball is definitely a thinking man’s game and a clear headed pitcher is better than a Men’s Health model. As for A-rod I think it’s good for him to realize that the constant exercise puts a pounding on his body that is more harmful to him then not being in peak physical condition.

  • cranky

    I find it depressing just to think of Phil Hughes as a “serviceable mid-rotation arm.” He was supposed to be a Josh Beckett, not a Jeff Suppan.
    Hughes could make such a difference. If he–somehow–turns into a ML version of the kid he was back in 2006. But that is so unlikely at this point in time.
    Hughes has never been terribly impressive as a starter. Sure, he won a bunch of games back in 2010, and he pitched pretty well. But he was not a dominant starter most of the time. He gave up a bunch of homeruns and his K/9 was under 7.5. He was, indeed, more Suppan than Beckett. An ERA of 4.16?
    If you find that exciting, you’re a much cheaper date than I am.
    Hughes HAS looked great in the bullpen, at times, but who really cares about that? The last thing any Yankees’ fan would get excited about is another good RH for the bullpen. They may already have more of those than any other team in the game.
    Hughes’ pitching motion has changed a bit since he first came up. Whether this is the result of injuries, poor conditioning, poor coaching, or just bad, I don’t know. But I DO know it’s not good, because Phil Hughes hasn’t looked like a great young pitching prospect for a long time.
    I believe that the Yanks’ history of turning young starting prospects into good ML starters has not been good for quite some time and that Hughes is, currently, the poster-child for the Yanks’ dysfunctional coaching system.
    Something tells me that if Phil Hughes were pitching for the Braves or the Cardinals, he’d be an ace by now.

  • OldYanksFan

    I probably only said it once or twice, over at Bronx Banter, but I was stunned at how many IP the Yanks had Phil go in 2010.

    2006: 146 MiLB
    2007: 110 (75% MLB)
    2008: 70 (50% MLB)
    2009: 105 (80%+ MLB)

    And then in 2010, inclusing the PS, 185.

    I tend not to second guess the Yankees FO, because unlike most people here, I believe the FO knows more about baseball then I do. But coming into 2010, I thought they would cap Phil at 150 IP.

    Methinks he pitched too much in 2010, And while he pitched decently, his K/9 was down 2.5 from his MiLB numbers.

    While 2011 was certainly disappointing, between his 2010 workload and his 2011 fatness, things really didn’t look good going in.

  • Tomm

    Why does Hughes get so much attention when Nova is clearly a better looking pitcher at this point? Is it partly because Hughes is a nice looking white boy and Nova is a non-English speaking brown skinned Dominican? Or maybe it’s because Hughes is a first round pick and Nova is some kid signed for 50k? In any event, Nova does have a better fastball and a better breaking ball, also. And he’s feisty. And less injury prone! Go Nova, I say!

    • James

      Eh, no… It’s because Hughes has a higher ceiling, and better stuff. It’s just debatable on whether he can be consistent. It’s the same reason Noesi isn’t getting big attention. They aren’t supposed to be that great, so nobody talks about them.

      • Tomm

        Why do you say he has a higher ceiling and better stuff? He does not throw as hard. Nova has progressed faster with his breaking stuff. And he’s younger. Noesi does not have the same command of breaking stuff as Nova, who was 16-4 last year.

    • steve (different one)

      Or maybe it’s because Hughes is a first round pick and Nova is some kid signed for 50k?

      Yes, this is why. Is that strange? I don’t think so.

      • Tomm

        I think those decisions were made in 2004 or so. It’s eight years later, time to update the database.

        • steve (different one)

          My point is simply that that is why Phil Hughes is more “famous” than Ivan Nova. Trust me, if Nova repeats his season, he will start to generate a lot more coverage.

          But as you said, people have been talking about Hughes since 2004. When you have been following a player for 6-7 years, it makes sense he’ll get more ink than a guy who basically came out of nowhere. Top draft picks get a lot of coverage.

          There is nothing racial about it. We’re still discussing Brien Taylor 20 years later and he sure wasn’t white.

          • Tomm

            Well I hope you’re right. I’m not sure either way about it being a little bit racial.

            But I am feeling like Nova is the only current starter
            (under 300 pounds) that is exciting.

    • The Manchine

      BC at this point Nova is more of a “sure thing” whereas Phil is an enigma.

  • James

    They need to just designate the 4/5 spots for development, and tell people not to expect anything out of those starters. When one pans out move them up the order. People expect too much right away from our young guys right away, and that is why we end up dealing people like IPK. We don’t want to let them fail and learn.

  • Alibaba

    We are bad in developing starters. I hope Nova pans out. So far, we have not done too well with Hughes, IPK, and Joba.

    I have a fear that the Yankees will give up on Hughes and TB will sign him up. Then he will become their number 2 starter and will torment us for years.