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.
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.
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.