When long-heralded prospects make it to the major leagues, the exciting scouting reports on them tend to stick around long past their expiration dates. We hear about potential based on a perception of the player that is no longer reasonable or based on existing attributes. We cling to those old scouting reports, hoping that the player will eventually reach the level of performance that they promised, not willing to accept that circumstance and lack of development have altered the player’s ceiling.
Phil Hughes provides a good example of this phenomenon. While many of us have moved on and have lowered their expectations when it comes to Phil, we still cling to him as a guy who has long had potential and could eventually capitalize on it. However, his myriad injuries and the stunted development associated with them have altered Hughes such that the previous scouting reports no longer apply. He was a guy with a fastball at 91-94 that he had stellar command of, an excellent curveball that he could finish hitters with, and a changeup that always seemed to be on the cusp of being a usable pitch. However, the updated scouting report reads differently:
Hughes, turning 26 in June, has a classic power pitcher’s build, coming in at a solid 6’5″ and a listed 240 pounds. However, he seems to have put on a bit of weight in recent years, and the Yankees sent him to their fat camp last spring to try and shed those extra pounds. The Yankees have long liked his makeup and believe he has the mental ability to be a successful pitcher in this league, but his conditioning is something worth keeping an eye on.
As for his stuff, he is primarily a two pitch pitcher, featuring a fastball and a curveball. While he has used a cutter fairly often in recent years, he seemed to have slowly removed in from his repertoire over the course of 2011, a smart decision considering its ineffectiveness throughout the season. He occasionally mixes in a changeup, but it is not much of a pitch and is unlikely to become a major part of his arsenal.
His fastball sits at 89-92, and is pretty straight. However, he does have very good command of the pitch in the zone, and he uses that ability to draw plenty of foul balls and get ahead in counts. His curveball, once a pitch that he could throw for strikes and use to finish hitters off, has become adequate at best. It was always a bit loopy, but it had a lot of depth and hitters would swing over it. It has lost some of that depth and just tumbles up to hitters, who can usually catch up to it and foul it off or drive it somewhere. He has also struggled to throw it for strikes in recent seasons. Hughes tinkered some with a spike curve last season, but did not see great results and is unlikely to lean on it in the future.
This two pitch combination allows him to get to two strikes by way of his fastball, but once he is there he has nothing to finish hitters off with. He cannot throw the fastball by them, and they are not swinging at the curveball out of the zone. Eventually, Hughes makes a mistake and hitters are ready to pounce.
Outlook: Hughes did have a major jump in innings from 2009 to 2010, so it is possible that some of his 2011 struggles could be attributed to overuse. But unless he recovers some of his velocity, has his command go from good back to great, or recaptures his old curveball, Hughes profiles as a #4 starter or possibly a good reliever. His fastball command is still good enough to keep him in a MLB rotation, but he needs to find another positive attribute in his arsenal to surpass his current back-of-the-rotation ceiling. As he nears his age 26 season, the likelihood that he does that grows ever more slim.
That is my scouting report on Hughes at this point. I’ve discarded the one that marked him as the next Yankees ace, as those expectations simply do not match the skills that Hughes currently brings to the table. I hope to be forced to pull that old one out of the trash, dust it off, and use it once again, but I do not expect that to happen. It is time to stop judging Phil Hughes on what he could have been, and start addressing what he is.