Apr
19

Hughes’s secondary pitch problem

By

(Nick Laham/Getty Images)

Tonight Phil Hughes takes the mound in a pretty big start during a pretty big season for him. We all know the story, so there’s no need to rehash. He’s probably not in immediate danger of losing his rotation spot; the Yankees will likely wait for Andy Pettitte and Michael Pineda to make any non-injury changes. But he’s already dug himself a hole, and if he doesn’t start climbing out of it tonight it might be too late. The hole might be too deep by the time Pettitte and Pineda are ready.

If we can take one thing away from Hughes’s first two starts it’s that his four-seam fastball is in peak form. He’s thrown it nearly 60 percent of the time, which shows you how much he relies on it. The results have been there in a way, as he’s getting swings and misses more than a quarter of the time when the batter swings. He’s also inducing some poor contact, getting a pop-up 30 percent of the time when hitters put the ball in play. It’s when he turns away from his fastball that he runs into heaps of trouble.

When he turned pro, Hughes featured a slider that Baseball America said had “good bite and depth.” The projected it to be at least average. In 2005, however, the Yankees had him scrap that slider for a curveball. That seems odd, to take away an effective and projectable pitch. But that turned out as well as possible. In an oft-quoted line, Baseball America said before the 2007 season: “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.” Yet in recent years that curveball has faded considerably.

In recent years Hughes actually dumped the 1-to-7 breaking ball for a knuckle curve, a la A.J. Burnett and Mike Mussina. Last year, during his struggles, he switched back to the straight grip on the curve. It hasn’t helped him much. Part of the problem is that he’s rarely throwing the pitch. He’s thrown just 33 curveballs this year, compared to 32 cutters, 28 changeups, and 142 four-seamers. But what’s most striking about the curveball is its complete ineffectiveness to date.

For starters, hitters are rarely swinging at old Uncle Charlie. Of the 33 times he’s thrown it, they’ve swung 12 times and taken 21 — 11 balls and 10 strikes. Of those 12 swings he’s generated zero misses. That is, every time he’s gone to bury a curveball in the dirt, the hitter has laid off. Even worse, the Pitch F/X data has recorded four line drives out of seven balls put in play. We’re dealing with a sample of only 18 hitters, but it sure seems as though those 18 hitters saw Hughes’s curve very well.

The changeup hasn’t been that effective for Hughes, either. He’s thrown more of them, as shown above, which is a good start. But he has little control of it, as 15 of the 28 times he’s thrown it the batter has taken it for a ball. He has generated four swings and misses, however, so he does stand some chance of getting guys to chase it. While it’s tough to make the comparison, since he’s thrown the fastball five times more often than the changeup, his swing and miss percentage is roughly the same with both pitches. Of course, the fastball has been called for a ball roughly half as frequently as the changeup.

It’s understandable why Hughes has gone to his four-seamer so often. He can overpower hitters with it, as he throws it high in the zone with late life. But he can’t continue throwing it almost 60 percent of the time and expect to succeed in the rotation. He’s going to have to get that curveball going if he wants to stand a chance. The changeup will have to come along as well. If not, Hughes could find himself in the bullpen for good, at least in pinstripes, come early May. That’s usually where they send guys who rely on just one or two good pitches.

Categories : Pitching
  • Jerkface

    Hughes should ditch the Curve and go with a splitter, or try to pump up the velocity and throw a sharper power curve.

    His curve hasn’t been very good for the past 2 seasons. This ain’t a new development. Hitters always seemed to see it pretty well. It got a below average amount of swings and misses. Hell in 2010 his cutter was his best pitch for swings/misses.

    Somewhere in 2007 he lost the curve that we all heard about/saw in the minor/in texas

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Joe Pawlikowski

      Sob. Texas.

      • vin

        Texas also killed Joba the starter. :(

        • Thomas

          Texas kills a lot of people.

          • http://www.riveraveblues.com Joe Pawlikowski

            Texas is the reason that the president’s dead.

            • Rooting For U.S. Steel

              We always knew you were a Misfit, Joe.

          • http://www.riveraveblues.com Mike Axisa

            Tempted to make a Josh Hamilton joke.

            • You’re* Right

              But couldn’t come up with anything…

          • Robinson Tilapia

            + 8,000

        • gc

          And Chien Ming Wang’s foot.

          • vin

            Man, you’re right. Stupid state…

  • Annie Oakley

    Hughes needs an out pitch. He gets guys 0-2 then throws ball ball ball ball or throws a meatball right down the middle and loses them. Tonight is his last stand. This is the last weaker lineup he’ll face before we go on to face Boston, Detroit, and Texas. He needs to show improvement.

    • gc

      No it’s not his last stand. No current starter is being sent to the bullpen or to the minors until Pineda and/or Pettitte come up.

      • Robinson Tilapia

        Perhaps. Perhaps not. If someone is going out there and not even giving the team five innings, the trigger may come sooner, rather than later, no matter if/when Pineda/Pettitte are ready. I get the sentiment, though.

        • gc

          Regardless, that kind of decision won’t be made based solely on what happens tonight as some sort of “last stand” nonsense.

        • Ro

          I agree. I do believe however that he has 1 more start after tonight even if he fails. God I hope not, because the dude has the stuff. That’s what’s shitty about this whole thing. The guy can pitch. He the entire starting pitcher package, other than perfecting his secondary pitch.

          I think they give him 1 more start next week regardless with Pettitte and Pineda close to returning, but they are still a few weeks off. I believe that at this point Phelps is a real threat to take some starts from him and very soon. You don’t want the Yanks to jump too quickly, swap Phelps and Hughes, only to have something push Andy or Pineda back a few more weeks. If you make that swap too soon and Phelps don’t translate as well as we all hope and think he will, you then can’t bring Phil back into the rotation. I’d say by this time next week, we’re all going to have a really good idea of his future at this point, that is, if he is not pitching for the Angels by then.

        • TomH

          Depends: if he’s lousy tonight, there’s little hope–given the way he’s been pitching–of his doing well against serious lineups. In that case, “perhaps,” he can be switched with Phelps until Andy and Pineda are ready. Phelps just LOOKS better out there on the mound, more professional, more serious and deliberate. Hughes is getting into AJ territory lately, turning around to center field, with a 1000-yard (or maybe just 130-140 yard) stare.

  • virginia yankee

    as i have followed closely Hughes from the minors with the high hopes of all Yankee and Franchise Phil fans i am bewildered by his inability to master a 2nd and a serviceable third pitch BUT your NOTE IS NOT NEW –even during his most effective periods he did not get swings and misses on the curve — he did get some called stikes –it appears he tips the curve or hitters pick it up too quickly and simply lay off — % of time thrown has little merit if he is tipping or it is too easily anticpated or recognized

    — since this appears to be carved in stone that all but the most overpowering pitcher needs an above avg 2nd pitch and a useful 3rd pitch esp in the AL – it is another testimonial to the Yankees woefully inability to select and develop pitchers – a bright, young athlete should be able to be taught – i have argued that even Rivera would have been “better” with a useful curve slider or split –

    – it would seem that a slider would at least “fool” hitters more than the curve — with guys like CC and Pettit around to mentor he ought to get on with it – if there is fear of arm damage then a split – something that retains as much of his 4 seam set and release from the hitters perspective as is possible

    • craig

      “i have argued that even Rivera would have been “better” with a useful curve slider or split”

      This statement shows how little you know about pitching. Part of Rivera’s longevity and consistency are due to the fact that he doesn’t rely on pitches that suck the life out of your arm. He basically works variations of his FB…easier to maintain mechanics, maintain velocity and stay healthy.

      Learning to throw an above average second or third pitch to MLB hitters is pretty darn difficult.

      • Gonzo

        When did Mo can most of the other stuff? 2000, right? My memory might be playing tricks with me though.

  • Reggie C.

    In typical maddening fashion, i’m predicting Phil Hughes goes 6.1 innings tonight but gives up 4 runs. It’ll buy Hughes some easing of criticsm on this site, but definitely not quell it. The “he’s getting better” chorus will last till the next start.

    Does Hughes need a second above avg pitch to complement the 4 seamer? Sure. Is it something that’ll be answered/seen in start #3? Probably not. At the end of the day, if a better starter emerges to remove Hughes from the rotation, it has to be done.

  • Mike HC

    He probably throws a complete game shutout tonight with everyone calling his season a bust already.

    • Slu

      Phil has done this once as a pro. Last year in a six inning weather shortened game. The chances of this happening are not zero, but as close as one can get to it. I will be happy to eat crow if it does happen, but even Stewart hitting a home run is way more likely.

      • Mike HC

        I kind of meant he will pitch very well. I too highly doubt he pitches a complete game, let alone a complete game shutout.

        • Slu

          Fair enough. I kinda of agree. The Twins are one of the few teams he has a shot of pitching well against. That being said they make a lot of contact, which I am not sure works for or against Phil. It may keep his pitch count down, but more contact may mean more hits, which is something he cannot afford.

  • Slu

    I personally have given up on Hughes being an effective starter. I think he still can be effective in the pen and that is what I would do when Andy or Pineda return. If they struggle or are ineffective, Phelps time.

    • craig

      There is some merit to the possibility that Hughes could be the heir apparent to Mo. In the bullpen, he can dial it up to 94-95, he has good control and his secondary pitches are less crucial.

      • Slu

        Sure there is some merit there, but to me he is way down on that list.

        Even if you forget about Soriano, you still have Robertson, Joba, and probably someone like Betances in front of him. As well as someone from outside the org. I think Phil for closer is probably around their 4th option.

        • craig

          Soriano has 1 year left. Joba may or may not come back from his injuries. Betances and Robertson walk too many people to be a closer.

      • DM

        You need guts, composure and the ability to bounce back too. It’s not just stuff. There’s been lots of hard throwers who had trouble closing. From the neck up, Robertson has a better profile. When he’s on the tightrope he doesn’t melt. He seems to thrive on pressure where Hughes does the opposite.

    • Alex S

      I agree. But let’s hope Hughes gets some value so he can be trade. The Yankees have given him too many opportunities (something we didnt give to Ian Kennedy for example). I rather prefer to see Phelps and DJ Mitchell as starters instead of Hughes and Freddy. At least until Andy and Pineda returns.

  • RetroRob

    Great relievers are often failed starters.

    I’ll leave the rest up to your imagination.

    • Cris Pengiucci

      See Rivera, Mariano aka G.O.A.T.

      • Bo Knows

        Mo had fewer starts than 10 starts before he was converted to a reliever, he didn’t fail so much as they (Yankees Brass) just left him in there.

  • Chris

    For all the people pushing for Phelps to get a chance, these are the same people who will crucify him and the yankees the minute he gives up runs or has a bad day. We as yankee fans need to have patience and let the kids develop

    • Slu

      I don’t really agree with this. If anything, the people on this site are over patient. The amount of patience show to Phil (and most prospects for the Yankees) on this site is quite high in my opinion.

      Phil has been in the league since 2007. He is in his age 26 season. He has pitched ~450 innings in MLB. Sure there are exceptions, but for the vast majority of players, if they haven’t figured it out in the amount of time Phil has had, they are not going to. People will say things about injuries, going from the pen to the rotation, etc., but it is results that count and Phil does not produce.

      The most likely scenario is that Phil Hughes is and will continue to be exactly what he is now.

      • Gonzo

        Yeah, I have to agree that people were overly patient with Phil. Remember the who should be the 5th starter poll in ST? Phil beat Freddy (I think handily too). I was surprised even in the comment section.

        • Kevin Winters

          . I was surprised even in the comment section.

          —————–

          Why?

          • Gonzo

            At how much support he got and how firm it was.

        • DM

          People have a big psychological investment in Hughes b/c of his original prospect status. Like Montero, he was “it”. When he didn’t perform like an “it” guy, those same people tend to rationalize everything away. It wasn’t just the Garcia comparison either. Look at how quickly some of them wanted to sour on Nova. Can you imagine if Phil’s career began exactly the way Nova’s has — with the same results and radar gun readings? They’d be giddy. If Nova pitched as Phil has, he would’ve been slaughtered. They’re waiting for each pitcher to live up or down to their original prospect status while turning away from what’s actually happened since then.

          • RetroRob

            Hughes was regarded as a top pitching prospect, one of the best in the game, while Nova was left exposed to the Rule 5 draft, and then was rejected by the team who picked him up (the Padres). We have here a case of a top pitching prospect who has regressed and a marginal prospect who has advanced. Hughes’ velocity is less than it was in the minors, and his breaking pitch is inferior. Twenty-two-year-old Phil Hughes is better than 26-year-old Hughes. It happens, reguarly, in baseball.

            Hughes was forced up to the majors quicker than planned back in 2007 and he more than held his own. There was reason for hope. He broke his ribs in early 2008, then went to the minors. In 2009 there wasn’t a clear spot in the rotation, but he went to the pen and was lights out. In 2010, he overall pitched well on way to his 18-win season, weakened the second half, but overall posted an ERA+ of 105. Not a phenom, but he certainly had shown enough, and there was certainly no point from 2007-2010 I would have removed Hughes.

            So really we’re talking about the problems Hughes had last year. The Yankees certainly could have given up on him and not allowed him to start in 2012, but why? Might as well see if he can rebound. If not, off to the pen, which seems his likely destination.

            It’s really one of expectations. Hughes’ expectations were high; Nova’s low. Fans rate the performances of players based on expectations. I think the fans here have been very hard on Hughes, where as with Nova it was more a case of being happy he’s better than expected. Yet that will change this year. Expectations are now high on Nova.

            So what I’m hearing from you is more surprise that Hughes has any supporters. I don’t think Garcia is all that good, a placeholder, and someone who was not as good as his stats last year. So going into 2012 I’d pick Hughes too over Garcia, but I won’t pick him over Pineda, or even Pettitte. He’s been given his shot. The Yankees now might as well see if the bullpen Hughes of 2009 is still there and move forward from there. Garcia? No future in the Yankee rotation and no future in the pen. The Yankees got their lucky year out of him.

            • DM

              I don’t disagree with most of what you said. I think he was rushed to big leagues — but any mention of sending him down from the start has always been met with an emphatic “No” or “Why?” from the phanatics as though he dominated AAA over significant innings. Also, I think the rib “hot spot” was another case of “we’re not sure, but maybe this is contributing to his problems” — but they said the same about his glasses and Posada’s fingernail polish. His fastball speed has always been strangely fluctuating since his first full ST. His rib was another case of stopping him, breaking him down, building him back up again after pitching ineffectively — but it was never determined to be a cause of anything. It wasn’t a typical “broken rib” which is extremely painful, and you don’t need an MRI to discover that something is wrong. He didn’t feel anything.

              Regarding the Nova comparison, this ST, when Nova struggled with command (not stuff or mph), there were calls to farm him out to AAA after a 16 win season — with a better finish than start. The prior ST, when Phil came in out of shape, and was throwing 88 mph, his supporters didn’t want to send him to AAA. Why? B/c he won 18 games, they said — while ignoring the 2nd half drop-off and the gaudy run support.

              As for Garcia, I don’t mind a competition — but I did mind a rigged competition where Phil gets a spot no matter what. If he had been less effective in ST, his phans would still want him over Garcia — despite the stark contrast in their previous seasons (3.66 era in the AL is pretty good).

              I’m not surprised he has supporters. That’s fine. I’m just surprised how they fit him in no matter what the context. Phil Hughes has an option left. Is there any scenario where his fans would support him being sent down — even temporarily? Those same folks called for Nova’s demotion in ST — harkening back to his Rule 5 style 2nd-tier prospect status. With Hughes they’re still waiting for Little Rocket or Phil Phranchise — but with Nova, it’s like “Oh, I knew he wasn’t that good.” The big league track record shouldn’t count less than the original expectation. Yet it always seems half full with Phil; half empty with Nova. I think the former has changed just recently but it took a looong time for the disciples to cave in. Nova had a good season last year; Phil a horrible one — but I saw more grandiose predictions for Hughes this year than any other starter. There was a lot of Phil’s “gonna have a big year” etc, etc, b/c he was throwing good bullpens in Feb. Not a peep about Nova for 2012. I could make a good case that both Garcia’s and Nova’s 2011 was as good or better than Phil’s 2010 — but that didn’t seem to matter to the Phil Phorever types.

    • Robinson Tilapia

      Phil Hughes will be a free agent after next season. There are all sorts of clocks ticking here on him. Even those of us who have been huge supporters of him realize his chances of being a starting pitcher for this franchise are ending.

      That also has zero to do with how Phelps would be treated were he to join the rotation.

      Now, are there fans who lack patience as to EVERYTHING? Oh, hell yes.

  • TheOneWhoKnocks

    It’s a waste of time to even read about Hughes at this point. My heart goes out to Joe who actually had to spend time writing and researching for this. He’s just not good. Trade him, stick him in the pen send him to AAA whatever it takes to get some value out of him, but most importantly move on.

    • Gonzo

      Does he have trade value at this point? I’m not sure of that. The Nats, supposedly, can’t get anyone seriously interested in Lannan. Granted, Lannan makes $1.8mm more than Phil, so that may make a difference.

  • Tarzan of the mud hens

    Hughes will go 5.1 innings with 10 strikeouts and 5 runs and the yanks will win off a 3 run blast from the Ibanez tonite

    • gageagainsthemachine

      My girlfriend and I have taken to calling Ibanez by the name of “Smeagol” every game. It seems to have worked as he has actually been a pleasant surprise to the start of the season (when he’s not in the field). I highly suggest everyone does it :)

      • LK

        If Ibanez is to have a nickname from fantasy literature, it absolutely has to be Voldemort.

        • gageagainstthemachine

          I see that, for sure. In my defense, Smeagol is like 200 years old (like Ibanez) and is also creepy looking. Also, and more importantly, LOTR >>>>>>>>>HP. Any day of the week :) Oh yeah, and Jamey Carroll is a troll. I just don’t know what reference to make but he creeps me the hell out. Haha.

  • http://www.twitter.com/JoeRo23 The Honorable Congressman Mondesi

    I was trying to place this familiar feeling I’ve been getting in anticipation of Hughes’s starts lately and I couldn’t until a couple of days ago. I wish I hadn’t placed it.

    It’s the way I used to feel in the lead-up to a Jaret Wright start. That ‘ugh, I just hope he gets through a decent number of innings and gives the team a chance to win, but man, it’s probably not going to be too much fun to watch’ feeling.

    (Disclaimer – Always been a big fan, still hope he can continue developing and reach some of his potential, not giving up on him, etc. Just not enjoying the lead-up to his starts anymore. Think I just find the whole thing frustrating/tedious.)

    • Slu

      You nailed it with the Jaret Wright comparison. I’d also throw another similar one out there: a Jeff Weaver start.

      • Kevin Winters

        That reminds me when Hughes was in the minors tearing it up and got pulled after 5 innings Mike and Chris were making jokes that the Yankees were are developing another Jaret Wright.

    • Robinson Tilapia

      Pretty much, except Hughes makes me generally sad while Wright just made me wonder what the hell he was doing on the team.

      Actually, for me it’s more wanting to expect, yes, 2007 in Texas, every time he takes the mound and breathing a sigh of relief and realizing this was all a bad dream. This lasts until the first 15 pitch at-bat which ends in a guy on base.

      I don’t do a lot of open trashing of the team, but the Pavano/Wright signings are about as close as I come to getting homicidal as to the team.

  • Annie Oakley

    Hughes better strike people out cause Robbie Cano is DH and Nunez is playing again in the field, this time at 2B. Is Joe telling us that Robbie Cano dontcha know can’t play everyday? He’s still a young guy. This ain’t Jeter and A-Rod. And Nunez ain’t some superstar backup. Joe is being too cautious.

  • Chris

    ok lets say they have been over patient with the prospects, they have not been patient with the development staff. It seems like everytime a prospect struggles its the yankees fault and not the fault of the player. I will give you Joba, he shouldnt have been switched from role to role, but even the new ones that are coming commenters say hopefully the yankees dont screw them up or ruin them. If your a fan of the team, you should be a fan of the entire organization including the front office. We can disagree with decisions but we shouldnt just assume they suck always

  • jsbrendog

    just go back to the slider. at this point it cant be worse than anything else

  • Frank

    I personally don’t think Hughes has a good enough repertoire to be a successful starter, especially in the AL east. The best move for him is the BP. He’s basically a 2 inning pitcher. Otherwise, trade him and let him get a fresh start (no punn intended) with another team.

  • A.D.

    Unfortunately looking more and more like reliever material

  • pistol pete

    The Yanks overhyped and used both Joba and Hughes poorly. The best of the big three got traded and is a twenty game winner. Hughes has no second pitch and therefore he should be in the pen. Other than the first half of 2010 he’s been a very poor starter. The Yanks did not baby Nova because he was never a golden child of their’s and he’s working out pretty well. I’m praying they don’t mess him up when Andy and Pineda come back and demote him. He’s better than Phil and it’s Phil that needs to be in the pen.

    • .zip file

      +1.

  • LC

    Why doesn’t Hughes play with the curveball AND slider? He clearly needs 3+ pitches to be a successful starter (4SFB, Cutter, Curve, Slider). His changeup clearly isn’t developing as well as they want it to so why not just go with another off-speed offering. Hughes has had GREAT success with both the slider and curve in the past as the quotes suggest, so it’s only a matter of refinding his “touch” for the pitches. Is this completely out of the question?

    • Bo Knows

      Its very hard to be able to command both a slider and curve and implement them both effectively. Most pitchers rely on one or the other and even if they use both one usually becomes nothing more than a show me pitch.