Big ups to Moshe Mandel for coming up with the foundation for this article.
With his four home runs surrendered yesterday, Phil Hughes sits behind only Jason Vargas for the MLB lead in home runs allowed. Of course, Vargas has pitched 24 more innings, so Hughes has the lead in home runs allowed per nine innings pitched (2.18). This wouldn’t be so surprising if it weren’t for Hughes’s other peripheral statistics.
Hughes has both a low walk rate and a relatively high strikeout rate. While he’s not fanning batters at a Strasburgian rate, he still ranks 7th out of 47 qualified AL starters in strikeout rate. At the same time he’s shown good control, ranking 14th lowest in walk rate. That’s good for a 3.85 K/BB ratio, which ranks fourth in the AL. How is someone dominant enough to strike out more than his share of hitters, while at the same time showing enough control to avoid giving them free passes, manage to allow so many home runs?
Losing while ahead
One result of Hughes’s control is that he often works ahead in the count. He has faced 341 hitters this year, of which 83 have gone to an 0-2 count. That’s 24.3 percent of all hitters he’s faced. The AL average is just 19.3 percent of all PA. Yet hitters have had a field day once they’re this far behind. The average AL hitter has a .166 BA and .250 SLG in PA when they’ve seen an 0-2 count. In PA when Hughes has gotten ahead 0-2 hitters have a .253 BA and .494 SLG. Even worse, when the count is 0-2 AL hitters have a .146 BA and .222 SLG. Against Hughes with an 0-2 count they have a .294 BA and — I’m not even kidding — a .618 SLG. When Hughes is ahead in the count, opponents have hit .236/.242/.394 against him. The average AL pitcher holds opponents to a .201/.210/.300 line while ahead.
Unsurprisingly, Hughes ranks near the top of the leader boards in fastball percentage. He’s used his for more than two-thirds of his overall pitches. That does not include his cutter usage. The names ahead of him are all known for the movement on their fastballs. Bartolo Colon has the two-seamer we loved last year. Justin Masterson, Rick Porcello, and Henderson Alvarez get ground balls due to the sinking action on their fastballs. Matt Moore does have a two-seamer. Yet Hughes throws a relatively straight four-seamer.
It is unsurprising, then, that Hughes has allowed 12 of his 19 home runs on the fastball. That’s 63 percent, which is slightly below his fastball usage rate, but given the sample size it’s close enough. At the same time, Hughes has used the fastball as a swing and miss weapon. Before yesterday’s game batters missed once every five swings. It’s clear that while seemingly straight, Hughes’s fastball can sneak up on a batter and cause him to swing and miss. It is easily his best pitch.
Cutting out what doesn’t work
After giving up many long balls early in the season, Hughes did make an adjustment. He had been throwing his cutter, but it wasn’t an effective weapon. He threw it 62 times, and three times batters took it out of the park. That looks even worse when we see that batters swung at it only 26 times. That’s more than one in 10 swings resulting in a home run. The cutter just wasn’t working.
Hughes threw the cutter 47 times in April, but only 15 in May. It’s pretty clear that he cut it out at some point during that month, because he hasn’t thrown it once in June. That happens to coincide with his string of very good starts, yesterday excluded. In fact, before yesterday he’d given up just one home run on his fastball in June, of 244 pitches and 130 swings. Unfortunately, he did surrender three homers on the fastball yesterday.
Trying something different
Yankees’ pro scouting manager Will Kuntz noted two changes in Hughes’s secondary arsenal, aside from scrapping the cutter. “He’s using his curveball as a first pitch,” says Kuntz. Second, Kuntz says that he changed his grip on his changeup recently — before a start against Kansas City, he estimates. “It’s a great pitch for him,” says Kuntz. “He’s getting more comfortable with it.”
Hughes’s adaptation to his fastball, curve, changeup arsenal might take some time. He had indeed worked on a changeup in spring training, and did try to work it into his arsenal. He threw it 12 percent of the time in April and May. He’s throwing it about half as frequently in June. He was at six percent coming into yesterday’s game, and threw the changeup just six of 83 pitches yesterday. Getting comfortable with it, it seems, is a process.
Hughes did ramp up his curveball usage from April, 12 percent, to May, 21 percent. Yet in June that had dropped to 16 percent going into yesterday’s game. In a way that makes sense. As Kuntz said, he’s using it more early in the count, setting up his fastball. We saw how frequently Hughes works ahead of hitters. If he’s using his fastball as his biggest attack weapon, it does seem that he’d be throwing it more frequently than before (when he was presumably trying to use his curve as a weapon to finish off hitters).
Yesterday, however, Hughes went curveball heavy, throwing it 31 times (37.3 percent). Six of the 19 batters he faced saw it as a first pitch. Nine times he threw it with an even count, and just four times he threw it when behind in the count. I’m honestly not sure what this amounts to, but it’s interesting that he increased his curveball usage in a start where his average fastball was stuck in the low 90s in the first few innings. He didn’t hit 94 until the fourth, and then only twice. It was mostly 91 to 92 on the day.
Still no explanation
While there is plenty of information here, it still doesn’t paint a clear picture of why Hughes’s results line up as they do. “Some guys are wild in the zone,” says Kuntz. “It’s a matter of command, usually. They’re supposed to be down and away.” So Hughes can keep it around the zone, but not necessarily where he wants it in the zone. When he hits, then, it’s a whiff. When he misses, he might not get the ball back.
Kuntz also spoke of Hughes’s bulldog mentality. We’ve heard this term used to describe many pitchers. RAB readers will remember that those who favored Joba Chamberlain pitching out of the pen often cited his bulldog mentality. What does that mean for Hughes, though? Does it mean that he attacks too hard when ahead in the count and is therefore more prone to mistakes? Does it mean that he’s better fit for the bullpen, where he can really unleash his fastball and need only one other pitch?
It’s difficult for experienced members of the Yankees’ organization to answer this question, let alone you or me. Hughes is, by statistical standards, turning in a unique season. Looking at all pitchers with at least 50 IP from 1901 to 2012, only three other pitchers have had a K/BB ratio of 3.5 or greater, with a HR/9 of 2.0 or greater. The other three aren’t exactly power pitchers, though. If we look at pitchers with a K/9 of more than 8.5 per nine and a BB/9 of lower than 2.5 per nine, Hughes stands alone. Yes, using a mere 50 IP qualifier, he is the only pitcher in modern history to feature his current statistical profile.
Maybe this is why he’ll continue to get chances. He clearly has good stuff. He’s shown signs of life at times. And no one can really explain what’s going on. Hughes is really in a world of his own right now.