The Yankees won last night’s game over the Blue Jays thanks primarily to their pitching staff, as David Robertson and Rafael Soriano combined for two dominant innings at the end of the game even though both were pitching for the third consecutive day. Phil Hughes stepped up and handled the first seven innings, allowing just one run on four hits. It was his thirth straight start of at least seven innings and no more than two earned runs, continuing a stretch of really strong pitching that started back in mid-May (3.44 ERA and 4.46 FIP in 128.1 innings).
That stretch started when Hughes decided to scrap his cutter, a pitch that helped him earlier in his career but had essentially transformed into a batting practice fastball. He started varying the break on his curveball soon thereafter to give hitters a look at two different breaking pitches, and in his two starts prior to last night, he really started emphasized his changeup. Last night against the Blue Jays, Hughes broke out another pitch, this one a little slider.
“I was working on a little cutter/slider hybrid deal in the bullpen and I figured this would be a good team to use it against because they have a lot of right-handed bats in that lineup,” said Hughes after last night’s game. “I was just kind of messing around with it during catch, threw a few at the end of a bullpen one time and it was decent, so I just kind of started to mix it a little more in. In our scouting report meetings before today’s game, [pitching coach Larry Rothschild] said, ‘Do you feel comfortable going to it if you need to? Not a whole lot obviously, but just something?’ I said, yeah. The first one was a 3-2 to (Yorvit Torrealba) that I threw. After that, (Russell Martin) and I found a few more spots to use it.”
According to the PitchFX data at Brooks Baseball, Hughes threw this cutter/slider hybrid thing about ten times against Toronto. Six of the ten went for strikes, including a trio of swings and misses. It has slider velocity in the low-80s, with more break than a cutter but less than a slider. I’ve heard of these being called “loaded cutters,” which are thrown with the fingers more off to the side of the ball and with less velocity by design. It’s a baby slider more than a cutter, really. Regular old cutters are thrown just like a fastball with a slightly different grip and finger pressure, but I digress.
Hughes threw all ten of his cutter/sliders to right-handed batters as you’d expect, and the pitch helped him hold the Blue Jays’ righties to four hits and two walks in 22 plate appearances. Same-side hitters went into last night’s game with a .327/.359/.622 batting line (.415 wOBA) against Phil, so he was doing something right against Toronto. The fact that half their regulars are injured and that this is a one-start sample certainly work in his favor, so we’re stuck in wait-and-see mode as far as whether this new pitch can actually help against righties.
Although he has been maddeningly homer-prone this season, Hughes has remained effective because he does a good job of limiting the damage to solo shots. He’s struggled against left-handed hitters in the past but for whatever reason that platoon split has been reversed this summer, so hopefully this new cutter/slider thing will help even it out. Phil seemed to make it clear after last night’s outing that it will remain his third or fourth offering, not something he’ll rely on heavily for the time being. He did throw a slider in high school, so this isn’t an entirely new experience, and working the pitch into game situations will be the next challenge.