The evolution of Phil Hughes

A-Rod to begin minor league rehab assignment tomorrow
Aardsma to appear in minor league rehab game tomorrow
(Jeff Zelevansky/Getty)

It has been fascinating, and at times frustrating, to watch Phil Hughes develop from a prospect into a rotation mainstay.  At the time he was drafted, Hughes was a big kid who projected to have solid fastball velocity and a good slider.  Within a year or two, he developed a true plus curveball after being forced to shelve his slider, and used the hook along with impressive fastball command to carve up his minor league opposition.  His ability to develop the curveball into a dominant pitch after not using the pitch much in high school was impressive, and indicative that he had a good feel for pitching (whatever that means).

After a dominant minor league career, Hughes made his major league debut at the tender age of 20, and tantalized Yankee fans in his second start with 6 1/3 no-hit innings against the Texas Rangers.  In that outing, Hughes looked like the future ace many of us hoped he could become.  He commanded his fastball well, and made good use of his curveball and changeup to keep hitters off balance.  In particular, I remember him making future teammate Mark Teixeira look silly on several breaking balls. Then of course came the infamous, possibly career-altering injury.  After striding too far in an attempt to get a little more oomph on a curveball, Hughes badly injured his hamstring, limped off the field, and never really achieved that degree of dominance again.

The rest of Hughes’ Major League career has been consistent only in its inconsistency.  His velocity and weight fluctuated, he suffered several injuries, and otherwise struggled to fulfill his potential.  His curveball regressed, becoming a loopy creampuff instead of a snappy strikeout pitch.  The changeup didn’t really develop as hoped, leaving Hughes primarily as a two-pitch pitcher.  Consequently, Hughes faced countless long at-bats as hitters were able to sit on his fastball and foul off pitch after pitch, driving up his pitch count and tiring him out.  He also frequently pitched up in the zone, causing him to allow fly balls at a high rate.  Particularly in hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium, these fly balls had a high probability of turning into home runs, and this problem has plagued Phil in recent years.  He also tried to add a cutter to give left-handed batters a different look, but it never became an effective out-pitch for him.

Despite the inconsistency, Hughes has been an important fixture in the Yankee rotation over the last few years.  He has had his successes, including a sparkling stint in the bullpen in 2009, an All Star appearance in 2010, and truth be told a pretty solid 2012 (even though his FIP and xFIP are less impressive than his 4.02 ERA).  2012 has been an interesting season for him because he got off to a rocky start, giving up four or more runs in three of his first five starts.  Thereafter, Hughes has only given up more than three runs four times.  While he may have tired a bit as his innings count rose, he has been a fairly reliable piece in a rotation that suffered injuries to three starters.

It is interesting to see how Phil has tinkered with his approach throughout the season, rather than just sticking with his regular repertoire and hoping that things will fix themselves.  Michael Eder of The Yankee Analysts has some great posts (complete with gifs) documenting this transformation.  Early in the season, Hughes scrapped the ineffective cutter and began featuring the changeup more prominently.  He started making use of a sharper 11-5 curveball that featured more horizontal movement, resulting from a lower arm slot.  And just in his last start, he resurrected the mythical slider, which served as an effective weapon against same-sided batters (who have been giving Phil trouble this year).

There are certainly positive and negative spins that one could put on Hughes’ constant changes to his repertoire.  On the negative side, one could point to the inconsistency of his secondary pitches, and his inability to develop any one of them into a reliable above-average offering.  The fact that he has to keep tinkering is evidence that his regular repertoire is not good enough to be a consistently effective big league starter.  The flip side of this is that Phil is hard-working and resourceful enough to constantly add to and modify his repertoire, which gives us hope that he may continue to make adjustments in the future.

Hughes is still somewhat of an enigma, but I think at this point in his career Yankee fans know what to expect from him.  He is a solid #3-#4 starter who can eat innings, is capable of the occasional awful outing if his fly balls are leaving the yard, strike batters out at a respectable clip (about 7.5/9 this season), and keep them off base by limiting his walks.  While he is unlikely to morph into the ace we dreamed he would become, it is nice to hear that he is still working to hone his craft, and try to become the best pitcher that he possibly can.  Considering he is only under contract for one more season after this one, it will be in the Yankees’ interest to track Hughes’ evolution closely, to see if he can find a mix of pitches that will allow for more consistent effectiveness.

A-Rod to begin minor league rehab assignment tomorrow
Aardsma to appear in minor league rehab game tomorrow
  • RetroRob

    I view Hughes 2012 very differently than any other year. In 2010 he faded badly. 2011 was a disaster. 2009 he was great, but as a bullpen piece, a very important bullpen piece.

    For the first time, I am now comfortable with Hughes as being one of the starting five, even if I view him as a #4. I would like for him to be pushed back to the #5, not from loss of results, but from the four in front of him simply being superior. Having a #4 or 5 who is someone like Hughes is much better than having a Garcia, because Hughes still does offer growth possibility. He gets better, then the overall rotation gets better. Garcia is what he is.

    So if the Yankees bought him back next year, I can say I’m comfortable with that. I don’t panic when he takes to mound anymore. Yet packaging him to pick up say a Chase Headley in the offseason is certainly a nice idea too. He’d be great in the NL in Petco. Headley would be fine in the Yankee lineup.

  • CountryClub

    I think Hughes is going to be a solid #3 for the next 5 years. Not sure if it will be in NY (I hope he is), but that’s what I expect from him.

  • Wrecky

    He is Gavin Floyd.

  • JLC 776

    I am perfectly happy with where Hughes is. I think the majority of the hate directed towards him comes from an unfair comparison to what everyone wanted him to be, but honestly a solid #3 or #4 guy is something that still holds value.

    In a simplified, macro look at his career arc over the last couple of years, there still seems to be hope that he can improve. He was dominant in 2009 from the pen. He was fantastic for half of 2010 before fading. His disaster of a 2011 can mostly be accounted to the injury (maybe this even impacted part of 2010?). 2012 has been back and forth but he has mostly been moving his ERA in the right direction and may finish with a respectful (especially for YS3) under 4.00.

    Again, oversimplification, but compare him to what he probably is (as opposed to what we hyped him to be) and Hughes is just fine in my book. Just don’t overpay him too much come contract time…

  • Better off Eddard

    Hughes is a #4, nothing more nothing less. In 2010, Andy was pushed back so Phil had to start Game 2 at Texas and then Game 6 at Texas with the series on the line. That was too much for the kid. He’s a solid #4 where he can pitch once in each playoff series. Game 4, however, is often the pivotal game when the series is 2-1 so he’ll need to be ready this time. I am confident he’ll be ready when called upon.

  • eddard

    You are an apologist for a mediocre pitcher

    • Rocky Road Redemption

      Well after that analysis how could I possibly disagree?

    • Better off Eddard

      Imposter! I want this man banned from the website!

      • Robinson Tilapia

        It’s so hard to tell who is who here.

        Fuck it. Dump em both.

        • jjyank


          • Robinson Tilapia


          • Bunt Gardner


            • jjyank


              • Robinson Tilapia


  • Keith R.A. DeCandido

    If Phil Hughes settles into being David Wells, I’m okay with that….

    • Accent Shallow

      David Wells was both an ace (at times) and epically fat.

      With Hughes, I’d prefer the former to the latter, although I’m skeptical.

  • Mike HC

    Hughes went from overhyped to now underhyped. I’m still a big fan and definitely hope he stays on the Yanks for years to come.

    • JLC776

      Very well stated!

  • Rey22

    Like him or hate him, he’s the probably game 3 starter right now in the playoffs if Pettitte doesn’t find a way to come back in time so, get comfortable.

    • JobaWockeeZ

      I can deal with a couple postseason starts. I just hope he doesn’t get a big contract from Cashman.

      • Ed

        Cashman’s comments recently seemed to indicate that he’d like to resign Hughes and Joba when they hit free agency, but only if they don’t ask for big money. Something like “We think we know what they are and how to value it, but both sides have to agree”

  • jjyank

    great write up, Eric. While at times frustrating, it’s been fun (for me, anyway) to watch Hughes grow and make adjustments.

  • Robinson Tilapia

    He seems closer to figuring it out than I’ve ever seen him and doesn’t seem like he’s tiring out in the same manner he was in 2010. Perhaps he doesn’t become the ace-level guy we all wanted him to be, but what I hope he’s settling into isn’t a bad thing.

    The bad part, of course? Read what I just wrote. It’s still all “seems” and “perhaps.” I hope the organization is able to gauge his true worth and act accordingly when it’s time to.

    • gc

      The good news is that if he becomes what you (and I and many others) hope he’s settling into, as you say, that has great value to the Yankees as a member of their rotation in the near future or as trade bait to hopefully bring back some other kind of specified team need. It certainly doesn’t look at this point as if a possible trade involving Hughes in the off-season would be categorized as “selling low.” That wasn’t the case a year ago.

      • Robinson Tilapia

        It still could be selling low. That’s where this is maddenning. If he pitches like this into next season, and the team pretty much decides he’s pitching himself into a salary they’re not willing to pay him, his value could be higher then.

        I’m glad I don’t get paid to make these decisions. I get paid to make other maddening decisions.

        • RetroRob

          If he finishes off 2012 as he’s pitched pretty much since May, then he’ll have had a fine year. He’s on pace for a 32-start, 200+-inning year, sub-4.00 ERA, 16/17 wins, with an ERA+ in the 105-110 range. He’s 26 and will have posted ERA+s above 100 for three of the last four seasons, with his injury 2011 season the one down year. Unlike his 2010 season where he weakened, he is getting stronger as the season progresses. He’s 26, which means he’s no longer a kid, but is still young and now entering what should be his prime seasons. He could have a six to ten-year career still in front of him. These are things teams value.

          There would be a good deal of interest in Phil Hughes if the Yankees wanted to move him. He’s exactly the type of player many Yankee fans undervalue, but MLB teams don’t. Teams know they have a baseline on him now that suggests he’s above average, even if moderately so, and there’s still room for improvement. And just as teams factor in parks for hitters, they do so for pitchers. His HR rate is an aberration compared to his career. As a flyball pitcher, he’ll be more HR prone than others, but certainly not to this extent, especially if in a kinder park for a RH’d flyball pitcher compared to YSIII.

          So if he stays, fine. I can see him as part of the five-man rotation, even if he’s more backend. Yet I’d certainly explore the market to see if he might help land something else the Yankees need more.

          • Robinson Tilapia

            Can’t disagree at all here.

  • BigBSArteest

    This article sheds light on how puzzling it is for Yankee management to change pitching coaches like Indy drivers change tires. Tracking Hughes career has more to do with that than anything else.

    • Robinson Tilapia


      Eiland replaced Guidry when Girardi took over in big part because he coached some of the guys in the majors while in the minors, including Hughes. When that didn’t work out, after a number of years, he was replaced by Rothschild.

      I’ve heard a lot of blame thrown around for why Phil Hughes isn’t a tippity-top ace already. TOO MANY PITCHING COACHES is a new one.

    • jjyank

      No, no it doesn’t.

      • Robinson Tilapia

        During my extensive Wikipedia research on the topic of Yankee pitching coaches (I need to fact-check what I say – I may run for Vice President some day….oh, wait…), I uncovered this nugget I didn’t notice as a wee eight year-old…

        The Yankees had co-pitching coaches in 1982? Why? How did they decide who went out and talked to the pitcher? Were they then allowed an extra trip to the mound by the umpires? Was one the ROOGY coach and one the LOOGY coach?

        • jjyank

          Weird. My guess is rock-paper-scissors for who goes out.

        • RetroRob

          I was teenager in 1982, so I have very strong memories of that period. It was the start of the dark days, when George would hit his low point, and eventually so would the Yankees. He’d been the owner the team for almost a decade, and had a great run from ’76-’81.

          The Yankees lost in the 1981 World Series, so people needed to be punished (hell, he was punishing them when they were winning!), so he basically figured he could run the team. Gone were the real baseball men like Gabe Paul, who had built the last championship run, making the trades for Nettles and Chambliss, Rivers and Figueroa. George’s success in recognizing the power of free agency and how it would change the game, and bringing in Jackson and Gossage, led him to believe he could run all aspects of the baseball operation.

          Anyway, back to your point. The Yankees had five different pitching coaches and four different hitting coaches in 1982, including co-pitching coaches at the start of the year. To GMS, coaches weren’t just fungible, they were easily disposable, even more so than managers, and the hiring and firing of them were used to punish the managers. That whole period still gives me the shivers.

          The best thing that ever happened to George Steinbrenner, the Yankees and ultimately Yankee fans was GMS’s “lifetime” ban from baseball. He installed Gene Michael and really didn’t challenge him from banishment as he did during his first ban. The man who came back was much more reasonable, and no it just wasn’t because the Yankees were winning.

          But, yeah, I can’t remember how specifically they had co-pitching coaches. Not sure why he just didn’t fire one and keep the other. Yet I’m sure it was for some special punishment or humiliation. Maybe he fired a manager, but actually liked the pitching coach, but let the new manager also name his own pitching coach.

          Crazy times.

          • Robinson Tilapia

            There’s wonderful things I remember, such as “Clyde King: Manager For All of Five Seconds,” and “Yogi: Clyde Was Lucky to Get That Much,” but I still don’t get how the co-pitching coaches worked.

            I also don’t get how Dave Collins worked, but that’s another story.

            • RetroRob

              The short answer. It didn’t work. The Go-Go Yankees was an idea that was viewed as a failure before it started, and ended as quickly as they could move Collins. Unfortunately, I think to make room for Collins on the team, they traded or had to remove future NL MVP Willie McGee from the 40-man roster.

  • JobaWockeeZ

    Hughes may get his article but the one intriguing homegrown pitcher is Phelps who’s posting better FIP’s, xFIP’s and SIERA’s than Hughes.

    I have high hopes for him.

  • Big Members Only (formerly RI$P FTW)

    More like ‘evilution’, if you ask me. Tsk. Tsk.

  • LiterallyFigurative

    While Hughes hasn’t been great, there is something to be said for the ability to avoid base on balls. He isn’t hurting himself with putting extra people on, and he does seem to bear down with men on base via the hit. He doesn’t give up multi-run homeruns, and solo shots don’t kill you in my opinion.

    If a pitcher goes 7 innings and gives up two solo shots, people on here freak out about the Hrs. But if the same pitcher, in an effort to avoid contact, walks the two baserunners, it can lead to bigger innings, more pitcher per inning, and far more stress on your defense (catcher is going to call the game differently with a speed guy on first, infielders moving around to cover the bag, double play depths, less scouting report-induced shifts). This is where the bloops and bleeders and seeing-eye singles kill you.

    Hughes is an example of the Yankees sticking with a young pitcher and giving him chances, even at times where he might not have warranted them. But this is what happens when you develop young pitchers. Very few Andy Pettittes in the world. Just about all of them are going to go through ups and downs and injuries in their development.

    This is probably who Hughes is going to be: A guy who lives off his heater, works in his offspeed and breaking balls with varying effectiveness, and goes 6 innings or more per start, with the occassional clunker. Ace, no. Good rotation guy, yes.

  • Murderers’ Row Boat

    Wait, I though Hughes was a bum who made other bums look good? I’m looking forward to follow in two starts, “Phil Hughes: Worse Than Pavano.”

  • tyrone sharpton

    i really disagree with you here eric. hughes has been amazing, disregarding his first month and a half. he’s been durable and very effective. kuroda’s been out of his mind this year, and cc’s been rock solid but nothing spectacular. hughes is doing very well this year, maybe a low grade #2.

  • Frank

    Hughes still has a way to go in developing his secondary pitches. He’s done well but he’s also been quite lucky. I still think he’ll eventually wind up in the BP.