Hughes rounds into form after shaky start to ’13

(J. Meric/Getty)

(J. Meric/Getty)

Poor Aprils are nothing new for Phil Hughes. The right-hander pitched to a 9.00 ERA in April 2008, a 13.94 ERA in April 2011, and a 7.88 ERA in April 2012. He went into last night’s start against the Rays with a 6.95 ERA with a 5.36 FIP in 90.2 career innings during the season’s first month. I guess it’s just one of those things, maybe the Southern California guy doesn’t like the cold weather or something.

Anyway, Hughes had an excuse for his slow to start to this season. He missed all of Spring Training with a bulging disk in his back and the Yankees activated him off the DL sooner than expected because the bullpen was a mess and David Phelps was needed in relief. In his first two starts, the 26-year-old Hughes looked very much like a pitcher who was shaking off the last bit of rust at the end of camp. The result was nine runs in seven total innings, plus two losses in the standings.

Phil’s last two starts have been much, much better. Two runs in seven innings against the Diamondbacks last week, then another two runs in seven innings against the division rival Rays last night. In those 14 innings he allowed 12 hits (two solo homers) and two walks while striking out a dozen. Solid but not spectacular, similar to his performance from mid-May to mid-September last year. As I mentioned in the game recap last night, Hughes pounded the zone against Tampa — first pitch strikes to 24 of 27 (!) batters faced, 78 of 109 total pitches for strikes (72%) — and that’s encouraging.

The obvious answer for the recent turnaround is simply rounding into game shape after the injury-interrupted Spring Training. Hughes did all his preparation work in simulated games and minor league contests, so he didn’t face any big leaguers or throw with any fans in the stands. nothing like that. Hardly ideal conditions really, but the back issue forced the team’s hand. For what it’s worth, Phil made no excuses about his slow start and said he was ready to go when the team stuck him in the rotation sooner than expected.

“I wouldn’t have come up in Detroit if they didn’t feel like I was ready,” said Hughes to Mark Feinsand following last night’s game. “I certainly feel like I’ve made positive steps forward since then. I was ready then, I just didn’t execute that well against Detroit and obviously terribly against Baltimore … These games count whether you got a full Spring Training or not. The first two were tough, the next two were better. Hopefully that trend continues.”

This season is a big one in a lot of ways for Hughes. The elephant in the room is him impending free agency, as his performance in the coming months will dictate whether he gets a decent contract or really breaks the bank. The team also needs him to pitch well every time out because they can’t lean on their offense as they have in the past, especially against left-handers. Not that this April has been great overall, but another truly awful showing in the season’s first month would have hurt both his free agent stock and the team’s place in the standings.

I don’t think Yankees fans are ever going to be able to separate the reality of what Hughes has become from the disappointment of what he was supposed to be, but he’s settled in as more than serviceable number four starter in recent years. Someone who will occasionally flash brilliance while generating his fair share of frustration. He shook off those dreadful first two starts to turn in two really strong outings in the last week, and that’s the kind of stuff that can get hopes up. Phil has taken some positive steps forward lately, but the Yankees don’t need him to emerge as an ace. Those days are long gone. They just need him to give them enough of a chance to win every give days, and right now that’s exactly what he’s doing.

Categories : Pitching
  • John C

    Two straight quality starts for Hughes. Lets hope it continues. Yanks need him with Pettite’s fragile back a question. Incidentally, Rays manager Joe Maddon said after the game that closer Fernando Rodney will be unavailablw tonight after being shot though the heart with an arrow from Ichiro

  • Matthu12

    Have always been an irrational Phil Hughes fan, likely because he was my first prospect followed from draft to majors. Was in the stands for his near no-hitter in Texas all those years ago, just love the guy. Glad to see him pitching well. He’s at his best when he’s aggressive instead of doing his nibble-nibble-nibble-have to throw over the plate and get slammed thing.

    Always thought of him as a potential Andy Pettitte type. #2 or #3 who gives you a pretty good chance every five days, and even when he’s off, you can see him trying to make adjustments on the fly to keep it close and go as deep as he can. Just a gamer, really.

  • BeanTooth

    Considering how solid the top three in the rotation are, it’s easy to lump Hughes and Nova together as the two disappointments/wildcards. But then they pitch and we remember that’s not the case. With Nova, we’re basically hoping he can be serviceable and maybe start eating some innings. With Hughes, there’s still reason to hope he can be pretty good. Not great, but solid.

    • Jim Is Bored

      I’m really hoping for Pineda to come back strong so Hughes can be one of the best #5 starters in the league.

      • LarryM Fl

        Too much respect for Pineda after one mixed season of work with Seattle. While our home grown guy keeps going out there against the likes of AL East. Patience is my call for Phil.

        • Jim Is Bored

          I don’t think it’s unfair to say Pineda has a higher ceiling, at this point in both their careers, if he comes back healthy.

          Phil’s gopheritis will always limit his potential on the Yankees.

          • Jim Is Bored

            To wit: In Pineda’s one “mixed” season he was worth 3.2 war, more than Hughes has been worth in any season.

            • The Real Me

              Agree, Pineda has the higher ceiling if he comes back healthy. I’m hoping he does. While I’m not expecting much of him this season, he’ll really be needed next season.

              • Jim Is Bored

                Of course, that’s why I said I hope Pineda comes back strong.

                I still have hopes for him in the 2nd half this year. Rational or irrational, who knows.

        • Robinson Tilapia

          I think its more too little respect for Hughes. I still read people calling him a glorified long man on here. That’s insane.

          I get what you mean on Pineda. One person could say he’s had about a long a stretch of success as Ivan Nova has had, plus the injury on top of it. Another would say Pineda comes with a much stronger pedigree, and what we saw in the majors was very good stuff.

          I’m hopeful with Pineda but, really, what other choice do I have. This guy just about really needs to return to something resembling a best case scenario for the sake of this rotation next year.

          This 189 needs to be gone. Get to some financial prudence gradually, fine, but it’s going to mean eating that luxury tax next season. There are better longer term ways to do this.

          • Jim Is Bored

            I wouldn’t say I have too little respect for Hughes. I love him, I’m glad he’s home grown, and I hope he’s a big part of the team this year.

            It’s definitely, definitely a lack of respect for what Pineda did in 2011 here.

            Anyone comparing Pineda to Nova isn’t paying attention. Nova, at any point, has never had the success Pineda did in 2011. Hughes hasn’t either. Pineda comes with minor league AND major league success.

            171 innings in 2011, 3.74 ERA with a 3.15 k/bb ratio, and .95 hr/9ip(will be inflated in NY).

            I’m sorry, I’m going to defend the idea that Pineda’s ceiling is higher than Hughes to the death. There’s zero evidence to the contrary.

            • Jim Is Bored

              Well it turns out there is a teeeeny bit of evidence in Pineda’s home/away splits. But I’m going to ignore that for the sake of my narrative.

              And anyway, Hughes has been much worse at YS too, and even away from home isn’t as good as Pineda was on the road.

              • Havok9120

                That last bit is pretty important, but I also agree with your overall point. We know that the injury Pineda had wasn’t the “career as you knew it is over” version of a labrum tear. As a result, even with the injury, there is no reason to think that Hughes ceiling, especially in a hitter-friendly park, is as high as Pineda’s.

                Of course Hughes has the upper hand on the floor side of things; he’s actually pitching in games. But ceiling? Not even close, and I’ve been a pretty big proponent of the idea that Hughes is an exceedingly useful pitcher.

                • Jim Is Bored

                  Agreed. I definitely think Hughes’ floor is higher.

                  • Robinson Tilapia

                    Pineda’s floor is that he never pitches meaningful innings in the big leagues again.

                    Again, I don’t know how we can talk about “floor” with Hughes anymore. He’s a mid-rotation guy. I guess “floor” would make him a back-end guy. Much higher than Pineda.

                    • Jim Is Bored

                      Well I think even established guys have floors and ceilings, they just approach each other, and have a much smaller difference, as they get more and more experience.

            • Robinson Tilapia

              Jim is Fiesty.

              I agree we can say Pineda’s ceiling is higher, but I also think it’s because you stop talking about “ceiling” at some point with a guy who’s been pitching in the majors since 2007.

              Know who else made their debut in 2007? BEN FRANCISCO. MIND BLOWN.

              Started typing this an hour ago. Probably outdated by now.

              • Jim Is Bored

                Well sure, my only point is that if Pineda is an approximation of himself from 2011, he’s going to be ahead of Hughes in the pecking order, and that’s a GOOD thing for the Yanks, because Hughes will be an overqualified #5.

                Larry thought that was unfair, I presented my evidence, and I guess that’s all she wrote.

                • Robinson Tilapia

                  Agreed. 2011 first-half Pineda is a top of the rotation pitcher.

                  • The Real Me

                    But I don’t think we’ll see that ceiling this year. Maybe next. And with only CC and Nova guaranteed to return, we’ll need Pineda to be really good. Hughes might not even be on the team. Or, if he is, hec ould be expected to be the #2 or #3 starter, depending on what Pineda shows.

          • TomH

            This 189 needs to be gone.

            Absolutely right. In the present, Seligean climate, of parity, it’s pure madness for the Yankees to give up their big $ asset, leaving them “naked to [their] enemies.”

  • Vern Sneaker

    He’s been controversial his whole career because he came up as a projected ace. Instead, he turned out to be a solid, average #4-#5 starter who like all athletes performs both below and above his average. Last night was Hughes right up near his best. We need Nova to be as aggressive in the strike zone with both fastball and breaking pitches as Hughes was last night — Nova’s got slightly better stuff and potential at this point. We have nobody ready for the majors who’s an upgrade over either of them right now, though Nuno’s got me awfully intrigued.

    • Sweet Dick Willie

      Nova’s got slightly better stuff and potential at this point.

      Nova’s “stuff” doesn’t matter, because at this point, he can’t control it. Hell, Betances has better stuff than Nova, but that doesn’t matter for the same reason.

      Nova could possibly have more potential to the Yankees because of the years they control him vs Phil being a FA after this year, but in terms of career potential, I don’t think that Nova will have anywhere near the MLB career that Hughes winds up with.

  • Robinson Tilapia

    We spend so much time talking about how no prospect is a sure thing, how projections are just that, then we shit on a guy who’s a solid mid-rotation starter on about 3/4 of the teams in baseball because of what projections said more than a half decade ago.

    Forensic is excused, as this is obviously some sort past life thing between them two.

    I’ll spot him those first starts because of injury. He’s been great. I’d very bad to sad to see him wear another uniform.

    • Robinson Tilapia

      I don’t know what the hell I was trying to say that last sentence. Let’s try that again.

      It’d be very sad to see him wear another uniform.

      • trr

        I kinda liked it the first time

        • Robinson Tilapia

          It’s the lag involved with typing on a 1990′s New York State owned PC that can barely load any website correctly. I don’t see half of what I type until I hit “submit” on it.

  • LarryM Fl

    Watching the game on MLB Extra Innings with the Ray’s feed. I was reminded that Phil is only 26 years of age. This put my thoughts of him in more prospective. He has of late been more aggressive just pounding the strike zone. Here it is hit it. He does get up in the zone and there lies the issue but with no one on base. Its OK. I wish he had the knock out pitch with 2 strikes. The first inning with 31 pitches was a test to watch especially the Jennings and Longoria AB’s. But St. Phil hung in there. He showed determination and some seething angry good for him. If Phil can get 15 wins which I believe is doable. We could be in for surprising run late into the season if we can get some replacements especially against lefties. IMHO he could be a 3 not just 4/5.

    • mitch

      I’d say 15 wins are doable…he’s already won more than that twice. In the two seasons he was completely healthy, he was definitely more of a 3 than a 5.

      • Robinson Tilapia

        It’s funny how, six years into his MLB career, we still talk about what he “could” be. What he is is incredibly useful. You don’t need all aces. You need that guy who bridges the front and back of the rotation.

        The lack of style points also hurts him. I’d wager it’s not far-fetched to say that Yankee fans are not fans of pitchers who rely on fly-ball rather than ground-ball outs. There’s a big difference between Hughes, though, and, say, Jeff Karstens, who definitely was an extreme fly-ball guy.

        • Jim Is Bored

          Fun fact:

          Hughes career FB Rate: 45.8%
          Karstens career FB Rate: 40.6%

          Although to be fair it was ~49% in NY.

          • Robinson Tilapia

            I’ll never forgive Jeff Karstens for blowing an extra-inning game on Old Timers Day, when I was sitting in the 400 level on a VERY SUNNY and HOT day. I deserved a win after sitting through the entirety of OTD AND an extra-inning game.

            Forget what year that was.

            Anyways, fuck Jeff Karstens.

            • Jim Is Bored

              “Anyways, fuck Jeff Karstens.”

              Something we all can agree with!

              • Robinson Tilapia

                Remember when they tried to remake the bullpen late in the summer with Karstens, Jim Brewer (that can’t possibly be his name – that’s a comedian – some journeyman like that), and a third guy. I remember looking that them sitting together in the bullpen and thinking “this will last a week.”

                And we worry about the bullpen now.

                • Jim Is Bored

                  I’m looking back at the pens from 2007 and 2008…holy geez.

                  Farnsworth, Bruney, Igawa, Karstens, Edwar Ramirez, Proctor, Chris Britton, Ron Villone, Jim Brower, Ross Ohlendorf, Mike Myers, Jose Veras, Chamberlain and Luis Viscaino. Well and Mariano, obviously.

                  How did we make the playoffs?

                  • Havok9120

                    Well, we DIDN’T one of the those years.

                    I remember when Brian Bruney and Scott Rubberarm were the most reliable guys outside of Mo in the bullpen. I don’t miss those times.

                    What’s even more surprising to me in hindsight is that it was those years that I actually became the Yankee fanatic I am today. I wasn’t a baseball fan really at all before 2006. By 2008 I was rabid.

                    • Jim Is Bored

                      In 2007 we had over 300 innings pitched of -WAR.

                      That’s amazing.

                    • Jim Is Bored

                      As a reference point, last year we had 7.

                  • Luis Castillo (Not the one who dropped the ball)

                    07′ with A-Rod at his very best, hittin’ the living crap out of the ball.

                    08′ well they missed the playoffs.

        • mitch

          I think the biggest problem is unrealistic expectations put on him. If he came up with David Phelps-like expectations and then delivered 16-18 win seasons with a 4.00 ERA, he’d be everyone’s favorite player.

          • Havok9120

            I’d definitely agree that that’s a big problem for him here. It doesn’t help that since so many people on this particular site had him as their first true prospect crush, objectivity is rather difficult to find when it comes to him. So many people either feel totally betrayed by the promise he had or they’re still waiting for the promise to fulfill itself that they seize upon every positive sign as a sign that Phil Hughes Has Arrived.

  • Mickey Scheister

    Yay Hughes! I love his angry pitch face, he looks fierce like tiger. I too have an irrational love for Hughesy. I had the opportunity to watch his first big leauge start and it was a love affair with good times and bad times since. It’s always great to see Phil dominate with the stuff he had tonight. Stay phierce Phil, stay phierce.

  • Alex

    The question about his future right now is not what it is going to be but how much is it going to cost? As Mike said, he had the promise but is now a serviceable number 4. Promise + serviceable #4 = something more expensive than serviceable #4 money. Should we maybe start living with the reality that Philbert might go away soon?

    • Jim Is Bored

      I think it’s pretty reasonable to think he won’t be back next year, unless he really, really wants to be here.

      • MannyGeee

        In fairness, Nick Swisher “Really REALLY wanted to be here” as did Russell Martin.

        I am thinking the door has closed on the Yankee careers of Hughes AND Joba this year, right wrong or indifferent.

        • Jim Is Bored

          That’s what they said publicly. But I really meant “would take a lot less money” by “wants to be here”.

    • Havok9120

      I don’t even think it’s that so much as he, as a flyball pitcher, is simply worth more to another team than he is to us. If it comes to a bidding war between us and one of those NL West teams or someone with a similarly pitcher-friendly park, there is absolutely no reason we should try and keep up with them offer-wise.

      • jsbrendog

        i think he ends up in the nl, or if the al, seattle.

        • I’m not the droids you’re looking for…

          Hughes to Montero

      • JRod

        I agree, but also sort of cringe at how difficult/expensive it will be to replace him. Decent starters are just so hard to come by. One thing that impresses me is that Hughes has developed a certain poise, he seems to have gotten mentally tougher. Earlier in his career, he would often give up a couple of early runs and then melt down completely. He would get that sort of rattled, shaken look on his pale Irish mug. Now he can give up a solo or a couple of runs in the 2nd inning and he settles and toughs it out.

        • Havok9120

          I agree. So much so that if the price is anywhere near right I want him back (that could change by year’s end). But unless Hughes actively wants to stay here I really can’t see it happening because there is no way we should stick in a bidding war with, say, the Mets, Giants, Padres, Mariners, etc.

          • MannyGeee

            I think the Mets are a dark horse for Hughes this winter, although I still think he’s got Texas Rangers written all over him. He could easily slot between Yu and Holland and (fly balls aside) do nicely in Arlington. Just feels like a fit.

  • trr

    Obviously we’re gonna have to lean heavily on Hughes this year, given the age / fragility of some of our starters. His positive outing was most welcome!

    Next year? Nothing’s written in stone…

  • CountryClub

    I still think Hughes has a real chance to be a legit #3.

    • Robinson Tilapia

      Why “chance?” He’s been in the majors since 2007.

      • CountryClub

        While true, this is a bit misleading. First, he was called up too early. Second, he’s only had 2 full years of pitching in the majors as a starter. If he had thrown 150+ innings each yr since 2007, I would agree that he should be close to his ceiling.

        But I think he’s still learning. I think his learning curve was stunted by a couple of years (because of his early call up, injuries and pen use).

  • PhillyMatt

    Wildly OT but Thomas Neal lifted in 2nd inning of this mornings Scranton game. Could he be headed to the big ball club in the bronx?

    • Jersey Joe

      Definitely intriguing. I would love to see what he has to offer.

    • Havok9120

      Or he’s injured. Or his mom died. Or he ticked off the manager with something stupid. Or he saw someone in the crowd giving him the stink eye and went to beat the crap out of them. Or…

      • Jim Is Bored

        Man, I hope his mom didn’t die.

        • Havok9120

          Me too. :(

  • Luis Castillo (Not the one who dropped the ball)

    The oposing line up has something to do too, with Hughes being better IMO.


    • MannyGeee

      tell that to CC and Nova

      • Luis Castillo (Not the one who dropped the ball)

        But I didn’t want to…


        • Havok9120

          Be careful how you do it, too. Even Nova could probably squish you. CC….

          Yeah. Be careful.

  • Vern Sneaker

    I like that more comments than not seem to accept that Hughes is a valuable part of the staff despite the up-and-down performance that nearly every major league pitcher delivers. Acceptance of him hasn’t always been like that, me included at times out of frustration. We could do (and have done) a lot worse than Hughes. If he has a really consistent solid year, the $$ issue that could cause him to leave is going to be mighty teeth-gritting.

  • MannyGeee

    Hughes sits in that “funny” place of pitchers who’s potential, while never realized, is always hanging over them. I put Edwin Jackson, Gio Gonzalez, Ervin Santana in that same category.

    “Phil Hughes, Future Ace” sits out there as his calling card when he has simply become “Phil Hughes, legit Major League Starting Pitcher”. I would cosign for that any day of the week.

  • DInnings

    I wouldn’t call a guy who posted 18-8 with a 4.19 ERA across 29 starts in 2010 and 16-13 with a 4.23 ERA across 32 starts in 2012 a fourth starter. Hughes is a dual #3 starter with Pettitte. If Pettitte wasn’t a Yankee right now, Hughes would be the the #3 starter, Nova and Phelps the backend of the rotation in either order.

    Keep in mind “#3″ all year because Hughes would be that or better for most teams, so even if he has a #4 type season, he will command #3 or better starter bucks because you know there will be some team out there who will think he did what he did against perhaps the toughest division in MLB and he should do better in an easier division or league – see AJ Burnett who has (so far) thrived in the anonymity of Pittsburgh, the safety of the perpetually mediocre NL Central, and in the league of no DH and a much weaker bottom of the order with the free out in the ninth slot (pitcher batting with or without a bat off the bench who has to bat 1.000 for the game.) Hughes got a World Series ring with the Yanks, so don’t be surprised if he wants to pitch for the Cubs or some other team where the pressure is little or none to win. I could see him signing with the Astros so he could be home half the time.

    Look at Jeremy Guthrie, 34. He has been bad in three of his last seasons as a starter, a career fifth starter who has shown flashes of #3 starter quality, nothing more. The Royals gave him a three-year $25M contract for basically a great half-season with them. He’s making only $5M this year but will make $11M in 2014 and $9M in 2015. Hughes’ agent will say he’s much younger (27 to Guthrie’s 35 next April 8) with a much higher ceiling and better than Guthrie and he’d be right.

    I predict at least four years at $10M per year for Hughes even if he turns out a #5 starter 2013, more years and money the better he does.
    If Guthrie could get $25M just before turning 34 on a great half-season, Hughes most certainly would receive double that if he turns out even another 2012 this season. Time is on Hughes’ side. His agent needs to pound it into teams’ heads that Hughes is only 27 and his career has only begun despite the mileage. Three solid seasons out of the last four against the toughest division in MLB from a guy who is only 27 would be the main selling point.

  • hornblower

    Phil Hughes is a good young pitcher. They should sign him to a long term deal. He at 26 has good stuff and is getting better every year. He is coming into his prime years and should win in the teens the next few years and eat innings. If he was to go on the open market 20+ teams would bid for his services. It amazes me that some Yankee fans don’t appreciate what they have. Experienced young pitchers are the coin of the realm.