If you’re not into pessimism I suggest skipping this post.
The good news is that the Phil Hughes facing the Red Sox tonight is not the same pitcher who faced them in April. At that time Hughes had no zip on his fastball, no bite to his breaking ball, and no command of either. Through two innings he threw 47 pitches to 14 batters, allowing six runs on seven hits and two walks. That performance provided the Red Sox with their first win of the 2011 campaign. After one more horrific start Hughes hit the DL, and he’s been quite better since returning.
The bad news is that Hughes resembled his early season self in his last start. While he did pitch into the third, his results weren’t much better than his outing in Boston earlier this season: six runs on seven hits. His only saving graces were the five strikeouts and zero walks. Even still, he used 78 pitches to record eight outs. Even worse, he again failed to put batters away, generating strings of foul balls on two-strike pitches. That’s the Hughes the Yankees can’t afford to have on the mound tonight and for the rest of the season.
For a while it appeared that Hughes was turning a corner. While he failed to put away batters in his first four starts back from the DL, something changed when he faced Chicago in early August. He didn’t miss many bats — just 14 swings and misses out of 267 pitches thrown in three starts — but he also didn’t struggle to finish at-bats. He needed just 65 pitches to get through six innings in Chicago, and followed that up with 96 pitches in six innings against Tampa Bay. That’s not efficient, but it’s an improvement. Then against Minnesota it appeared he cared nothing for the strikeout, recording just two while allowing 22 of 27 batters to put the ball in play. The result was his best start of the season, 7.2 innings of one-run ball.
That strategy won’t play as well against the Red Sox, though. While Hughes can work through weaker lineups such as the White Sox and the Twins by pitching to contact, the Red Sox are a completely different beast. They lead the majors in average and BABIP. At the same time, if Hughes tries to miss bats again he can fall into an even worse trap. The Red Sox are still a patient and disciplined team that will foul away flat, borderline pitches while waiting for something to hit or else taking a walk. It leaves Hughes with little room to maneuver. Command or perish. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen much from him in terms of command this season.
In this way it’s hard to see Hughes succeeding against the Red Sox this evening. It’s certainly possible; we have seen him spot his fastball low and away at times, and his curveball isn’t always as bad as it was last week. At the same time, his start is of the utmost importance. The Yankees will use only five starters the next time through the rotation. If Hughes fails tonight then the Yankees have a no-win situation in the fifth spot. They’d have to rely on A.J. Burnett to turn around his season, which is about as likely as Hughes suddenly finding his command against the Red Sox tonight.
No one should count out a pitcher before a game starts, not even A.J. Burnett. But that doesn’t mean we can’t set reasonable expectations. With the way he’s pitched lately, it’s difficult to reasonably imagine Hughes faring well this evening, just as it’s difficult to imagine Burnett doing the same tomorrow. Their recent history suggests that they’re primed for a beating against one of the league’s most powerful offenses. It might matter little in the immediate future; the Yanks have a comfortable lead in the playoff race, after all. But in the long term it’s certainly an issue. While Hughes has succeeded at times this season, his skill set just doesn’t seem to play up against the Bostons and the Texases of the American League.