If Phil Hughes is going to develop into an ace, or even a No. 2 starter, he will have to further develop his secondary pitches. Last year, pitching out of the bullpen, he could survive mostly with his fastball and his cutter, since he’d face so few hitters. But when facing a lineup three or four times he’ll need another pitch or two, preferably off-speed, that will prevent hitters from timing his fastball.
Hughes does have an advantage here. His fastball can stymie major league hitters and his cutter has turned into an above average pitch, so he can still attack opposing hitters with effective pitches while he gets a better feel for his curveball and changeup. Sometimes that backfires and hitters get a feel for the fastballs, but for the most part Hughes has been able to avoid major trouble. This was the case yesterday.
In June and July we started to see Hughes employ the curveball more often, but he has laid off it a bit in his last two starts. Yesterday he threw it just 10 times out of 84 pitches, and four of those came in the first inning. One of them, of course, was Miguel Cabrera’s two-run homer, the only damage the Tigers inflicted off Hughes. One of the others was Will Rhyme’s single. In other words, half the time he threw it in the first he got beat. Yet he still went back to it six more times in the next five innings.
While it might seem like the first inning results might have caused Hughes to shy away from the curveball later in the game, that might not have been the case. Sure, there’s a chance that he lost confidence after giving up a base hit and a homer, but there was something else at play yesterday. Of those 84 pitches, 57 were four-seam fastballs. Why so many fastballs? It was the same reason he leaned on the pitch so much earlier in the season. Opposing hitters just couldn’t do anything with it.
Hughes threw the four-seamer for strikes, 39 out of 57, which certainly helps. What helps more is the rate at which Tigers hitters swing and missed. Nine times they couldn’t even make contact with his fastball. That helped Hughes along to six strikeouts, the most he’s had in a start all month. The fastball it self, according to PitchFX, didn’t look too out of the ordinary. It averaged 91.36 mph, which is a bit below the season average of 92.5, and it had a 9.85 inch vertical break, which is right at his season average of 9.9. The horizontal break was a bit more pronounced, -6.93 inches compared to a season average of -5.7, so maybe there’s something there. Though, as we learned in a few Burnett starts, more horizontal break is not necessarily a good thing. (E.g., it could mean the ball is tailing.)
The Tigers’ lackluster offense certainly helped out Hughes, as the only player who hurt him was an MVP candidate. But that shouldn’t take away from his start, which can’t be classified as anything but excellent. Miguel Cabrera will hit homers, and apparently he really likes hitting them against the Yankees. Hughes not only kept down the rest of the Tigers hitters, but he also did it in an increasingly efficient manner, using just 40 pitches in his final four innings after using 44 in the first two.
At a time when he’s pitching more innings than he has in four years — and he’s even approaching that old benchmark — Hughes has continued to impress. He’s not mowing down hitters like he did earlier in the year, but that’s understandable. He’s still just 24 and is learning how to harness the repertoire that will complement his already excellent fastballs. That gives the Yanks an excellent combination: solid middle of the rotation starter this year, with the chance of an emerging ace next year. If, when the Yankees drafted Hughes in 2004, they were told this was how he’d develop, I don’t think there would have been a single complaint in the room.