Tonight, about 800 miles north of Oakland, the baseball fans in Seattle will celebrate Felix Day. This might be the most glorious holiday of them all, if only because it recurs every five days. Yet it’s so much more. It’s the day that they can forget about the team’s woes and enjoy a young, dominant pitcher ply his craft. Felix Day is even better when the team is playing well, as Seattle has for the past week or so.
While I acknowledge he’s no Felix, I plan to hold a similar celebration for Phil Hughes every fifth or so day this season. As I explained before his first start, Hughes is the first prospect I’ve followed from the draft to the majors. He has the tools to pitch at the top of a major league rotation, and after he found his bearings in the bullpen last season I think he can begin to fulfill those expectations this season. He did not disappoint in his first outing.
Still, he has some adjustments to make. In his first outing he came out firing fastballs at 93 and 94 mph, blowing away Angels hitters. As the game wore on, though, Hughes tired out a bit. By the end he was throwing his fastball at 91 and 92 mph. This is understandable. During his first two years in the minors the Yankees kept him on a pitch and innings count, often limiting him to five innings per start. They lifted that in 2007, the year he was promoted, but he still hasn’t worked deep into games regularly.
In 2007 Hughes opened the season at AAA, and then returned after quick rehab stints at A+ and AA. In eight AAA starts he threw 37.2 innings, around 4.2 innings per start. Then, the next year, after his injury and demotion, he pitched 29 AAA innings that covered six starts, or just a hair above the 4.2 innings he averaged teh previous year. At the major league level Hughes hasn’t exactly pitched deep into games, either. In 21 starts from 2007 to 2008 he pitched 106.2 innings, or about five innings per start. Last year, in seven starts before his move to the bullpen, he pitched just 34.2 innings, or a hair under five per start.
Given that it’s just is second start of the year, I don’t think we’ll see Hughes maintain his fastball speed much longer than he did in his first. That’s something he’ll have to build up over time. What I would like to see, though, is him making adjustments to compensate. When he reached a two-strike count in the later innings last Thursday he had a hard time finishing hitters. He’d go back to his normal repertoire, but instead of whiffing the Angels hitters fouled off pitch after pitch. Hughes also went back to nibbling and faced too many three-ball counts. He also walked too many hitters.
Instead of looking for greater fastball velocity in the fifth and, hopefully, sixth, what I hope to see from Hughes is a bit more pitching to contact. He clearly has a dominant fastball, and over time I hope he can maintain his velocity later in the game. For now, though, he might have to settle for pitching to contact. It means using his cutter, curveball, and, yes, changeup more often. I think that’s a better strategy, though, than continuing to pump fastballs that hitters can handle.
Happy Hughes Day, everyone.