Has Hughes turned a corner?
Since the Yankees drafted him in the 1st round in 2004, Phil Hughes has always teased us with his immense potential. He breezed through every level of the Minors going 32-8 with a 2.35 ERA, & 10.1 k/9, looking like a “can’t miss” front-end starter in the making. Baseball America rated him the #4 Overall Prospect in the Minors in 2007 and he made his MLB debut that same year. His Yankees career has been full of up and downs as he was strong in the pen in 09, an All-Star in the rotation in 2010 and a major disappointment in 2011. With his “fatigued” shoulder no longer an issue and after getting into excellent physical condition this off-season, expectations were high for 2012.
But things started poorly as Hughes went 1-4 with an unsightly 7.48 ERA and 7 HRs allowed in 21.2 ip (2.9 HR/9) over his first 5 starts.. His Fastball was pedestrian, averaging between 91.3 & 92.3 and his breaking pitches lacked bite. He failed to last more than 5.1 ip in any start as his pitch counts KO’d him early due to his 21.1 pitches per inning. Yankee fans were fed up with Phil and were clamoring for a switch to the bullpen. When asked, Joe Girardi repeatedly answered that the organization saw him as a starter and that is where he would stay. But it was clear Phil needed to make some changes if he was going to remain in the rotation.
In the 6 starts since then, Hughes has reversed his record, going 4-1 and has cut his ERA & HR rates by more than half. In 40 ip, he has a 3.60 ERA and allowed 6 HRs (1.35 HR/9). He’s also been much more efficient, averaging 16.25 pitches per inning and has gone at least 6 ip in 4 of 6 starts. He allowed 3 ER or less in all of the starts except for one. However, that one outing was against the LA Angels who are surging and one of the top teams in MLB right now.
This one outing could be excused as just a blip against a tough opponent, however, poor showings against good teams have become a trademark for Hughes. In fact, when we look at how he’s fared against teams below .500 and over .500, it portrays a troubling trend. This year he is 5-0 with a sterling 2.33 ERA and 1.3 HR/9 against losing teams. Conversely, he’s a wretched 0-5 with a 8.33 ERA and 2.7 HR/9 against teams with winning records.
So, is the improved performance in his last 6 starts for real or has it been more a product of facing lesser opponents? I believe the answer lies somewhere in between. There’s no doubt that Hughes has pitched better starting with his May 1st outing vs Baltimore. He made a clear decision to be more aggressive and attack with his Fastball. He’s also picked up an extra MPH on his fastball averaging nearly 93 MPH and has basically scrapped his Cutter. In his first 4 starts he threw 42 Cutters but has thrown just 14 in his last 6 starts. When Hughes is spotting his Fastball on the corners and changing eye levels with it, he’s been effective. Mixing in the Curve and Change are also important to give batters something else to consider, but his FB has been his bread and butter. In yesterday’s start vs Detroit, he threw 99 Fastballs out of 121 pitches. That is a startling number of 4-seamers to throw in one game. It was effective against Detroit as he was able to locate it well against their big 2 hitters and continually challenge the rest of the free-swinging lineup. But I am very skeptical if this approach will work against the deeper and more patient lineups in the A.L. Clearly it has not worked so far as he’s been beat up by Texas, Los Angeles (twice), Baltimore & Toronto. So, while I think Hughes can pitch better than his 8.33 ERA vs Winning teams suggests, I think he will continue to have trouble with better lineups until he can improve his secondary offerings and master command of his Fastball. With his poor mechanics and short-arm throwing motion, I question whether Hughes will ever make the improvements required to be anything more than a back-end starter who can beat the weaker teams but always struggle against the deeper A.L. lineups.
Hopefully, throwing a complete game vs Detroit and Justin Verlander will give Phil some confidence and he can carry it into his upcoming starts. Although Detroit has struggled this yr and most of the lineup couldn’t hit their way out of a paper bag, he still had to face Cabrera & Fielder 8 times so it wasn’t an easy matchup. Although his next few opponents are all above .500, he may benefit from facing the DH-less and shorter lineups of the Mets, Nats & Braves and put together a run of good starts. So what do you all think of Hughes’ future this season and beyond? Will he be anything more than a back-end starter and can he be effective against the elite lineups of the league? He’ll be looking at a sizable raise in his last year of arbitration this Winter and will be a Free Agent in 2014. What is his long-term future with the club?