Good Signs From Hughes?
Phil Hughes continues to be the biggest enigma on the Yankees. Despite having much better stuff than last year the results have not been there yet for Hughes. Hughes is 2-4, with a 6.67 ERA, and a 1.48 WHIP on the year. With Mariano Rivera going down and Andy Pettitte returning some have suggested Hughes be shipped to the bullpen. I do not agree with that assessment as I have seen some things recently from Hughes that should lead to better success. I do not believe it is quite time to give up on him yet.
The two big improvements I have seen from Hughes are that he has completely scratched his cutter and he is mixing it up with 2 strikes better. As I was watching Hughes early in the year I asked myself why does he throw his cutter so much? To me it seemed to be a very flat pitch that sat up in the zone at 89-90 MPH ready to get tattooed, and most of the time it did. Hughes’ cutter has the highest line drive %, fly ball %, BABIP, 2nd highest HR% to his changeup, and the lowest whiff % out of all his pitches on the season. In Hughes’ 1st 4 starts he threw 16, 13, 6, and 7 cutters respectively. Over his last two outings, which were both good outings, he threw only 1 cutter in both outings. To take the place of his cutter Hughes threw 12 changeups and 19 curves against Kansas City and 27 curves and 5 changeups against Baltimore.
Scratching the cutter has also gained Hughes velocity on his 4 seam fastball. Hughes’ average fastball velocity for the season overall is 92.75 MPH. However, over his last 2 starts his fastball has averaged 93.14 MPH and he was reaching 95 MPH towards the end of his start in Kansas City. Throwing fewer cutters may not necessarily be the reason for the up tick in velocity. The warmer weather and a gun that is known to be high in Kansas City could also be factors. However, throwing fewer cutters may have led to a mechanical change that has resulted in the higher velocity.
The 2nd thing Hughes has done that has led to improvement, and is a good sign for the future, is how he has mixed his pitches better with 2 strikes. Overall on the season Hughes has thrown his fastball 65% of the time with 2 outs and has only thrown his curve 21% of the time. Most pitchers with 2 strikes will go to the off speed pitches more to get strikeouts. For some reason early on in the season and throughout most of his career Hughes continually went to the fastball to try to strike people out. This was a way to predictable pattern for hitters. They would keep fouling pitches off until Hughes inevitably missed up in the zone and they got their hits. However, in his last two starts Hughes has deviated from that. Against Kansas City Hughes threw fastballs only 53% of the time with 2 strikes and curves 44%. His 2 strike pitch selection was similar against Baltimore as well. The curve has been very effective for Hughes, as he has a whiff rate of over 20% with it in each of his last 2 starts.
While Hughes raw numbers are quite awful they’re indicators that things could turn around for him. His 9.53 K/9 compared to his 2.54 BB/9 is very good and that translates into good success most of the time. Hughes’ big problem this year has been the long ball. He has served up a HR in every start this year and has a ridiculous 17.4% HR/FB rate. Hughes will always have a high HR/FB rate as he pitches up in the zone a lot and pitches in Yankee Stadium, but that number is astronomical and is sure to come down, which will help Hughes as well.
These improvements Hughes has made are only over a two game sample size so he still has a lot to prove to show that he can be a viable starting pitcher for the Yankees However, if he continues doing these things and his HR/FB % eventually drops he should be a solid pitcher. I would certainly not move him to the bullpen at the moment with him starting to show signs of improving. The Yankees bullpen is still good without Hughes and a bullpen arm is usually easy to acquire at the deadline if it ever cimes to that, which I would not anticipate it will. Hughes has teased us before and then fallen off the wagon so nobody would be shocked if it happened again. It will be very intriguing to see if Hughes can continue to build on what he has found recently.