The Two Hugheses

As promised, my Pinstriped Bible debut is up. In it, I break down some Pitch f/x data on Phil Hughes in an attempt to see what he’s doing differently of late than he was before, using his late-June skipped start as the dividing line:

              GS  IP/GS  K/9  HR/9  HR/FB  GB/FB  BABIP  ERA    FIP
Thru June 19  13   6.3   8.5   0.8   6.8%   0.76   .276  3.17   3.32
Since then     8   5.9   6.2   1.7  11.6%   0.65   .282  5.24   5.06

On both sides of the line, Hughes has received virtually identical defensive support from his teammates, above-average support at that, given that the league batting average on balls in play is .294. He’s got two main problems: he isn’t striking out hitters at nearly the same clip as early in the year, and his home run rate has more than doubled. The latter is a byproduct of him generating fewer groundballs (which don’t go for homers) and getting a bit more bad luck on his increased number of fly balls (which do, given enough of ‘em).

…basically, Hughes has switched from the cutter to the curve as his number two pitch, resulting in more contact and fewer whiffs or fouls. I’ll wager that many of those homers came off hanging curves, and that most of the cutters which hitters make contact with are hit as grounders, but I don’t have the processing power at my immediate disposal to confirm that. What I do know is that based upon the Pitch f/x data at Fangraphs, which is presented differently than at the TexasLeaguers site, but comes with similar caveats, Hughes’ curveball has been a net negative in terms of runs this year, while his cutter has been a net positive.

Missing from all of this is the vaunted changeup which was the talk of spring training and the so-called key to Hughes winning the fifth starter job over Joba Chamberlain and (guffaw) Sergio Mitre.

There’s plenty more where that came from, and it’s free, so I’ll avoid over-rehashing. I saw Hughes pitch against the Red Sox on Monday from the Yankee Stadium press box. While the early going was rough, and while the Yanks went down in defeat, Hughes was able to take away some positives:

[Jon] Lester’s opposite number, Phil Hughes, appeared to be in for a short afternoon in the early going, extending a slump which had seen him post an unsightly 5.16 ERA and 1.6 HR/9 over his last 14 starts, only six of them quality starts. Hughes ran up a total of 57 pitches over his first two frames, stranding runners at first and second in a 20-pitch first inning, and surrendering two runs in a 37-pitch second. The latter frame started on a positive note, as [Nick] Swisher made an outstanding diving catch on Mike Lowell’s slice down the line. [Ryan] Kalish, who walloped a huge two-run homer on Friday night and came in hitting .360/.393/.520 through his first eight games in the majors, singled, stole second, and advanced to third aided by [Jorge] Posada’s wide-right throw into center field. Bill Hall singled to deep shortstop, bringing Kalish home with the game’s first run. Jacoby Ellsbury snapped an 0-for-22 skid which had him riding the proverbial interstate (.183/.222/.250 coming in) with a single up the middle, sending Hall to third. Ellsbury then stole second, the first of a team record-tying four steals he would collect on the afternoon. Marco Scutaro walked, and at that point the sharks were circling; Hughes had gotten just four outs via 46 pitches. J.D. Drew grounded to Robinson Cano, who made a nice spin move on the edge of the infield and took the out at first as Hall scored. Luckily for the Yankees, Hughes escaped further damage by retiring Victor Martinez on an infield grounder, but at that point, the potential for an extended afternoon chockfull of Sergio Mitre and/or Chad Gaudin loomed large.

After the game, Hughes would admit that his second-inning struggles forced him to change his approach so as not to wear out the bullpen or himself on a hot day (92 and muggy at first pitch). “I backed off and tried to play catch after that inning,” he said. “I took a bit off and went for quick outs.” The 46 four-seam fastballs he threw in the first two innings averaged 92.3 mph, but the remaining 31 he threw averaged just 91.0. The strategy worked, and helped keep the Yankees in the game, as Hughes retired 14 of the final 15 hitters he faced starting with Martinez, getting the Yankees through six innings, something he’d done in only one of his previous four starts. In fact, he generated more swings and misses as the game went on; after netting just one in his first 73 pitches through three innings, he got five in his final 41, having more effectively introduced his curveball into the mix.

In all of this, it’s important to remember that Hughes is just 24 years old, still scaling the learning curve in his first full season in a major league rotation, and that coming into the year, he was expected to be the Yankees’ #5 starter, not their #3. If he can survive the season intact with an ERA below 4.00 and some innings headroom to start in the postseason, he’ll have delivered far, far more than just about every fifth starter in the majors.

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