Phil Hughes Focused on Change

As a starter coming up through the Yankees minor league system Phil Hughes was pretty much a two pitch pitcher – fastball/curveball. Sure, he had a slider and even a changeup, but the two pitches were works in progress at best.

phil-hughes-yankeesAt the end of 2008 he abandoned the slider for a cut-fastball. In 2009, as a reliever, he abandoned the changeup, a pitch he will need should he return to the rotation, altogether. Now he’s going to spend spring training trying to get his changeup back.

“It’ll be a big focus for me this spring,” Hughes said. “I have to get used to throwing it. It may not be the most comfortable thing at first, but it’ll be a good pitch for me down the line. … Now is the time it needs to come back.”

Hughes is going to need that changeup if he’s going to have much success as a starter. Last season as a member of the bullpen he didn’t use it and he still managed to get by, but that was mostly luck. Hughes was hesitant pitching against lefties last season, walking them at a much higher rate than right handed batters. Even when he came in the zone he got lit up to the tune of a 1.43 WHIP and .257 batting average against. A far cry from his 0.87 and .184 respective numbers against righties.

He still managed to overpower the American League for most of the season, until the playoffs. If he were in the starting rotation things might be quite a bit different. Hughes would be forced to deal with many more left handed hitters and would probably be left exposed.

But he’s going to have to learn the changeup in the rotation which leaves the Yankees in an interesting situation. If Hughes spends another full season in the pen it’ll set the pitch back another year developmentally to the point where he may never learn it.

That’s not to say that Hughes can’t be successful in the rotation without a changeup, but if he doesn’t learn it in 2010 he’s going to have to find another approach against lefties because it was ugly against them without it last season.

Another interesting problem comes up because of all of this. Hughes will be battling Joba for the fifth starter position. He’s also going to be working on his changeup, meaning it would be in his best interest to throw it as much as possible. But in reality it is his forth best pitch. How much is he going to want to throw it in key situations if it is going to effect his chances at winning the final rotation spot?

So Hughes spot in the rotation could depend on how quickly he picks up this pitch. Is that what it should hinge on? If he cannot throw a changeup, some guys never learn changes, does that change your opinion on him as a starter vs. reliever?

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8 Responses to Phil Hughes Focused on Change

  1. Rob Abruzzese says:

    He developed his cutter pretty quickly. It certainly needs work though. He did throw it a little bit in 2009, but not much at all and almost never by the end of the season. I would guess that he's going to work on that in spring training as well and if he doesn't ever learn to hone that changeup it could be something, like Mariano, where he uses it to attack lefties. The problem is there is only so much time in spring training and his changeup needs more work so that seems like the pitch he's going to focus on.

  2. Sounds like the words "crash course" might emerge in ST in conjunction with Hughes's pitch repertoire, Rob.

  3. Well he has been learning the cutter since 2008 and the changeup probably since he was drafted.

  4. smurfy says:

    You mentioned a cut fastball as his last new pitch. Mr. Mariano does pretty well against lefties with that. You didn’t day how well it’s doing, but unmentioned, my guess it’s not remarkable. But since he has some recent experience with it, he oughta focus some on that in games, and practice the changeup on the side.

  5. I do think the change will be crucial for Hughes, against lefties and in general. Regardless of what MPH he might lose off his fastball, an effective change will keep batters off-balance and will make his fastball seem accelerated.

    Good stats on the LH/RH splits, very revealing. A good two-seamer might help with those, too.

  6. I was just being facetious. I think one additional decent pitch can make a big difference for Hughes. Burnett essentially has three and throws mainly two.

  7. I think he could do it with less than 4 pitches, but something has got to change. He did much worse against lefties.

  8. smurfy says:

    Yeah, whichever approach he decides. There's too many lefties floating about to leave our boy defenseless. How strong a role does Dave Eiland play in such decisions? Or other staff?

    The cut fastball is something of a mystery to me, even though I saw Mo explain how he throws it. And the changeup: hard to see what it does on the telebision. A good circle change falls and gently curves to the right, right? When a righty throws it, I mean. I gotta find that article on pitching mechanics I passed by recently.

    Hard to understand how it curves right if he's throwing it like a fastball. Must be something in the finger pressure in that grip. The ball can do funny things: I got warts burned off three, four of my fingers when I was 9, and Mom dropped me off at the C level Little League game, with white tape round my sore fingers, and my big brother's "bushelbasket" glove that weighed more than my left arm. I was pitching that day, and because my fingers were so weird, I tried scrunching down on the ball in the glove, and proceeded to strike out all these kids: my "palmball" fluttered like a knuckler!

    The next year, I couldn't throw it. My hands had grown, and I had a glove of my own.