For Phil Hughes, 2012 is an opportunity

To put it gently, Phil Hughes “struggled” in 2011. He showed up to spring training overweight and out of shape, so much so, as a matter of fact, that the usually laconic Joe Girardi noted to New York Times reporter David Waldstein, “There’s a concern … It does question where their mindset is. You know, ‘where’s your mindset?”

In Girardi-speak, this is the equivalent of a foaming-at-the-mouth, expletive-drenched, verbal bludgeoning. Three games and 16 earned runs later, Girardi called the team of Yankee medical experts who, employing state-of-the-art diagnostic equipment  and degrees from impressive, not to mention expensive, Ivy League schools, identified Hughes as suffering from a “ridiculously high Earned Run Average” (13.79) brought on by “diminished velocity syndrome” caused by “shoulder inflammation.” (sorry for all the Latin-medical terms).

They prescribed 82 games worth of rest, a prescription which to be a magic elixir as upon his return, he pitched well enough to restore his ERA to a respectable (under the circumstances) 5.79.

Make no mistake, for the 26-year-old right-hander, 2012 represents a great opportunity.  Andy Petitte’s return complicates matters somewhat (ok, a lot) as he likely will have to beat out the surprising Freddy Garcia for the fifth rotation spot. We learned earlier in the week that Girardi has already nixed the idea of a 6-man rotation.  That, plus coming off a disappointing ( lost my thesaurus) 2011 season in which he posted his highest ERA since 2008, and you have the makings of a potentially daunting task ahead of young Mr. Hughes.

His erstwhile teammate, and buddy, Ian Kennedy did him no favors last season by posting 21 wins, a 2.88 ERA, and a franchise-record .840 winning percentage (not to mention finishing fourth in balloting for the NL Cy Young Award last year) for the Arizona Diamondbacks.  This series of unfortunate events has stirred some in the New York media to question his trade, in lieu of Hughes, in the three-way deal that brought Curtis Granderson to the Yankees.  Thus, upon walking through the doors of the Yankees’ spring training facility in Tampa, he has entered something of a no-man’s land.  Will he be a starter? Middle relief?  Might he be shopped around?

And, none other than Joe Girardi has weighed in this spring with his typical scathingly-caustic invective:

“It’s a little strange …. Five years in camp and (Hughes’) role is still not clearly defined,” he told David Waldstein of the NY Times (Translation from Girardi-speak is simply too filthy to post here).

But all signs point to a rebound for Phil Hughes in 2012.

First, he reported to spring training in what he considers “the best shape of (his) life.”   Whether this means he can now run a marathon, or that merely watching one on television no longer induces heart attack-like symptoms, remains to be seen.

Spring training for pitchers is all about fastball location and velocity and in this regard, Hughes is progressing swimmingly. 19 games through spring training, Hughes is currently third amongst Yankee pitchers with at least eight innings pitched in both ERA (2.03) and WHIP (.89).  His fastball velocity has been clocked at 94 mph and he has actually worked a change-up into his repertoire. After Wednesday’s game, Russell Martin noted to Chad Jennings of the Journal News that Hughes “wasn’t consistent with it early on [his change-up], but as the game went on, it got better and better.” Phil Hughes credited two strike-outs in that game to his changeup as well.

Second, 2009, his best year statistically (3.03 ERA, 10 K/9 innings, 1.12 WHIP), led to an increased workload and a starting rotation job in 2010 (86 innings pitched, 1456 pitches in 2009 to 176 IP, 3003 pitches in 2010).  Hughes won 18 games, posted a respectable 4.19 ERA (league average was 4.14 for 2010) and solid 1.25 WHIP.  In other words, he handled his new workload quite well, validating his spot in the starting rotation for 2011.

So what happened in 2011?  In short, Hughes fell victim to the dreaded Verducci Effect.   As noted above, Hughes in 2010 was 24 years old and asked to pitch in excess of 30 more innings than the year before.  In fact, he pitched almost twice as many innings in 2010 as he had in 2009, and more than twice the total number of pitches.

The results are not surprising.  His fastball had peaked at 93.7 mph in 2009 but dropped to 92.5 by the end of 2010.  A quick scan of PitchFX provide by FanGraphs shows a steady increase in the vertical movement of his fastball peaking at -5.7 in 2010 from -3.0 in 2007, then dropping in 2011 to -4.0.  All signs point to severe fatigue so that by spring of 2011 he had not fully recovered and accumulated an ERA which would have been awesome, had we been measuring a quarterback’s completion yards per pass, or average margin of victory in football.

His aforementioned 82 game hiatus seemed to have righted his course, a trend validated by his strong performance this spring.  The most promising development by far is that No-Longer-A-Prospect  Mr. Hughes  has incorporated a change-up into his arsenal.

Increased pitching loads and the resulting fatigue aside, Hughes is a fastball pitcher.  That he has pitched as well as he has, without an effective changeup to keep batters honest (especially in the AL East) makes his accomplishments all the more astounding.

In 2007, he entered the majors with above-average rookie stuff (a 91.5 mph fastball which he hurled 67.4% of the time and a curveball which accounted for about 22% of his pitches).  By 2009, his fastball had reached 94 mph and he had developed a cutter, which the next season he had utilized with greater consistency.  In 2010 he won 18 games for the Yankees, though interestingly, fastballs accounted for less than 60% of all pitches for the first time in his major league career. Hughes’ attack, meanwhile, was his most balanced ever, throwing his fastball, his curveball and his cutter 57%, 16.1% and 18.1% of the time respectively.  Voila, his 18 wins in 2010.

Put in perspective, lacking an off-speed pitch, he nevertheless struck out 146 batters in 176.1 innings!  In the American League East!  Again, according to PitchFX, Hughes’ best pitch in 2010 (in terms of producing whiffs, fouls, hits and ground ball-outs) was his cutter followed closely by his fastball.  His least reliable pitch that year was his curveball, off which opponents teed in 2011 as his fastball velocity dropped.  As this pitch is in the off-speed family of hurls, it is perhaps no small wonder that Hughes has avoided it thus far in his career.  But can you imagine a Phil Hughes with his 2009 fastball and strikeout rate (10 K/9), his 2010 pitch selection, and a 2012 change-up?  I can picture it now.

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6 Responses to For Phil Hughes, 2012 is an opportunity

  1. Bullshark says:

    Good article! On point, If we could mesh all 3 versions of him, I see a menace on the mound.

  2. hotdog says:

    Hughes has the talent and I keep thinking that he's got more upside than Nova. That might sound crazy but if Hughes can turn it around, I feel he could become a dominating pitcher. You can't argue with Nova's success last year and Hughes major decline but I'd like to see Hughes for a full season before making him a reliever or trading him off.

  3. Bullshark says:

    Didn't look bad, 2 runs 6 hits in innings. I guess we'll see if he cracks the rotation ahead of Nova, Pineda & Garcia. Does anyone know when Joe makes the call on the rotation?

    • Just posted an update – apparently Hughes is in the rotation. No word on when the final two guys will be announced. Might not be for a couple more days.

      • hotdog says:

        With Hughes being announced as the 3rd pitcher in the rotation, does that protect him somewhat when Pettite comes back, assuming Hughes does not implode?