There have been so many surprises in the Bronx this season. The comeback, the return to form, and the injury to Andy Pettitte are three all rolled into one. The bullpen has been chock-full of them so far, ranging from unheralded middle relievers like Cody Eppley to the closer-turned 7th inning guy-turned closer Rafael Soriano, who has been everything we’ve hoped and more after Mariano Rivera’s torn ACL. Raul Ibanez has led the charge when it comes to surprises on the offensive end. But to me, arguably the two biggest surprises of this season have come from the current starting rotation. Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova have been nothing short of Godsend’s throughout the first half of the season, but the question remains, can they continue to pitch this well deep into the dog days of summer? I don’t see why not.
First of all, it comes as little surprise that Ivan Nova has been at least a serviceable arm, but even after his 16-4 performance last season, who expected these last few weeks he’s put together? Not me, that’s for sure. Especially after his rough April and May, in which by May 30th, he had compiled six wins but also an ugly 5.60 ERA on the strength of surrendering five runs or more five times. He looked more like the Bronx version of Clay Buchholz than anything else. Nova’s biggest problem was his susceptibility to the big fly, as he gave up 13 home runs in the season’s first two months, including an incredible nine home runs in just 38 May innings. But underneath these ugly numbers were encouraging ones.
Nova dramatically cut down on his walks while striking out an impressive number of hitters by his standards. In April, he walked just five hitters in 24 innings while striking out 25, giving him a strong 5.00 strikeouts to walk ratio as well as 9.2 strikeouts per nine innings. He regressed when it comes to the free pass category in May, but he continued to strike out hitters at a career clip, posting a 7.7 K/9 ratio, well above his 2011 total of just 5.3 K/9. But since June 1st, Nova has been nothing short of lights out. He’s compiled a 4-1 record and he’s lowered his ERA from 5.60 to 3.92, and he’s given up three runs or less in all seven of his starts since that date, including just one run in five of those starts. Nova’s been accumulating innings as well, completing six frames in all but one of his starts since June 1st. Considering all of the injuries that Yankees pitchers have suffered, innings is arguably the most important thing a healthy arm can give, and Nova’s exceeded expectations in that category too.
His WHIP in June was a miniscule 1.009 while giving up a mere five earned runs and just three home runs. A sloppy six weeks combined with a beautiful six weeks, and Ivan Nova entered the All Star Break with a 10-3 record and 100 strikeouts, two more than he had all of last season. If these last six weeks are any indication of Nova’s second half performance, he’s on his way to a career year and possibly even a Game 2 start should the Yankees make the playoffs.
Phil Hughes has been equally surprising, if not more considering how downright terrible he was in 2011. It’s hard to pitch any worse than Hughes did last year, but he’s pulled a complete 180 since then. But he, like Nova, struggled mightily in April.
Hughes looked like the Hughes of old at the start of this season, posting a disgusting 7.88 ERA after his first four starts while surrendering 13 extra base hits and a Tony Gwynn like opponent batting average of .329. Downright terrible. By the first of May, we were arguing whether Hughes should lose his spot in the rotation to Andy Pettitte, but all that talk about job security seemed to inspire him. Since Mother’s Day weekend, when Andy made his return, Hughes has pitched as well as, if not better than Nova. Hughes started his incredible run with a 7.2 IP, six hits, one run, one walk, four strikeout performance against the Mariners on May 12th and he hasn’t looked back since. In his ten starts since that game, Hughes has given up three runs or less in eight of them, while lowering his ERA from 7.88 to 4.33 in that time span. He finished April with an insane 1.875 WHIP, but posted 1.25 and 1.06 WHIPs in May and June respectively, lowering his season total to a tolerable 1.30.
Like Nova, his strikeout numbers are up dramatically too. After posting a sad 5.7 K/9 ratio last year, considering how he’s relied on a lively fastball his entire career, he’s up to a solid 8.3 K/9 ratio, the second highest of his career and his highest as a full time starter. Since that mid-May start, Hughes has struck out five or more batters in seven of those ten starts while walking more than two batters in just one of those starts (three batters). His BB/9 currently sits at a career low of 2.1 while his strikeout to walk ratio (SO/BB) sits at 4.00, a career best mark. Hughes has seemingly mostly solved his career long control issue, with only his trouble with high pitch counts remaining. but he’s even done a decent job at trying to get that under control. He’s been able to pitch into the sixth inning in six of his seven starts since June 1st, including three outings of at least eight innings. Impressive considering those three starts were against solid AL Central opponents in the Tigers, Indians, and division leading White Sox. Hughes has been able to put everything together recently, and the Yankees have benefited greatly. It may be a little too early to say this, but I think Phil Hughes has turned the corner. This recent stretch is arguably his best two months as a starting pitcher, right up there with his first half 2010 performances. If he keeps pitching the way he’s been pitching, he’ll make a strong case for starting a playoff game, if we make it, obviously. And as an avid Phil Hughes lover and supporter who always had his back, I couldn’t be any happier with him right now.
Even though the Yankees will be getting CC Sabathia back on July 17th, Andy Pettitte’s injury and Freddy Garcia’s inevitable implosion will make Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova even more important to the Yankees’ success than they are now. Lets hope that the best of these two young arms is yet to come.