The New York Yankees used to have a trio of highly touted pitchers, each with their own bright future laid out before them. The outspoken Ian Kennedy was a September call-up in 2007 and pitched to a 1.89 ERA over 19 innings, but struggled when receiving a rotation spot (8.17 ERA over nearly 40 innings) in 2008 and was part of the trade that brought Curtis Granderson to New York.
Meanwhile, Joba Chamberlain quickly shot up through the Yankees minor league system as an age 21 draftee from the University of Nebraska and landed with the team for their 2007 playoff run. He was masterful in relief with his 0.87 ERA in 24 innings. Questions about his role with the team divided the front office and fan base, enough to where they questioned whether his long-term worth would come in the form of front-line starter or back-end reliever.
Then there’s Phil Hughes. The California native had an electric fastball-curveball combination that had many pundits touting him as the next Yankee pitching great. So far, that isn’t the case. Hughes has shown flashes of brilliance (2010), but also bouts of ineptitude (2011) on the mound. However, even though it seems he’s been around forever, he’s only age 25, so his best days are still ahead of him.
Coming into the 2012 season, Hughes was fighting for a spot in the rotation and “won” on account of injuries (Michael Pineda), a great spring training, and a deck stacked in his favor. His effectiveness down in Florida didn’t make it back up to New York, as he struggled mightily in April. His 7.88 ERA put his spot in the rotation and with the team in question.
However, there were signs that he would snap out of this funk, as evident by his 4.82 xFIP. He was pitching better than what his ERA was showing, but batters were crushing him (.329 batting average) and he couldn’t keep the ball in the park (2.81 HR/9). The month of May helped him close the book on a tumultuous April in which he amassed a 1-3 record and a fan base ready to relegate him to the bullpen.
Hughes, over his last five starts, has looked like the pitcher many Yankees fans were expecting after breaking camp. In fact, his peripherals look much in line with his breakout 2010 season. For instance, Hughes is missing bats (8.1% of all pitches) and batters are swinging at pitches outside the zone (28.7%).
The knock on Hughes right now is that he lacks an “out pitch”. His starts are marred by high pitch counts in the early innings stemming from hitters repeatedly fouling off pitches. Hughes is also nibbling the corners and not attacking hitters.
Furthermore, short starts have the trickle down effect of taxing the bullpen; making relievers pitch four innings after a five-inning start giving up three runs on 100 pitches, isn’t ideal. The effects of a tired bullpen show up later in the season and could affect the playoff run, so it’s imperative that Hughes learns to pitch economically, right now.
Although the sample size is small and it’s still early, there are a few adjustments he’ll need going forward in order to continue the May-version of himself.
First, continue missing bats. Easier said than done, but he’s shown that he can get outs via the strikeout by posting a 8.75 K/9, which is better than his 2010 season (7.45) so far.
Second, he has to figure out his propensity for giving up home runs. There’s no single solution, but he needs to mix his pitches and locate better. If you watch each of his 11 home runs he’s given up this season, he missed the intended spot pretty badly on most of them. Right now, for almost every eight fly balls hit off Hughes, one is landing over the wall. Luckily, more than half of those long balls have come without any base runners.
Lastly, keep stranding runners. In April, Hughes couldn’t buy an out when runners were on base (56% LOB). However, he’s turned that around by recording a 87% LOB rate in May. Not only is he stranding more runners this month, but he’s also not allowing them to reach base as often either (.446 vs. .308, respectively).
Hughes has the potential for third-starter status, but in order to lock down that spot today – and into the future – he has to correct the points above. People sometimes forget that he’s only age 25, but his prime years are still ahead of him.
We’re a spoiled fan base and often don’t get the opportunity to see great young pitchers develop because they are traded off for proven players before they blossom. However, part of developing young pitchers is time, and unfortunately many in Yankee Universe don’t feel they have that particular commodity. Saying that, however, the May-version of Hughes, is more indicative of the Hughes we’ll see going forward and that is something we all can root for.