Revisiting Phil Hughes

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There aren’t many players on the New York Yankees roster that incites so much indifference among the fanbase. However, Phil Hughes for the better part of this season has. I can’t blame people for having their hopes up, and subsequently dashed, after his great spring was followed by a month of ineptitude on the mound. Now, it seems he’s beginning to put it all together and becoming a formidable pitcher for the Yanks, as evident in yesterday’s start against the Chicago White Sox.

Phil Hughes continues to shine after early season struggles (Photo: Brad Penner-US PRESSWIRE)

Since I last wrote about him in late May, Hughes has gone 6-1 in eight starts. He’s gone six innings or more in five of those starts, including a pair of eight-inning performances and a complete game. He’s had his hiccups along the way – especially when he allowed four home runs to the Atlanta Braves – but for the most part we are beginning to see the real Phil Hughes.

Here were the top three things I wanted to see in Hughes going forward from our last visit:

  • Continue missing bats
  • Lower home run rate
  • Keep stranding runners

To quickly recap, Hughes “held” hitters to a .329/.395/.658 batting line in April, which he improved upon in May .(262/.301/.476), and again in June (.226/.273/.419). So what happened to Hughes that has allowed him to become a good pitcher of the past month or so? First, he’s getting more batters out via the strikeout (24.2% in June compared to 21% in April and May’s 20.4%). From May to June, he increased his K/9 rate by 60 points and put to rest any argument about an “out pitch”, as his curveball and changeup have enticed many hitters, as well as providing a perfect setup for his fastball up in the zone. More specifically on the changeup, in four of his last five starts it’s been a plus pitch according to Pitchf/x data. Meanwhile, his curveball has been an average to plus pitch in three of the last five starts. Remember Pitchf/x data isn’t predictive, so it only tells us where he’s been, not where he’s going. All told, he’s become a three-pitch hurler with a plus fastball/changeup combination and a decent curveball and he’s given up on his cutter.

As for his propensity for giving up the long ball, he’s keeping the ball in the ballpark for the most part. In three of his last four starts he hasn’t allowed a home run, however, the four-HR game really hurt his HR/9 rate (1.87 in June compared to 1.72 in May). With maybe only two home runs allowed that game, he could have sported a rate around 1.20, which is still a tad high.

If yesterday’s game against the White Sox was any indication, Hughes has matured. After giving up two first-inning runs, he was masterful and stranded all runners after that. In yesteryear, that first inning would have turned into a six-run affair and put the Yankees’ hitters in a big hole. However, in his last six starts he’s recorded a 100% LOB%, which shows that he’s getting himself in and out of jams. Couple that with his increase in strikeout rates and lower BABIP, we’re seeing Hughes rely on himself, not his defense, to get out of trouble.

Hughes is poised to build upon a great June (Photo: William Perlman/THE STAR-LEDGER via US PRESSWIRE)

Lastly, I wanted to see Hughes go deeper into games and not tax the bullpen. In his first five starts from 4/8-5/1, he never made it through six innings. In fact, in half his starts this year, he hasn’t made it to through six innings. The difference is he’s only put up a few stinkers since May 1, the game at Toronto on May 17 and at home against the Braves on June 20. I think as a fanbase, taking one bad start a month for every four or five good ones, is A-OK.

It’s been written ad nauseum within Yankees Universe that the starting staff needs to buckle down and focus on shutting down opponents with both Sabathia and Pettitte out, but it can’t be understated. Hiroki Kuroda took on the role of “staff ace” by default and looked amazing against the White Sox. Ivan Nova needs to continue his ascent, while the kids on the farm will likely need to step up. It’s a trying time for the Yankees right now, but it’s great seeing a young pitcher (Hughes turned 26 in late June) make good on some of his potential. Life is all about timing, and it looks as though Hughes is beginning to shine at just the right time.

All stats courtesy of FanGraphs

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