Revisiting Phil Hughes

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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  • thatonemlbguy

    Great article Jimmy!
    It’s great to see Hughes doing so well. It was really tricky having him come from that bullpen role to starting in the rotation. He’s done good before, but never this well. I was highly impressed with his outing yesterday. You’re definitely right in saying that he has matured as a pitcher. Once Sabathia comes back (and hopefully Pettitte), having the five starters we do have, makes me feel comfortable. Hughes has found a rhythm and here’s hoping he can sustain it.

    • jkra0512_SK

      I think you nailed it right on the head, he’s in a rhythm now and I think that’s important. As a young starter I think rhythm and confidence can do wonders and he has both right now.

      Thank you for kind words too

  • MHunterYGY

    Awesome article. I think one of the interesting things about Hughes is his extreme fly ball tendencies. That low groundball rate really kills his xFIP, since xFIP expects a certain percentage of his fly balls to turn into home runs. However, SIERA, another ERA predictor, says that Hughes is much better than xFIP says he is, because data shows that extreme flyball pitchers have lower HR/FB% than average (see Matt Cain). But of course, Hughes has done the opposite this year. So either he has gotten unlucky/ pitches in a bad park for flyballs, or he just doesn’t have that Cain/Weaver effect of giving up lots of flyballs but suppressing HRs on them (as in, weak flyballs and popups).

    • jkra0512_SK

      Thanks Matt. I really enjoy reading your thoughts concerning advanced stats. I think with Hughes, he’s learning on the fly here. Sure, he’s been given a multitude of chances to right the ship, but we’ve caught glimpses of how good he can be (’09 as a reliever and the first half in ’10 as a starter). If he can harness those flyballs into more outs than HRs, he’ll have a long career in the Bronx. I wish I could see Pitchf/x numbers from each game, because I want to see whether he has more movement on his fastball in the past month or so. That was the one of his biggest weaknesses, a straight fastball

      • MHunterYGY

        @jkra0512_SK You can!! Go to and click the “PitchFX Tool” tab. From there you can choose a date, game, and pitcher. You’ll have to remember which dates he pitched, but as long as you have a game log it shouldn’t be too hard. You can also search for Phil Hughes’ player card to see really in-depth pitchf/x data for each season and his career. Cool huh?

        • Jimmy Kraft

          Oh that’s great. I’ve heard of that site…For some reason I thought they went behind a paywall…

          Thanks, Matt.

      • MHunterYGY

        @jkra0512_SK Based on a couple quick searches, it doesn’t look like he has added much movement to his fastball. Though I’m not sure what kind of change would be enough to conclude that he has added movement. He definitely doesn’t have a lot of horizontal movement, though. He has -5.8 inches of horizontal movement on his fastball, compared to Justin Verlander’s -11. Pretty big difference, which might explain the high number of home runs.

  • Chris_Carelli

    It will be interesting to see how fans react if he is able to maintain his performance level throughout the rest of the season. There seems to be a short fuse for fans where it concerns Hughes, so if he is roundly successful for the remainder of the season, I wonder if he’ll finally be given the benefit of the doubt especially as you point out, he’s only 26.

    • jkra0512_SK

      I’m a BIG fan of Hughes, borderline biased. However, I think he’s treated unfairly by fans, and I also think that since he did so well in the bullpen in ’09. It acts like a double-edged sword, fans “know” he can do good things in the ‘pen so they give him a short leash as a starter knowing he’s not completely useless if he fails starting games. It’s a flawed argument to say the least. I’m just thankful we have a young starter who is turning it around after a really bad month and ’11 season…unlike, you know, Daniel Bard.

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