The biggest issue for Hughes is the home run ball. If he can keep it in the park, he'll be effective. (Image: Debby Wong-US PRESSWIRE)

Sabermetric Outlook: Phil Hughes

It’s been quite an up-and-down season for Phil Hughes. One day, it seems like he’s turned a corner as he dominates opposing lineups, and the next day he can’t buy an out. His monthly ERA splits are inconsistent as well, going from 7.88 in April to 2.67 in June to 3.82 in August. But what about the other numbers? Have Hughes’ strong outings been signs of his potential, or is he never going to be the ace that some touted him to be? Let’s find out.

If you haven’t done so already, I’d encourage you to first check out the primer that I wrote for this series, which outlines some of the most important statistics that I’ll employ in this post and others. If you’re unfamiliar with sabermetrics, or you’re not sure about a particular statistic I mention, check out that post (if you still don’t understand, please leave a comment below or email me and I’d be happy to help).

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Take a look at the aforementioned monthly splits for Hughes:

If you just look at ERA, it looks like Hughes started out rough, dominated in early summer, and has struggled a bit in August and September. Now look at his FIP splits. The first and last months are around 6.50 and the other four months are all between 4.50 and 4.62. That’s remarkably consistent – and bad. What looked like a turnaround for Hughes in June, was really just an incredibly high strand rate and a low BABIP. Similarly in July, his 3.09 ERA was primarily a product of a low percentage of batted balls turning into hits and a low percentage of runners coming in to score.

Of course, that’s not the entire story. A month is a very small sample size no matter what metric you use, as well as the fact that it’s an entirely arbitrary endpoint. The point of the exercise, however, is to show that Hughes’ “hot” streaks weren’t necessarily as hot as they seemed. His home run rate was still extremely high, and when it was not, his strikeout rate fell as well.

OK, so Hughes hasn’t really improved much this season. But what about the other numbers? Is he showing any signs of change? Any signs that he can be at least a league-average pitcher for the Yankees going forward?

The main issue for Hughes over the years, and especially this year, is the home run ball. He’s always been an extreme fly ball pitcher, allowing only 34% ground balls in his career and just 31% this year. While this style of pitching works well for some – Jered Weaver and Matt Cain being the paradigm cases – it is usually a negative, as more fly balls means more home runs.

So how can he turn those fly balls into easy outs rather than home runs, a la Weaver and Cain? Well, the first problem is that he pitches in Yankee Stadium, which isn’t a great start. But that’s not the main problem, since it’s actually righties that hit higher rates of home runs off of Hughes, not lefties, despite the short porch in right field.

Looking at Hughes’ pitch outcomes on Brooks Baseball, we find the perfect statistic for Hughes: home runs per fly ball and line drive, or HR/(FB+LD). Over Hughes’ career, of pitches that he’s thrown regularly, his worst pitch is the cutter, in which 9.56% of all fly balls and line drives from cutter have become home runs. The four seam fastball is close behind at 8.5%, and the curveball behind that at 7.64%. His best pitch for turning fly balls into outs has been the changeup, at only 4.26%.

This year, despite the fact that Hughes’ HR/FB% is just as bad as always, we can see his attempt to adjust his repertoire based on past results. He has basically eliminated the cutter and slider, and is throwing the change more than ever before. Not only that, but he is throwing the changeup with more accuracy, improving from 54% strike rate to over 60% with his change.

Unfortunately, fly balls and line drives from his changeup – and his fastball – are turning into home runs more than they have in the past, partially negating the pitch’s usefulness in the first place. Still, he has accrued positive pitch values from his changeup, something he has never done before, which indicates that it is in fact working better than any of his other pitches.

The real problem for Hughes when it comes down to it is the fastball. He simply isn’t fooling guys anymore with the heater, and without a good fastball, it’s pretty difficult for a pitcher to survive. Hitters aren’t just lifting the four-seam in the air, but they’re hitting it far too, and Hughes needs to keep the ball in the park to be effective.

Honestly, it’s hard for me to know what he should do. I’m no scout or pitching coach, so I’m not sure how he should adjust to keep the ball in the park. Maybe he should add a two-seamer to keep hitters more off-balance. Maybe he should change his approach and pitch lower in the zone to accrue more ground balls. Based on this article I’d say he should definitely keep working on the changeup. That’s been his best pitch this year, and the best pitch for keeping the ball in the park. And the better his changeup is, the better his fastball will be as well.

Unfortunately, Hughes will probably never be the pitcher some scouts and many fans thought he would be. We can blame the upper management all we want for his development, but in my opinion, Hughes’ stuff just isn’t made for the big leagues. He’s talented enough to stick around as a 4th or 5th starter, but unless he makes some big changes, I don’t see him even being a strong major league starter.

Stats courtesy of Fangraphs and Brooks Baseball.

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