Phil Hughes could help make or break the Yankee rotation in 2013. (Image: Mark L. Baer-US PRESSWIRE)

Phil Hughes is critical for Yankees' rotation now and in 2013

There’s a pretty clear division when it comes to our rotation and Phil Hughes‘ role may be the most critical in not only the remainder of 2012, but 2013 and beyond. What the New York Yankees have seen from Hughes is that he has the ability to win 18 or 16 games, but at usually the expense of an inflated ERA somewhere around 4.00. His command and control have been vastly improving since 2007. He’s pitched the most innings in his career this season with 180 and he’s done rather well. 2011 was a step in the wrong direction from 2010′s 18 win season, but 2012 has shown us a stronger Hughes and his role in this rotation is huge going forward. 

You may be asking yourself, “Well what makes Hughes so important?” Well, let’s take a quick gander at our rotation:

  • There’s the ace, CC Sabathia, who has not looked like himself at all this season. He had a great start against the Oakland A’s last time out, but before that has been hit all over the place. His 3.47 ERA is the highest in his career since 2008 and he just looks a lot more beatable than previous years. Is it possible that Sabathia’s career in on the down trend?
  • Hiroki Kuroda has been nicely holding this rotation together and despite some consistent four run starts, he’s kept the Yankees in games. Sometimes he’s the victim of bad run support; sometimes he’s the victim of poor defensive play. He’s about the only bright spot in this rotation and heading into the postseason, we’ll need him to pitch like he did prior to September.
  • Andy Pettitte is the veteran of the rotation and a piece that is just as efficient as Kuroda. Unfortunately, Andy missed a lot of time this season due to that fractured ankle, but his strong start against the Toronto Blue Jays last Wednesday and last night against the Minnesota Twins showed us he’s back and ready as ever. Depending on what happens in the offseason, the Yankees have to consider resigning him, if he wants to play again.
  • Ivan Nova has really just been flat out bad for a lack of a better term. 2011 showed us a promising Nova that we hoped would carry into this season, but unfortunately it did not. Nova’s command has been everywhere and his inability to last long into games has hurt the team in more ways than one.

So then there’s Hughes. He’s the middle ground in all of this. With the uncertainty of whether or not Pettitte will be back, or if Michael Pineda will take his job, Hughes has a lot on his plate.

His arsenal of pitches has been maturing in 2012, his use of the fastball and change-up are up from last year. In 2011, Hughes used his fastball 59% of the time whereas in 2012, he’s tossing it 65.8% of the time. His change-up has been the biggest improvement in Hughes’ starts as he’s improved 2011′s 5.3% to 10.1% in 2012. The reliance on his change-up is the highest in his career. His higher strikeout/per nine innings at 7.85 may be very well the direct result from his use of those two primary pitches.

However for Hughes, in 2012 he’s allowed an alarmingly high number of home runs at 34. His stuff has been tagged more, but at the same time he’s walking less people, with only 43 walks this season. Well, why make that correlation? This shows that Hughes’ is attacking the zone more often and being rather aggressive whereas in 2011, he allowed 25 home runs and 58 walks. He seems to have found some confidence in his location and his one completed game this year proves just that.

Hughes must work on his inability to pitch to RHB. (Image: FanGraphs)

The one flaw in the 2012 version of Hughes is his struggling performances against right-handed batters. In 2012, right-handed batters have a mind blowing .309/.343/.595 slash line against him alongside a .939 OPS. Holy moly! He’s allowed 23 of his 34 home runs to righties and has allowed more hits. Here’s the kicker, he’s faced less right-handed batters (346 at-bats) than left-handed (365 at-bats). Clearly this is something Hughes has to work on. He’s been able to find his stuff against lefties as of late, but against righties, Hughes might as well be the batting practice pitcher.

So for Hughes, who sits at 16-12 with an ERA of 4.05, a WHIP of 1.25, 157 strikeouts, 43 walks, all inside of a career high 180 innings pitched, I’d say it’s been a rather successful season. Is it ideal? Far from it. We know Hughes has his struggles, primarily with right-handed batters, but his stamina is building and he’s looking a lot more like he did in 2010, but in a confident way. He’ll need to improve on some things when the offseason comes around, his use of other pitches being one of those things. However, for right now and heading into the postseason, Hughes is on the plus side for me. Let’s just hope he can hold his ground going forward.

Stats courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference. Image from FanGraphs found here.

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Tags: New York Yankees Phil Hughes

  • Jimmy Kraft

    Ben! Your best article yet. Love it and I agree with you. Hughes is a personal favorite of mine and I’m hoping he builds on this year and comes out even better in 2013.

    An interesting tidbit I read on Twitter from @mikeaxisa:

    “Hughes has faced 34 more batters this year than he did in 2010, but has only thrown 20 more pitches.”

    That definitely reinforces your, “he’s attacking the strike zone more this season” idea. Also, to touch on the perplexing, “righties having their way with him.” I think it comes down to two things for Hughes:

    1. Pitch hard inside to righties
    2. Continue developing that change-up

    Good job, Ben.

    • Benjamin Orr

      Thanks for the feedback Jimmy! Glad you liked it!

      I’ve always been a fan of Hughes myself and seeing him get stronger is amazing. He means a lot to this rotation and even more so if he can learn how to pitch more efficiently to right-handers.

      He’s usually been an “up and down” pitcher since we never really knew what to expect from him, but in 2012, we’ve gotten nothing but solid performances out of him. I’m usually a stickler about ERA, but from the outings I’ve seen out of Hughes, his ERA doesn’t really correspond with the way he pitches overall. His struggles with righties are what kills him for now.

      Thank you again for the kind words.

    • Matt Hunter

      Re: “attacking the strike zone”: Hughes has thrown 48.1% of his pitches inside the zone this year, compared to 45.7% last year. However, before last year, he was always above 50, so he’s throwing less pitches in the zone than he has in his career. Just something to note.

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