Oct 16, 2012; Detroit, MI, USA; New York Yankees starting pitcher Phil Hughes kneels next to the mound before the first inning of game three of the 2012 ALCS against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Importance of Phil Hughes in 2013 and Beyond

Just a few days ago Phil Hughes avoided arbitration by inking a one-year, $7.15 million deal for the 2013 season. It’s his last arbitration-eligible year and he’ll be a free agent at the end of this season. Our own Alex Pugliese, recently opined on Phil Hughes’ future with the club, and now I’ll take a look at how his presence impacts the entire staff this season and in the coming years.

Hughes will start the season as the #4 starter in the Yankees rotation (Image: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports)

It appears Hughes will be the #4 starter in the rotation after battling for the fifth spot last year. With CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, and Andy Pettitte in front of him, Hughes doesn’t have the pressure of pitching in a higher slot than he should be. Perhaps if he played on a National League team, he’d be a #3 starter, but the difference is really negligible. However, it is worth pointing out that he isn’t completely depended upon to pitch against teams’ best three and I think that’s worth something.

Last season he held a respectable 4.23 ERA (4.35 xFIP), where he had trouble keeping the ball in the park (12.4% HR/FB or 1.65 HR/9, take your pick). He was second-worst in all of baseball in HR/9, only behind the Los Angeles Angels’ Ervin Santana‘s 1.97 rating. Hughes is a flyball pitcher (45.9% career FB%) and Yankee Stadium doesn’t hold them very well. Below is a chart illustrating his career batted ball profile:

Click to enlarge

If there is any solace to be found here, it’s that he limited the damage by walking only 2.16 batters per nine innings. Hey, giving up a solo shot is better than giving up a three-run bomb, amirite?

What’s most interesting about Hughes is that he dominated lefties. He faced 422 of them and they only recorded a .210/.270/.340 slash line against him. Surprisingly, righties gave him the most trouble (.306/.342/.586 against 393 batters faced). The cause of this might be attributed to his lack of an “out pitch” against the same handed adversaries. Against lefties he can use his average cutter to jam hitters, but against righties he has to use his change-up that isn’t all that great. If he could harness the power of that changeup, Hughes would take the next step in his career.

One of the most troubling aspects of Hughes is career is how highly touted he was when he was drafted. The comparisons — not of his own doing — were to the legendary Roger Clemens because of his size, makeup, and a screaming quick fastball. I still believe the Yankees mucked up his development (same thing with Joba Chamberlain), by using him as a starter, then reliever, then back to starter and not letting him season enough. Hindsight is 20/20. It also didn’t help that Hughes came into the 2011 season out of shape, which led many to believe he lacked the proper motivation to be an effective MLB pitcher.

Hughes’ future with the Yankees is a little more set in stone than most, in my opinion. Whether the Yankees want to believe it or not, he’s a huge part of the future despite not being a top-tier pitcher. There’s always spot for average pitchers who sometimes produce at an above average clip for parts of the season, and that’s exactly what Hughes provides. While I think he has hit his ceiling — he has a little more time to grow and develop his changeup — I think he’s surpassed Ivan Nova, who is firmly in his rear-view mirror now. Hughes has two things going for him over Nova, 1. Pitching in championship games, albeit as a reliever, 2. A better and longer track record. Saying that, I don’t see Hughes manning the fifth spot in the rotation anytime soon.

Stats and Graph courtesy of FanGraphs

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