There’s no sugar-coating Phil Hughes’ performance this past weekend against the Orioles. After giving up three homers to the O’s and struggling against the Tigers in Detroit, this season hasn’t exactly started off the way Hughes and the Yankees would like. Fans are quick to boo the starter, and he hasn’t exactly given them reason not to, but they should also take a step back.
On one hand, Hughes’ secondary pitches haven’t been spectacular. His curveball doesn’t have a lot of bite to it, and seems to be just rolling up to the plate. Without a firm break on the secondary pitches, every off-speed pitch becomes one giant meatball, explaining why even outs are hard-hit. On the other, there is some positive news in that Hughes’ fastball is pretty strong, sitting at around 92 mph, so he does have enough arm strength to crank it up. It seems that movement and placement really seem to be his Achilles heel at the moment. While one can chalk up the start against the Tigers as a major-league rehab start against a very potent lineup, the bottom line is that Hughes just wasn’t very sharp against the O’s. He threw a lot of pitches, and wasn’t fooling anyone with anything.
That said, fans need to take a step back from booing Hughes. For starters, one must bear in mind that Hughes missed almost three weeks in Spring Training due to a bulging disk in his neck. During that time, while I am sure he was working out, he probably lost whatever arm strength and stamina he had built up for pitching. After coming off the off-season, he realistically had only about two and a half weeks to get ready for the season. That, combined with the fact that he was called up to face the Tigers when he should have been making a rehab start in Scranton (to replace the injured Kuroda), means that Hughes is still probably a week or more behind schedule of where he should be this year, and certainly relative to CC Sabathia, who will head into this week going into his third start of the season. His start against the Orioles came almost a full week after his last start with the rainouts in Cleveland. Starters are notorious creatures of habit, and that could have contributed to his lack of overall sharpness today.
Further, Hughes is a notoriously slow starter. His April numbers are pretty dreadful: 6.87 ERA in 2012; 13.90 in 2011, when he was diagnosed with a dead-arm; and over 7.00 in 2013. The only year Hughes had a decent ERA in April was his 2.60 ERA in 2010, his first season in the majors as a starting pitcher. Last year is a good example of Hughes’ progression: despite his ERA in April and a 5.91 ERA in May, Hughes’ era trended downward every month thereafter. He pitched to a mid-4.00 ERA in June; a low-4.000 ERA in June, and wound up co-leading the Yankees in wins with 16, not to mention a decent 4.23 ERA (impressive considering his early-season numbers and his tendency to give up the long ball). One other issue that fans point to is that he is home run-prone. He is a fly-ball pitcher in a relatively small ballpark. That is going to happen. He would probably be a high-3.00 ERA pitcher in Comerica or Citifield, two parks that are notoriously big. While that is a factor that may play into the Yankees’ thinking this off-season, when Hughes will test the free-agent waters, the fact of the matter is that he is what he is, and will tend to give up home runs.
At this point, just like it’s wasn’t time to panic about CC’s velocity issues early in the season (though they are worth watching long-term), it’s also not time to be booing Hughes, either. He is a slow starter, and has historically always been one. Moreover, it’s likely that he has not fully developed the arm strength and routine after his shortened spring training and sped-up rehab period. All of that said, it’s worth postulating that there is still more in the tank as it pertains to Hughes. It’s not unlikely that he will begin to find his groove as the weather heats up, and will continue to be a source of strength for the Yankees as we look to the heart of the season.