The first month of the season for the New York Yankees has been highlighted by a number of different things: the continued plague of injuries, the set-back to Derek Jeter, and the considerable contributions from first-year veterans like Travis Hafner, Vernon Wells, and Kevin Youkilis. But one very big development for the Yankees has gone very much unnoticed: the evolution of Phil Hughes.
In his time in the minors, Hughes was touted as the top-flight ace that fell to the Yankees with the 23rd pick in the 2004 draft. Just three years later, he flashed his promise with a near no-hit bid against Texas in Arlington that was cut short by a popped hamstring, the first of several nagging injuries that spilled into an underwhelming 2008 season.
In 2009, Hughes was a lights-out set-up man for Mariano Rivera, flashing mid-90’s heat on the radar gun and playing a huge part in the Yankees 27th title, and he was able to parlay that success into a winning a starting role in 2010, going 18-8 with a 4.19. It appeared like Hughes finally was living up to the lofty expectations placed upon him when he was, somewhere along the line, touted as a Roger Clemens-type talent. However, 2011 brought a nearly three month DL stint for a dead arm (likely the result of jumping over 100 IP from 2009 to 2010), and limited Hughes to just over 74 innings of action.
Though an improvement on 2011, 2012 was decidedly mediocre for Hughes; he led the Yankees in wins (16), but still battled his tendency to give up the home run, surrendering the second-most homers in the majors (35 HR), and inflating his ERA to 4.23. Needless to say, 2012 was going to be a critical year for the righty, as he is due to hit free agency in 2013.
Despite a couple of rocky starts to begin the year, giving him a misleading 1-2 record, Hughes has begun to find his groove in 2013. Over the course of his last four starts, Hughes’ ERA is a sparkling 1.93, allowing just under a hit per inning (23 H in 29 IP). Additionally, in spite of his fly-ball pitching style, Hughes has allowed only 2 homers over the course of his streak. On the whole, his ERA is down to a very respectable 3.60, with an ERA+ of 114 across 35 IP. Two other big areas also have markedly improved for Hughes: he has allowed only 1.8 BB/9 IP, down from last year’s mark of 2.2, while his K/9 IP rate has increased from 7.8 in 2012 to 8.7 in 2013. Given his fly-ball tendencies, a lower walk ratio has let fewer men on base, thus limiting the damage when he surrenders runs. Further, an increased strikeout rate means Hughes is fooling hitters more than in the past.
The increased strikeout rate may also be attributed to the overall quality of Hughes’ pitches. In terms of his fastball, Hughes is consistently hovering around 91-93 mph; by contrast, in 2011, his velocity took a huge dip, which was among the first warning signs for his struggles. Still, in 2012, Hughes began the year sometimes hitting above the 95 mph mark, something he has yet to do this year. However, a noted dip, where the velocity settled below 95 mph, occurred in the middle of last season, whereas 2013 has produced more consistent velocity readings. Hughes has been a guy who often throws high and down Broadway, relying on his velocity to blow away hitters, but when he misses, or his velocity ticks downward, he gets hit- hard. With the more consistent but lower velocity, Hughes would have to rely more upon location and placement in order to get the results, something that is evidenced by his lower walk and higher strikeout rates. Overall, Hughes has been able to live more around the strike zone this season than in past years.
Another key component has been the addition of a nasty slider that has late movement out of the zone to put away hitters. While he simply tossed a gem this past Saturday against the A’s, the slider was much more evident against the Toronto Blue Jays two weeks ago, keeping hitters completely off-balance when combining it to the fastball and curve. Hughes has also utilized the slider more than in past years: in 2012, Hughes threw the pitch 98 times, total. In 2013, he has already thrown it 107 times, 79 for strikes. The pitch has yielded only 3 hits (one of which was a homer), producing a .087 ERA. Though it is only off-set from his fastball velocity by around 10 (+/- 2-3 mph), the movement on the pitch has been its greatest success, generating a high strike percentage, both in and out of the strike zone.
On the whole, though it is a small sample size, Phil Hughes seems to have settled into himself so far in 2013. This season will go a long way in his career path: he is 27 years old this year, not young enough to still be learning the ropes, and hitting the prime years of his career (both in terms of physical ability, and potentially with respect to results) as he heads into free agency this autumn. A solid season could help make a compelling case to the Yankees to re-sign the righty, particularly if it increasingly looks like the plan to get below $189 million dollar payroll is headed out the window. Moreover, with all the injuries still plaguing the Yankees, the pressure will continue to be on the rotation to hold down the fort. If Hughes can be penciled in as one of the most consistent and reliable starters, the Yankees may be an even bigger threat than ever.