After getting off to a slow start that had many wondering whether Phil Hughes would last the first month, much less the entire season, the 26-year old tinkered with his repertoire and rebounded with a strong May through July. Since the start of August, however, the right hander has experienced another reversal of fortune, which begs the question, is this a short-term bump in the road or have the hitters re-adjusted to Hughes’ new approach?
In April, Hughes was a four pitch pitcher, predominantly featuring a four-seam fastball complemented by an equal mix of three breaking pitches: a cutter, curveball, and change. Having such a varied arsenal didn’t benefit Hughes because the righty ended the month with a 7.88 ERA. Since then, he has scrapped the cutter. According to BrooksBaseball.net, Hughes hasn’t thrown a cutter since May, a decision that was probably long overdue based upon the pitch’s wOBA against of .627 and .781 in 2011 and 2012, respectively.
Source: baseballprospectus.com and joelefkowitz.com (August)
In place of the cutter, Hughes has increasingly relied upon his curveball, which peaked at 29% of pitches thrown in July. The combination of a 93mph fastball and sharp breaking curve has essentially shifted Hughes’ repertoire back to what made him one of the top prospects in all of baseball not too long ago. With an occasional changeup mixed in as well, it’s not unfair to characterize the post-April Hughes as a completely different pitcher, which is a little ironic when you consider he has basically gone back to attacking hitters in the same way as when he was a rookie.
Over the past three months, Hughes has done more than just simply throw a few extra curveballs. He is deploying them more strategically. In April, Hughes threw 54% of his curves in 0-0 or 0-1 counts, and relative to all pitches, shied away from using the hook after falling behind. In contrast, over the next three months, the righty increasingly opted for the curve when trailing in the count, reaching 22% usage in July. Not only has Hughes increasingly relied upon the curve to get back into counts, he has also leaned on it more as a put away pitch. In April, Hughes went to the bender in only 14% of two strike counts, but once again has escalated his use of the pitch when presented with the opportunity to record a strike out. Although his strikeout rate on the curve hasn’t increased significantly, the pitch has become a groundball generator. Before yesterday’s start, over 51% of curve balls put in play were grounders, according to Fangraphs, which is particularly important to a pitcher like Hughes, who has been prone to the home run.
Source: baseballprospectus.com, mlb.com and joelefkowitz.com (August)
Unfortunately for Hughes, the same pitch that fostered his resurgence has been the cause of his undoing in August. During the current month, the right hander has struggled to locate the pitch, resulting in a season low called strike rate of 14%. In addition, a much higher rate of curveballs have been put in play, and a significantly lower relative percentage of that total has been converted into outs. As a result, the opposition BA and SLG rates on curveballs put in play against Hughes have skyrocketed. It’s worth noting that in June, when Hughes posted an ERA of 2.67, the righty had similar BIP rates as August, but so far this month has featured two more curves put in play in half as many total pitches.
Phil Hughes’ BIP Rates by Month, 2012
Not every start in August has followed the same pattern. In his first outing against the Orioles on August 1, Hughes was able to throw his hook for a strike, but he didn’t generate a single swing and miss. As a result, over 44% of his curveballs were hit in play, but a disproportionate number wound up being outs. In other words, Hughes, who surrendered only run on nine hits during that game, might have been lucky.
In his second start on August 7 versus the Tigers, Hughes wasn’t as fortunate. This time, he was able to generate a good amount of swings and misses, while a more normal, albeit still high, 21% of curves were put in play. However, four of the six wound up being hits (two doubles and two singles). What’s more, over 20% were fouled away, contributing to an inflated pitch count that played a role in Hughes’ early shower.
Yesterday, there wasn’t much contact against Hughes’ curveball because he couldn’t throw it for a strike. Almost 60% of his hooks were called balls, including 15% that ended up bouncing in the dirt. Was the 26-year old reacting to his last two outing by shying away from contact? If so, one of the rare times the pitch was put in play, a home run by Edwin Encarnacion, probably didn’t help his confidence.
When Hughes takes the mound against the Red Sox this weekend, will he continue to shy away from contact with his curve? Or, will he return to being aggressive with the pitch, especially in two strike counts? Also, if he continues to struggle with the pitch, what will be his alternative plan of attack? Could we see a return to the cutter, or will the change-up become more prominent? Hughes could also increase his reliance on the fastball, just like he did at times in June, but another trend worth monitoring is his velocity. After averaging over 93 mph in May and June, Hughes’ fourseamer has begun to dip. So far in August, his average velocity has been 91.2 mph. Considering his injury history, changes in velocity are always a concern, but a just as likely culprit could be fatigue. With over 135 innings, Hughes has nearly doubled last year’s total (and every other season’s but 2010), so the right hander could be entering unchartered waters in terms of arm strength (an issue that may also be impacting his ability to locate the curve).
Source: baseballprospectus.com and joelefkowitz.com (August)
Since the day he debuted in the majors, just about every start by Phil Hughes has been the subject of intense scrutiny. Even though it can be frustrating, and tiresome, that process will likely continue until the right hander reaches a plateau in his career. Although each start shouldn’t be a referendum on whether he remains in the rotation, it isn’t unreasonable to dissect his progress because that’s probably what the team is doing as well. After all, the Yankees are not only relying on Hughes to help them win a pennant race, but Brian Cashman and company are also nearing the point of determining his long-term status with the team. It might be harsh, but the next two months could determine the outcome of both events.