Among the many disappointments from a frustrating week of Yankees baseball was another step backwards by Phil Hughes. Of course, that’s not to say it shouldn’t have been expected. Although the right hander’s inconsistency can be maddening for Yankee fans, that’s more their fault than his. In his six-plus years on the mound, Hughes has settled into such an established level of mediocrity that any greater expectation is really nothing more than wishful thinking.
In many ways, Hughes is a victim of his former status as an elite prospect. Despite being 10 years removed from his selection in the first round of the 2004 draft, he is still looked upon as developing young starter instead of the league average veteran he has become. Whether evaluated on the basis of ERA+, xFIP or even a game score distribution, Hughes’ performance just about rises to the mean. Sure, there are some flashes of brilliance, which, undoubtedly, many confuse with his potential finally being fulfilled, but his peaks are no greater or more frequent than the typical major league pitcher. And, that’s exactly what he is. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Instead of continuing to wonder when Hughes will final breakthrough, it’s probably more relevant to ask why he has not. Poor fastball command and his inability to master a put away pitch are the two most often cited culprits, and a look inside the numbers seems to bear that out.
One of Hughes’ Achilles heels is his inability to close out an at bat when he gets ahead in the count. From 2010 to 2012, the right hander allowed an OPS of .594 when facing a batter with an 0-2 count. That might seem pretty good on the surface, but it’s actually the 14th worst rate among the 225 pitchers who had at least 50 at bats end on an 0-2 count during that span. In the past two seasons, Hughes’ vulnerability when ahead 0-2 has been even more pronounced, with hitters compiling an OPS+ of 258 and 196, respectively, when deep in the hole against the right hander. So much for the advantage of getting ahead?
In his first 11 starts this season, Hughes has finally figured out how to dominate 0-2 counts. So far, the righty has limited batters to an OPS of .297 in the split, nearly two times better than the league average on an OPS+ basis. Problem solved? Well, not quite. Rather, what Hughes has done is shift the problem from 0-2 to all counts thereafter. After getting ahead two strikes, the righty has allowed an OPS of .681, “good” for an OPS+ of 197. So, while Hughes is twice as good on 0-2, he is twice as bad in all counts that follow. That’s the same “one step forward and one step back” that has defined Hughes career. No wonder he can’t seem to make any progress.
Hughes is not a bad pitcher. Just because some exaggerate his potential doesn’t mean he should be judged on a higher scale. However, it also shouldn’t guarantee him a spot in the rotation, especially considering the likelihood he won’t be with the team next season. Can the Yankees do better than Hughes’ mediocrity? Would Vidal Nuno, Ivan Nova or Michael Pineda (when he returns), be a better option? And, if so, would the Yankees be better off converting Hughes back to a short reliever, or shopping him around the league to help bolster their offense? These are the questions the Yankees should be pondering…not whether Hughes will ever live up to decade-old expectations.