A Farewell to Phil Hughes’ Home-Field Nightmare

Sometimes, baseball analysis can reveal new truths, things that nobody had ever noticed before. Other times, it can simply confirm what’s already obvious. Meander through Phil Hughes‘ FanGraphs player page and you’ll realize that playing in Yankee Stadium did him zero favors. But you don’t need to know anything about FIP or HR/FB% to understand that Hughes could benefit from pitching in a friendlier environment. He’s going to do that in Minnesota, and while I don’t know exactly what the Twins’ thought process is, I presume it’s in the vicinity of, Hughes is talented, and fewer balls should leave the park going forward. Target Field is bigger than Yankee Stadium, so Hughes stands a chance of bouncing back.

Hughes debuted in the majors in 2007. Since then, 151 pitchers have recorded at least 250 innings both at home and on the road. Hughes’ home ERA is 0.86 points higher than his road ERA, the sixth-highest difference in the pool. His home wOBA allowed is .046 points higher than his road wOBA allowed, the first-highest difference in the pool. Driving this, primarily? Hughes’ home HR/FB% is six percentage points higher than his road HR/FB%, also the first-highest difference in the pool. Hughes allowed more than twice as many dingers in New York as in not-New York, and there’s nothing more damaging than a dinger. The Twins clearly believe that Hughes was at least partially sunk by the home-field bandbox.

We can play with some data from the ESPN Home Run Tracker, on account of I love it. The newest Yankee Stadium is more dinger-happy than the last Yankee Stadium, and this one opened in 2009. The Home Run Tracker has one column titled “# Parks”, and here’s their definition:

# Parks – This value indicates the number of MLB ballparks, out of 30, in which the ball in question would have been a home run, if the ball had been struck in weather conditions of 70 degrees and no wind. Really long home runs could achieve a value of 30, while a particularly weak home run could achieve a value as low as zero if it only made it over the fence in the park in which it was struck due to “help” from wind and/or temperature.

For a really weak home run, let’s arbitrarily set a cap of two. That is, home runs that would have left zero, one, or two parks under standard conditions. Since 2009, there have been 854 such home runs, excluding inside-the-parkers. Over that five-year span, Hughes has allowed 0.4% of all big-league homers. Over the same span, he’s allowed 1.2% of all big-league really weak homers. He’s allowed ten, in other words, all in Yankee Stadium. This is the highest total for any individual pitcher in one environment, beating Bud Norris/Minute Maid at 9, and Ryan Dempster/Wrigley at 8. Hughes hasn’t allowed only weak home runs in New York, but in New York, he allowed a lot of weak home runs.

Incidentally, Yankee Stadium yielded an incredible 17% of all the really weak homers in baseball. Since opening in 2010, Target Field has yielded 0.4%, or a total of three. This is precisely what a lot of people are talking about — there aren’t nearly so many cheap home runs hit in Minnesota, which should give Hughes a boost, in that it won’t give Hughes the boot. This is one of those aforementioned cases where analysis confirms the readily apparent.

I thought it would be fun to take this opportunity to re-visit Hughes’ really weak home runs allowed. All ten of them, in Yankee Stadium, with video and very few words. In the judgment of the ESPN Home Run Tracker, the following ten home runs would have left no more than two of MLB’s 30 ballparks, hit in regular weather. More specifically, one would’ve left two. Six would’ve left one. Three would’ve left zero. I don’t know if allowing a home run can be unlucky, but it can be relatively unlucky, and now ten relatively unlucky Phil Hughes/Yankee Stadium home runs, all from between 2010-2013.

JUNE 19, 2010

  • Batter: Jose Reyes
  • Distance: 356 feet
  • Speed off bat: 94.4 mph
  • # Parks: 1

JULY 20, 2010

  • Batter: Maicer Izturis
  • Distance: 336 feet
  • Speed off bat: 97.5 mph
  • # Parks: 0

JULY 25, 2010

  • Batter: Scott Podsednik
  • Distance: 329 feet
  • Speed off bat: 93.3 mph
  • # Parks: 1

JULY 22, 2011

  • Batter: Cliff Pennington
  • Distance: 335 feet
  • Speed off bat: 99.5 mph
  • # Parks: 0

APRIL 14, 2012

  • Batter: Chris Iannetta
  • Distance: 324 feet
  • Speed off bat: 90.1 mph
  • # Parks: 1

JUNE 9, 2012

  • Batter: Omar Quintanilla
  • Distance: 354 feet
  • Speed off bat: 93.0 mph
  • # Parks: 1

JULY 16, 2012

  • Batter: Adam Lind
  • Distance: 355 feet
  • Speed off bat: 100.2 mph
  • # Parks: 1

JUNE 27, 2013

  • Batter: Jurickson Profar
  • Distance: 363 feet
  • Speed off bat: 97.2 mph
  • # Parks: 1

JULY 8, 2013

  • Batter: Billy Butler
  • Distance: 341 feet
  • Speed off bat: 91.5 mph
  • # Parks: 0

JULY 13, 2013

  • Batter: Ryan Doumit
  • Distance: 349 feet
  • Speed off bat: 105.1 mph
  • # Parks: 2

Most of those look like what you’d expect, soaring out to right or right-center. That’s where Yankee Stadium is the friendliest, or the meanest, depending on your perspective. It’s a small park. Hughes is a bit of an extreme fly-ball pitcher. It wasn’t a good fit, and the dingers above are evidence. The numbers above are more evidence. Hughes is better suited to a place with a bigger outfield.

But this is the part where I temper your expectations. Absolutely, Target Field should help him more than Yankee Stadium ever did. As noted before, Hughes’ career HR/FB% is six percentage points higher at home than on the road. Part of this is because the homers at home have been inflated. But another part is that homers on the road have been suppressed. Since 2007, Hughes has allowed the ninth-highest home HR/FB%. But he’s allowed the second-lowest road HR/FB%, at 7.0%. That puts him in the company of Clayton Kershaw and Cliff Lee.

As a starter overall, Hughes has posted a 10.6% HR/FB%. Pitchers in his extreme fly-baller peer group have posted a 9.6% HR/FB%, which is lower, but only by a little. Hughes, probably, doesn’t have any special ability to keep the ball in the yard outside of Yankee Stadium, so just as you have to regress the home numbers going forward, you have to do the same to the road numbers in the opposite direction. He’ll get hurt less often in Minnesota, but there are still going to be homers, in all environments. Hughes’ career home/road splits exaggerate the difference, they exaggerate how bad Yankee Stadium was for his skillset.

This is Hughes as a starter:

  • ERA-: 112
  • FIP-: 106
  • xFIP-: 107

There’s been relatively little variation, outside of a particularly underwhelming 2011. By runs and peripherals, among AL starters, the last three years Hughes has been a little below average. Four years ago, he was right around league average, and that might forever represent his peak. He still has stuff, but pitchers don’t age like hitters do. And while leaving New York will only help Hughes, said help will likely be modest.

Of course, there are two things that need to be acknowledged. For one, even half-decent starting pitching is worth several millions of dollars these days. That’s the market, and if you haven’t mentally adjusted to it yet, that’s on you. For two, there’s some chance that Hughes will alter his pitching pattern in a better environment. Maybe in New York he developed some bad habits, or maybe he changed his style to try to survive. It’s a reach, and you can’t count on it, but maybe he’ll unlock a new level in a bigger stadium. There is room for improvement, of course, so it’s not like this is a deal without upside.

It’s just — I guess the basic conclusion is, don’t overstate the benefit of Phil Hughes leaving Yankee Stadium. It was a bad place for him, and Minnesota is a better place for him, but Yankee Stadium didn’t make him awful and his road numbers are deceptive. He’s not going to allow so many of those embarrassing home runs anymore, not without that right-field porch. But then, we’re talking about ten cheapies over a handful of seasons. There are still going to be homers. There are still going to be runs. Phil Hughes will improve the Twins’ starting rotation, but that might be the very faintest of praise.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

24 Responses to “A Farewell to Phil Hughes’ Home-Field Nightmare”

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  1. jdbolick says:

    I’m not grasping why you say that Hughes’ “road numbers are deceptive.” You gave evidence on how Yankee Stadium hurt him, but the entire basis for discounting the road numbers appears to be that it doesn’t match up with the average for pitchers with similar fly ball rates.

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    • Catoblepas says:

      is that not enough of a reason? His results are not what we would expect from pitchers of similar skillsets; therefore, regress accordingly.

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      • Dan Greer says:

        Was just about to say that, Catoblepas. Also, as a D&D player, I approve of your name.

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      • jdbolick says:

        Except that pitchers do have some degree of influence over how many of their fly-balls are hit for home runs. Blindly insisting that everyone should meet the average and only vary based on luck belies that.

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        • He should at least be much closer to the average than his numbers so far. I don’t see any compelling reason to believe Hughes is among the best in baseball at limiting dingers, outside of New York. It’s not a blind insistence.

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        • jdbolick says:

          375.2 road innings isn’t an insignificant sample, although it isn’t definitive. Suggesting some road regression is fine, but equating that with the documented home effects was a step too far in my opinion.

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  2. Ian says:

    Wouldn’t another thing that helps Hughes is playing less in AL East parks? The AL Central has several neutral or good pitching parks – with Cellular field the exception. I would guess, while not knowing, that making 20 or so combined starts at Target Field, Kaufman Field, Comerica and Progressive field would be better than 20 or so starts at Yankee stadium, Camden and Fenway.

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    • Dan Greer says:

      HR Park Factors 2013 (AL East vs AL Central)

      Bal – 110
      Bos – 97
      NYA – 110
      TBA – 96
      Tor – 107

      ChA – 112
      Cle – 97
      Det – 99
      KCA – 94
      Min – 93

      So yeah, you’re totally right on here. Trading half of his starts from NY to Min is going to make a difference, and the rest of the parks should as well. Of course, this is only 2013 data (too lazy to 3-year average). I believe Detroit and Kansas City moved some fences in during the last year or two, so I’m not sure that would be any more accurate.

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    • John C says:

      Yankee and Camden are awful places for a fly-ball pitcher, but Fenway doesn’t really give up a ridiculous number of home runs. Where Fenway hurts pitchers is because the Wall turns routine flyouts into doubles, and because the small foul territory increases batting averages; hitters don’t often lose at-bats to foulouts there.

      Fenway is only 302 to the Pesky Pole in right, but it curves out rather dramatically from there. Unless you hit it right down the line in right, or get enough air under a ball to clear the Monster in left, Fenway really isn’t a good home-run park.

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  3. Gardner&Ichiro says:

    Yeah but he won’t have us playing behind him either.

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  4. Jon says:

    Also of note is that in watching those videos, a good portion of those home runs were going to turn into RBI doubles (or triples), so the impact of removing 10 cheap ones over a few years may even be less than first thought.

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  5. Dingbat says:

    I love some of the names on that list: Pennington, Podsednik, Quintanilla, Izturis. It’s one thing to give up “lucky” home runs to sluggers who routinely hit balls that deep. It’s another to get unlucky to a bunch of guys who average less than 8 HRs per 600 PAs.

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  6. bob x says:

    The home park changing should be a big help for Hughes. I would think getting out of being a failed top prospect in the NY media circus would be pretty beneficial as well. I like the contract, ifs hes good theres 3 years of control at a cheap price, if hes bad 8 mil isn’t breaking the bank and he can be shifted back to the pen.

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  7. Ruki Motomiya says:

    But what if he played at Coors?

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  8. triple_r says:

    Why is Izturis’ home run labeled as a “tater”?

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  9. Tim says:

    People concentrate on the park, but I keep thinking that Hughes plus the Rick Anderson changeup would be a pretty good pitcher. Whether that works or not who knows, but the chance of it makes the three year deal look a lot better.

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    • Rick Anderson says:

      I’ll have him pitching to contact like nobody else. He’ll never have another strike out if I can help it! My proven philosophy and track record has produced dozens of simulated good pitchers! Don’t forget, I was also responsible for Johan Santana and several simulated good pitching performances after him!

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  10. psualum says:

    Is it sad that I watched Reyes’ home run a couple times.. i really wish he was still a Met

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