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A New & Improved Phil Hughes?

For a pitcher who has thrown 21.1 innings of mediocre baseball this season, Phil Hughes‘ return to the majors has garnered quite a bit of media coverage. It’s not entirely undeserved either. Hughes hasn’t pitched well this season, but his performance going forward may impact the Yankees more than any other player on their roster. If Hughes can pitch effectively after missing nearly three months with a mystery injury, the Yankees will have strengthened their biggest weakness without having to surrender future prospects. While Hughes’ two starts since returning from the disabled list have been far from dominating, there are some signs that indicate Hughes could be the answer to the Yankees’ prayers.

Because Hughes has experienced such a tumultuous season, it’s nearly impossible to look at his numbers and come to any solid conclusions about his performance going forward. Hughes pitched poorly in his first three starts of the season because he was hurt, and he’s pitched a bit better in his last two because he has supposedly recovered from his injuries. That’s extremely obvious, but it’s about all you can take away from Hughes’ stat lines this season.

Thankfully, there are other aspects of his approach we can look at to determine whether things have changed during his time off. Talk of Hughes’ decreased velocity started way back in Spring Training and extended through his first three starts of the season. For many, the dropoff was the major reason for Hughes’ initial struggles. No longer able to hit 94 mph, batters were able to tee off on Hughes 89 mph fastballs.

Thanks to MLB’s new embed video policy, we can take a look at one of Hughes’ disaster starts from earlier this season:

As you can see in the clip, Hughes’ velocity hovers around 89 mph- not enough to fool the Baltimore Orioles’ hitters.

In his brief return, however, Hughes seems to have regained some of that lost velocity. In Hughes’ latest start (which is too recent to embed at the moment), Hughes consistently hits 91 mph on the gun. It’s not just a matter of a faulty radar gun either; his velocity charts also indicate a slight increase in his last two starts. He’s still not throwing 94 mph, but it’s encouraging to see him sitting at 91 mph. The biggest question is whether he’ll be able to sustain that velocity as his arm racks up more innings.

In his time off, Hughes made some other adjustments as well. After working with Yankee pitching coach, Larry Rothschild, Hughes has slightly altered his mechanics and started throwing his curve with a new grip. Go back and watch the two videos and see if you can spot those changes.

There’s no doubt that the curve Hughes threw in the game against the Toronto Blue Jays is different than the one he employed earlier in the season. The pitch has more velocity, more bite and — perhaps most importantly — Hughes had the confidence to throw it as a strikeout pitch.

The changes to his mechanics are harder for me to spot. I’m clearly no scouting expert, but it seems like Hughes’ delivery is slightly smoother since returning from the DL. He doesn’t appear to hesitate as much, and he looks more fluid to me than he did pre-injury. At the same time, my eye is completely untrained to spot these differences, so I could be wrong.

None of these factors guarantees that Hughes will pitch effectively going forward. They do give us some indication that he’s made changes during his recovery period that he — and the Yankees — believe will make him an effective piece in their rotation during the second half of the season. Since we can’t rely on the stats at this point, we have to use other methods to evaluate whether Hughes can succeed going forward. In a tiny sample, there are some signs that indicate Hughes is using a new approach that may be the cause of his increased velocity. Whether he can sustain those gains going forward is an entirely different question, and will play a major role in how the Yankees react in the second half.