Since June Phil Hughes has been recast from disappointing former top starting pitching prospect to shut down reliever. He started off as a sixth/seventh inning guy, but by mid-July had established himself as the 8th inning setup man to Mariano Rivera. His numbers are great 11.36 K/9, 2.52 BB/9, and a sparkling 1.26 ERA (1.77 FIP), but built, partially, on a lucky 0.274 BABIP and under 3% HR/FB.
This year Hughes added a cutter and got rid of his slider (this was also true of his early stint as a starter), and as a reliever has stopped using his change. So he is a three pitch guy: a four-seam fastball, a cutter and his big 12-6 breaking curve. As a reliever he throws about 65% fastballs, with the rest an equal split of curves and cutters to RHBs and almost all curves to LHBs.
In the pen everything has gotten much better, as expected. His fastball and cutter have gained speed (fastball from 91.8 to 94.5 mph and the cutter from 87 to 89 mph). Both the pitches are in the zone more often and gotten more whiffs. His fastball, as a reliever, has more rise and is higher up in the zone, making it more of an extreme whiff/flyball pitch. As a result it does not get as many ground balls, but induces more pop-ups.
It is important to remember these numbers are from just 70 innings (35 as a starter and 35 as a reliever). So there are serious small sample size issues. He is most likely performing above his true talent level as a reliever, even in indicators that are not luck based (K and BB rate, whiff rate, in zone rate). In addition as a reliever all his ‘luck’ indicators changed from unlucky to lucky. His BABIP went from .317 as a starter to .274 as a reliever, and his HR/FB from 12% to 2.9%. Pitchers have some control over these, and maybe as a reliever he can keep them lower, but some of his improvement from a starter to reliever has been luck and some, probably, over-performance of true talent.
Phil Hughes will be the Yankee’s 8th inning man for his year and the playoffs, but next year it will be interesting to see what they do. Using the FanGraphs WAR valuation an elite reliever is worth about the same as a just slightly above average starter (this year Joe Nathan is worth about as much as Tim Wakefield and Mariano Rivera is worth the same as Gil Meche). So the Yankees would have to think the difference in his performance as a starter and reliever is much larger than that of the average starter to justify keeping him in the pen next year.
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