Phil Hughes Finally Found the Right Breaking Balls

Last year was a tough one for Phil Hughes. Worse than that. “Last year was a disaster for me,” Hughes admitted to me before a August game with the A’s in Oakland.

But this year has been much better. He’s top fifteen in strikeouts minus walks, a pretty solid (if simple) way to measure starting pitcher quality. A big part of the change has been mindset, according to the pitcher, but that mindset has benefitted from a few key changes.

On the walks side of that equation, Hughes thinks it’s more about his approach than anything. “It’s not like I all of a sudden became a better strike thrower,” he laughed. He’s as comfortable as he’s been with his mechanics in a while, and he’s more likely to throw it in the zone — his strike zone percentage right now (59.9%) is higher than it’s ever been (54.1% career). “I sort of told myself I’m going to attack the strike zone and throw strikes whether they are perfectly commanded pitches low and away or whether it’s on the plate a little more,” Hughes admitted.

Part of that change in approach has come from the confidence afforded to him by his home park. Fly balls are a part of Hughes’ game (44.9% career, MLB average is 34.3% this year), and when it comes to Yankee Stadium and the AL East… “Fly balls don’t play well there,” as the pitcher put it. Going from a park that augmented homers by 10% to a park that suppressed them by 7% has helped him put up the best home run rate of his career, and has also helped him put up the best walk rate of his career.

Minnesota is a much better fit for his four-seam fastball that has been the “one natural constant” for all of Hughes’ career. “With my natural arm stroke and wrist and hand action and everything, the four seamer tends to look like it’s going to come down due to gravity, but it kind of stays on the same plane,” Hughes said. Focusing on keeping his wrist stiff and behind the ball on the four-seamer gives him the rise or ride that he likes from the pitch.

That rising fastball (he’s got just short of an inch less drop than most four-seamers) is good for whiffs (he’s got a 9.7% swinging strikes career on the four-seamer, and 6.4% is average) and for pop-ups (he’s got a career 5.4% pop-up rate and the league average is 3.3%). Listen to Sam Fuld talk about trying to hit a riseball, and you know it’s good for something.

But it also means more home runs. “A fastball that stays on the same plane and is down is hittable, and when they do get hit, they have a tendency to go a bit further,” Hughes admitted. Even with his good year so far, he’s given up almost 30% more homers per nine innings than league average over his career.

He’s worked on keeping the bases empty ahead of the eventual homer or two, but he’s also made advancements on the strikeout side. This year’s strikeout rate is the best he’s shown since becoming a starter, and he credits his work on his breaking ball mix.

The slider is gone. “I never had a great feel for my slider,” said Hughes. “I just threw it because I was going in a bad direction last year and I was trying to make something up on the fly.” Though he threw the pitch more than the rest of his offspeed pitches combined last year, Hughes never got an average whiff rate on it (13.4% last year, 14.4% is average).

hugheslider
The slider that is no more.

It all started because of problems he saw in his curve ball, the breaker he’s thrown longer than any other. “It would feel good for a period of time, and then my mindset would be to make it break more, and then it became a strike one pitch that I would flip in there,” Hughes said of the curve in 2013. “I think my mindset with it was just off.”

hughescurve
That cracked finger nail has bothered Hughes some on the curve in recent starts.

As you can see on BrooksBaseball, his curve was getting fewer whiffs in early 2013 than at any other time in his career:

Brooksbaseball-Chart (2)

You might notice that he was then throwing his curve the slowest he’s ever thrown it:

Brooksbaseball-Chart (4)

“This year, I’ve gone back to throwing it harder and trying to get it to come out of my and along the same plane as my fastball,” Hughes said of his curve. You can see the difference in release points fairly easily. Check out 2013 on the left and 2014 on the right. Together with the added velocity, this new release angle could be a big part of the reason he’s now getting the best whiff rate of his career on that curve.

chart (17)chart (16)

The last piece of the puzzle was a change in his use of his cutter. “Before, when I threw a cutter, I mainly threw it to get back into counts, but this year it’s kind of almost been a pitch that I try get guys striking out looking on,” Hughes said. No classification system has Hughes throwing many cutters last year, but you can see that the pitcher is using his cutter more than three times as often with two strikes (39%) as he is with one strike (12%) this year.

hughescutter
Hughes likes to go back door with the cutter.

The cutter is working partially because of his willingness to steal strikes with the pitch. “I’ll throw it backdoor to lefties, even more frontdoor to righties,” Hughes said. Check out how much he’s backdooring lefties here, as most of his cutters look like they’re outside until they catch some plate at the last moment:

HughesLeftyFC

But there’s also deception at play with the cutter. “It comes out of my hand like a fastball, they think it’s a fastball off the plate and it comes back to the corners,” Hughes pointed out. “It can nip a corner.” The cutter has a fastball-like velocity this year — 89 mph versus the 82 that his slider averaged — and is a ball about 8% less often, which makes up for the loss of swinging strikes (10% on the cutter).

It’s obviously not just a mindset that’s allowing Hughes to shine this year. “I feel like my curveball is as good as it’s ever been, and when I can mix that in with a good riding fastball and my cutters that I’m trying to locate better instead of just trying to get back into a count, that’s been a good mix for me,” said Hughes, and you can hear all the changes he’s made in one place.

But those adaptions — and a more comfortable home park — have allowed the pitcher to attack the zone with two strong breaking pitches and that good rising fastball. And that’s what Hughes means when he says “That’s been the evolution of everything.”



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Graphs: Baseball, Roto, Beer, brats (OK, no graphs for that...yet), repeat. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.


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Kevin Cash
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Kevin Cash
2 years 12 days ago

Of course, Phil Hughes becomes a major league-worthy starter after leaving the Yankees…

AJ Burnett
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AJ Burnett
2 years 12 days ago

Oh, I’ve heard this one before…

Carl Pavano
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Carl Pavano
2 years 11 days ago

Me to

Jimmer
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Jimmer
2 years 11 days ago

yes, because the Twins are known for taking bad pitchers and making them BETTER lately…

FMelius
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FMelius
2 years 12 days ago

I’d be interested to know how much of this helpful development is attributable to Rick Anderson (MN Pitching Coach). Seeing so many former Twins’ SPs thrive elsewhere leads me to believe that Anderson is more harmful than helpful, but real improvement like this encourages me that he can genuinely make a difference.

Regardless – goodness knows the Twins won’t be getting rid of him, or Gardy, or Terry Ryan, or anyone else on the management level….

Matthew K Sommerfeld
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Matthew K Sommerfeld
2 years 12 days ago

Yeah, as a Twins fan, my first inclination in explaining his success is to assume he has been ignoring any advice offered to him by Anderson.

Jimmer
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Jimmer
2 years 11 days ago

this

Dieter Bowar
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Dieter Bowar
2 years 11 days ago

I would actually say an integral part of Hughes success this year is that he has a competent catcher in Suzuki.

The Twins signing of Hughes was a very worthwhile risk, much better than what they had been doing the last several years regarding starting pitching. But re-signing Suzuki recently was the the best decisions made in recent memory, regardless if he does regress with his stick in the future.

Jimmer
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Jimmer
2 years 11 days ago

There is no evidence to suggest Suzuki is even a good defensive catcher much less the kind of catcher that makes a difference in the performance of the pitching staff.

Jimmer
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Jimmer
2 years 11 days ago

or should I say, I know of no such evidence. If you have any, please share.

Lefty
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Lefty
2 years 11 days ago

Suzuki is constantly lauded for his “game calling” ability but it seems to me that Hughes’ repertoire change (swapping the slider for the cutter, and going with a knuckle curve) was Hughes’ doing and therefore the credit for throwing said pitches should go to him. In other words, Suzuki may call for certain pitches in certain counts but Hughes is the one delivering better-quality pitches pitches than ones he threw in the past.

waynetolleson
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waynetolleson
2 years 12 days ago

Some guys are not cut-out to handle NY, and Phil Hughes fit that mold. Look, the guy always had talent. But not everybody can deal with the media and pressure that comes playing for the Yankees. That, and the new Yankee Stadium was a nightmare for Hughes’ pitching style.

I know people don’t believe this kinda stuff on this website, but I watched Hughes pitch for years and he just never seemed comfortable. He was one of those guys where, when he’d get lit up, instead of saying, “Yeah, I sucked,” he would say, “I really thought this was a good outing. I really felt the ball was coming out of my hand well.”

And it’s like, “Yeah, except that three of ’em ended up in the seats and you allow seven runs in five innings.”

It doesn’t surprise me he would go to a more pitcher-friendly park with very little pressure on him and find success. He always had the talent Sometimes, a guy just needs a change of scenery.

nicknowsky
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nicknowsky
2 years 12 days ago

You’re right he wasn’t comfortable at the stadium..expect for that short bullpen stint in 09 he looked good

Bryz
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2 years 12 days ago

Shortly after arriving in Minnesota, he was already commenting that the media wasn’t as fierce as in New York.

Henry Newhouse
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Henry Newhouse
2 years 11 days ago

Unless your name is Joe Mauer, and then its just as bad if not worse.

Jimmer
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Jimmer
2 years 11 days ago

exactly.

FMelius
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FMelius
2 years 11 days ago

You’re right (sadly).

Matthew Murphy
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2 years 12 days ago

Hughes’ HR/FB% since 2010, when Hughes was starting full-time:

Year – Home – Away
2010 – 12.7 – 5.6
2011 – 12.5 – 4.7
2012 – 14.1 – 10.3
2013 – 15.0 – 6.7
2014 – 9.5 – 3.1

He’s probably due for a a bit of regression, given his extremely low HR/FB% and BB% this year, but it’s not all that surprising that a change in his home park helped him be a bit more aggressive.

A point against this theory, however, would be that Hughes’ K-BB% was significantly better at Yankee Stadium than on the road in 2013 (8.0% better), 2011 (7.9%), and 2010 (5.5%). They were roughly even in 2012.

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