Phil Hughes is Back to His Old Ways

Everyone is good at something. We may not be great or elite, but we all have something we can do better than anyone we know. Whether it’s whistling, whittling, or wrestling — you can do something better than your friends and family. It could have to do with genetics or just hours of practice, but there’s something. This is not to say that being good at something is actually a good thing. Most talents are pointless at best.

I used to work in a sheet music store/warehouse. Part of my job was pulling sheet music for customers who called the store or came in looking for something. I would look up the thing on my computer, then take to the stacks. Every piece of stock had a nine digit stock number. I started off writing these things down, but eventually just committed everything to memory. Doing this dozens of times a day allowed me to become very proficient at memorizing and then immediately forgetting nine digit numbers. I can still do it pretty well. This is a pretty dumb talent.

On April 9th, Phil Hughes started a game for the Twins. He gave up four runs, striking out three and walking three. This isn’t entirely atypical of Phil Hughes, but he’s certainly done better. He pitched only five innings, however. This, we are learning, is probably more of the norm for him.

Hughes doesn’t walk an obscene amount of hitters. And while he’d probably like to cut down on the hits, he’s fairly middle-of-the-road as far as allowing baserunners goes. When the Twins signed Hughes, the thought was that perhaps a bigger home park would cut down on his homerun tendencies, allowing him to stay in the game longer. Hughes has had problems staying in games. Well, he probably could have stayed in, but he was most likely crappy or tired or both and got the hook.

The Twins ranked dead last in 2013 as far as innings by starters. So far in this young season they rank … second to last! Improvement! The bright spot of the last few seasons for the Twins was that their bullpen was actually quite good. In fact, the bullpen had more strikeouts than the starting rotation did in 2013. But the relievers have been getting gassed as of late, as the starters simply can’t seem to last long in games. Again, they were too crappy or tired or both.

In 2012, Phil Hughes averaged 5.97 innings per game, good for 25th worst among qualified starters. He didn’t qualify for a pitching title in 2013, but if you broaden the scope to 140 innings Hughes comes in at second worst with 5.17. This is something that made his signing in Minnesota curious.

With Hughes, it might have been more a factor of fatigue than effectiveness. There’s probably some correlation that could be discussed regarding pitch totals and effectiveness, but I don’t want to talk about that right now. I want to talk about Phil Hughes’ stupid talent.

In that April 9th outing he faced 22 batters and threw 103 pitches. Of those pitches, 32 were fouled off. That’s 31%. If that seems high, it’s because it is. But it’s not that unusual for Phil Hughes, and that’s part of the problem.

One of the many great things about baseballsavant.com’s awesome Pitch f/x search is that you can find pitches based on the outcome, like foul balls for instance. It gives you both the number of pitches that were fouled, as well as the corresponding percentage when compared to all pitches thrown.

What does this tell us? Well, I can’t speak for you, but it tells me that Phil Hughes gives up a lot of foul balls. (I realize the nomenclature is funky here. Does a pitcher “give up” foul bouls? “Allow” them?) In both 2012 and 2013, of all the pitches Hughes threw, 20% were fouled away. TWENTY PERCENT! Only Jake Peavy, Scott Kazmir, and Bruce Chen have posted higher numbers since 2012, and they were all within fractions of a percent. And while this seems like a high number – because it is – it doesn’t tell the whole story. The kicker is that 44% of all his pitches that were fouled off were on two strike counts. This leads to high pitch counts, which leads to quicker hooks. The quicker the hook, the more the bullpen is needed (and the green grass grew all around).

hughesfoulchart

hughesfoulchart2

The question is why does he have such a penchant for this thing, and that’s what I’m having trouble putting my finger on. He does seem to have a good deal of speed differential between pitches, so it’s not as if batters are just swinging at anything since they have the timing down. And it’s not as if batters are just fouling away the inside pitches. They are getting all his pitches.

Hughes, Phil

After some more digging, there’s one thing that jumped out. Here is the movement chart for Phil Hughes in 2013 (via texasleaguers.com):

hugheschart

Now here is the same 2013 chart, but for Max Scherzer:

scherzerchart

Throwing up a comparison to Scherzer isn’t necessarily fair, but it’s to prove a point. The fastballs and changeups for Scherzer have similar horizontal movements, as they do for Hughes. But notice Scherzer’s gap in between the blobs. That’s a difference in vertical movement, meaning his changeup is dropping more than his fastball. Hughes doesn’t have that. His are kind of smushed together. Perhaps this lack of difference is allowing hitters get pieces of any “straight” pitch. Maybe it’s not about speed or location, but movement.

It’s too early to tell if Target Field will help Phil Hughes’ homer-serving ways. But we can see that his odd talent for throwing pitches that are good enough to not be hits but not quite good enough to be swinging strikes is still prevalent. There has to be something that causes this number, though I can’t quite put my finger on it at this point. A change of scenery might help the home runs, but a change in something else is in order if Phil Hughes hopes to go longer into games.



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David G. Temple is the Managing Editor of TechGraphs and a contributor to FanGraphs, NotGraphs and The Hardball Times. He hosts the award-eligible podcast Stealing Home. Dayn Perry once called him a "Bible Made of Lasers." Follow him on Twitter @davidgtemple.


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