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.


24 Responses to “Phil Hughes is Back to His Old Ways”

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  1. Bill says:

    So, he would likely do better in a park with lots of foul territory, such as, as every announcer tells us again and again, the Oakland Coliseum?

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  2. CC says:

    Ask any Yankee fan about Hughes and you’d have heard that he just can’t put the batter away. Thanks for putting numbers and visualization to it.

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  3. Graham says:

    Maybe just throw more sliders and curves with two strikes? That seems overly simple but might help a bit?

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  4. AC of DC says:

    I think you meant to write that Phil Hughes gives fans “foul bowels.” You’re welcome.

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  5. Ryan says:

    Well couldn’t it be as simple as being too predicatable? 2 strike foul balls have always indicated to me that a pitcher doesn’t have a reliable out pitch. This could mean that batters can easily pick out what’s coming.
    Or perhaps his pitches just aren’t good enough? Batters pick and choose the first couple pitches of the at-bat because they’re confident they can waste his stuff if they get to 2 strikes until they see something they like.
    Hughes has a 6% higher contact on swing percentage than the average pitcher.
    This “hitability” would also cause more home runs, especially as he is forced to come to the middle of the plate late in at-bats.

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  6. Lou says:

    Everyone’s heard of a “AAAA Baseball Player”. Phil Hughes had a “AAAA” curveball. The Yankees let him lean on it in the minor leagues instead of teaching him how to pitch. That team can’t develop pitchers. Pettitte wasn’t good until Clemens put him on the program. He didn’t break into the show with a cutter he had a lazy curve like Hughes.

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    • Mike says:

      To be fair, Phil Hughes’ curveball was awesome in the minors and in his first start. I think in his second start he popped a hammy and it was just…gone. His curveball was never the same. His goto pitch was dead. Everything else, like you said, was never developed, leading to what we see today.

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    • LK says:

      Andy Pettitte’s best season came in 1997, before he and Clemens were teammates. So…basically I don’t think you know what you’re talking about.

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      • chuckb says:

        I think his “on the program” comment was a reference to PED’s also. That, too, tells one a little bit about the depth of his analysis.

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    • stonepie says:

      iirc, hughes came out of high school as a fastball/slider pitcher and the Yankees made him scrap the slider to prevent arm injuries at a young age. they took the curve, made it his 2nd pitch, and it was quite good once he got a feel for it. after a couple of seasons, they let him bring the slider back but he never regained the pitch as it once was in high school. from then on, he’s been fastball/curveball and a variation of a slider or cutter.

      As Mike said, i also distinctly remember hughes’ curve being filthy in that start vs rangers and never as great since.

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  7. Franco says:

    I remember John Maine with the Mets had some obscenely high foul #s too. With him it was just that he was predictable and threw a lot of high fastballs. Hitters would sit on the pitch, but couldn’t quite square up on it.

    Typical at bat.
    -Called strike one
    -Foul tip off high fastball for strike 2
    -3 mediocre change ups/sliders in the dirt for 3 balls.
    -Than non stop high fastballs that resulted in K/foul/fly ball,
    or breaking pitch for ball 4.

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  8. John says:

    As a Yankee fan who’s spent years rooting and wishing for Hughes, I’d like to offer a corollary observation.
    It’s not that Hughes can’t put guys away, it’s that they’re on everything. They get into 2 strike counts by fouling off his early offerings.

    I agree completely with Mike above that Hughes was never the same after he popped the hammy in 2007. He came back in 2008 and immediately strained an oblique and cracked ribs. Between the two injuries, some of the magic went of his arm.

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    • Rob in CT says:

      I also remember an analysis of pitchers’ stride length a few years back. The longer the stride, the faster the pitch appears to the batter, effectively “adding” mph to pitches for guys with long slides and subtracting for those with short ones. Hughes had a big subtraction due to short stride (David Robertson had the opposite, which is why he can blow 92-93 mph fastballs right past guys). So Hughes has good but not great velo, which actually plays slower than the gun reads, plus his FB is straight. Problematic.

      I wonder if this relates to the hammy. Maybe pre-injury Hughes had a longer stride. Agree with you guys that his curve in that start was sick and it never looked that good again (though at times it still looked pretty good, right before somebody tatooed it).

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  9. Dave says:

    Hughes also seems to leave his fastball up in the zone, could that make it easier to make contact/foul off?

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  10. RC says:

    I think your hypothesis is probably correct. The conventional wisdom for a guy like Hughes is that he doesn’t have a good “out pitch”. Looking at the pitch charts, it seems to back it up; There simply isn’t enough separation between his pitches.

    He may be fooling hitters, but if there’s no separation and they still get the bat on the ball, it doesn’t matter.

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  11. John C says:

    I recall the same as Mike: Hughes had a great curve early on. His popped hammy seemed to sap him of that curve and his 94+ mph heater.

    Hughes also has poor control in the K zone. He misses spots often that leads to many pitches in the crush zone.

    I always wished Hughes would 1) get back to his good curve and 2) develop a quality 2-seamer to help combat his long ball tendencies. I fully expected the Twinkies to steer him toward developing a 2-seamer, but it looks like such is not the case. Notice this is one huge difference between Hughes and Scherzer.

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  12. Johnston says:

    So many broken pitchers. It’s sad.

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  13. NYYROC says:

    I agree with the premise that PH’s pitches (FB especially) need to move more, but I don’t think his problem is the CH, since he really doesn’t throw it often. It is not as if hitters are fouling off a lot of CHs.
    Part of his problem is he tries to put hitters away with the high FB, which is great if you throw 95+, but his FB us usually 92-93..not enough to blow by hitters consistently, hence a lot of fouls. Also his CB just doesn’t get a lot of whiffs. He has no swing & miss breaking pitch.

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  14. NYYROC says:

    Also, there is a 7/27/12 Fangraphs article about PH and he does discuss how his mechanics changed after the 2007 hamstring injury.

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