Fact: Phil Hughes has always been a tinkerer. All players are constantly making adjustments, so in that sense all players are tinkerers, but Hughes has been a tinkerer to the extreme. He’s gone back and forth on what pitches he’s wanted to throw, and Ben Lindbergh identified several different versions of Hughes, the pitcher. Adjustments are interesting to investigate, so Hughes hasn’t been dull, although this leads us to the next fact.
Fact: Phil Hughes has seldom been good enough. The former top prospect has a career 12.2 WAR, and for the most part he’s been missing consistency. Because of the inconsistency, there’s been the tinkering, and perhaps because of the tinkering, there’s been additional inconsistency. There’s always been the question of Hughes’ potential. There’s never been a question of whether or not Hughes was a disappointment. Because of his reputation, people were surprised when the Twins handed Hughes a guaranteed three-year contract.
And yet, here we are, and Hughes is pitching differently. He’s both pitching differently, performance-wise, and he’s pitching differently, process-wise. Hughes has done some more tinkering, and now he looks like the good starter on the staff. He’s walked just six in eight starts, and though it’s one thing for a Twins starter to throw strikes, Hughes has also struck out 40. He’s doing a good job, and not just because he’s left Yankee Stadium behind. He’s doing a good job because he’s folded in a variety of changes, turning the tinkering up to 11.
He’s still a fly-ball guy. He’ll forever be a fly-ball guy. He’s still just a decent strikeout guy, and he still allows a lot of fouls. But we can look at the changes, and the first, most obvious place to look is the pitch mix.
And this is simple. Hughes used to throw a cutter. Then he didn’t, then he did, then he didn’t, then he did, then he didn’t, and so on. Hughes has had a complicated relationship with both his cutter and his slider, but after using the slider last year, Hughes has gone back to the cutter in 2014 instead, and he’s thrown it more often than ever. The curve is now his only breaking ball, and it accounts for just one pitch out of nine. On top of that, Hughes has all but eliminated his changeup, so he’s mostly a fastball/cutter guy, against righties and lefties. He’s willing to throw the cutter in any count, particularly with two strikes, and he uses it away against righties, and on both sides against lefties. For Hughes, it’s not a new pitch, but it’s a new way of using an old pitch, as his repertoire has evolved.
It would also seem Hughes has tweaked his arm slot. Previously Hughes expressed some concern that hitters could read his curveball right out of his hand. The pitch would be released a little higher, and it would soar above the usual plane. This year, Hughes is up with all of his pitches, and though the difference isn’t dramatic, Hughes has been throwing that much more overhand. It gives his pitches a slightly different angle, and as long as we’re talking about changes, we can note this one even if we can’t speak to the significance.
Here is, though, I think the biggest change. His whole career, Hughes hasn’t been afraid of attacking the strike zone. Sometimes that’s gotten him in trouble, but he’s been a strike-thrower, and now he’s only kicked that up. Last season, Hughes threw about 53% of his pitches in the strike zone. That more or less matched his career mark. Here are the top five biggest Zone% gainers, 2013-2014:
- Phil Hughes, +6.8 percentage points
- Wily Peralta, +5.5
- Zach McAllister, +5.5
- Clay Buchholz, +5.3
- Jeff Samardzija, +4.7
Hughes’ zone rate now stands at 60%. It is the highest zone rate in baseball. He also has one of the highest first-pitch strike rates in baseball, and he has an extremely high overall strike rate. Hughes, before, was content to come into the zone. Now it’s like he can’t bear the thought of pitching too far out of it. Pitch after pitch after pitch, Hughes is challenging, and when you’re constantly challenging, you end up walking basically nobody.
This season, 36% of Hughes’ pitches have been thrown with two strikes. It’s the highest rate in baseball, and the highest rate of Hughes’ career. What he isn’t, necessarily, is better at putting hitters away. It’s forever been one of the criticisms that Hughes lacks a true putaway pitch, which explains why his two-strike counts lead to so many foul balls. But while Hughes isn’t the most equipped to take advantage of two-strike counts, a two-strike count is still better than a non-two-strike count, for any pitcher, and so it works to Hughes’ advantage to spend more and more time ahead. Even should he continue to give up two-strike hits, he’s better at 0-and-2 than 1-and-1, and constantly being ahead will inevitably yield strikeouts just because hitters strike out sometimes.
Hughes has been all over the zone against righties. He’s been all over the zone, to a slightly lesser extent, against lefties. He’s replaced sliders out of the zone with cutters in it or close to it, and while some of the flaws in his game remain, the idea was never for Phil Hughes to be perfect. His strikeouts aren’t up, and his groundballs aren’t up, but his walks are down, and fewer baserunners means less damage when things go awry. If Hughes was ever a nibbler, he seems to be done nibbling.
You wonder if this in any way has to do with the catchers. In New York, Hughes might’ve been able to get some more calls around the edges. In Minnesota, the receiving talent isn’t there, so fewer borderline pitches will go in Hughes’ favor. Fewer borderline pitches have gone in Hughes’ favor, but his strikes are up anyhow because he’s just coming right after the hitters. This could have a lot more to do with the new environment. Hughes might just be more comfortable being aggressive when he doesn’t have that porch close behind him.
This is a case where a pitcher seems better. But instead of the pitcher changing one thing, Hughes has changed a number of things, so it’s impossible to calculate partial credits. He’s throwing a different mix of pitches, from a different angle, to different spots, with new catchers in a new ballpark. Based on his tendencies, Hughes is probably still going to get burned by his fair share of extra-base hits, even in two-strike counts. That’s a consequence of his pitching style, and his not having a true strikeout weapon. But think about what you actually have to do to be worth $24 million over three years. The bar isn’t set very high. Hughes today has almost seven strikeouts per walk. Phil Hughes is on the offensive, and this could be going an awful lot worse.
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