Wait, They’re Good Now?

In the 2008 season the Yankees started the year with two young pitching prospects in their rotation: Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy. These two pitchers were expected to be the future of the Yankees rotation. That didn’t really go as planned. The two pitchers struggled, and they both earned demotions as they combined for an ERA of 7.44. Hughes and Kennedy were simply not ready for major-league action. They gave up too many walks, didn’t strike out enough guys, and didn’t keep the ball in the ballpark. That’s a recipe for disaster when it comes to trying to succeed as a pitcher at the major-league level.

Nonetheless, these two pitchers showed enough promise as prospects for the Yankees to actually wait on them. In fact, after their demotions, Hughes and Kennedy spent most of their 2008 season in the minors due to mediocrity and injuries. The  Yankees were patient for a year with their young talent, however there is only so much time that goes by before you go from being a developing prospect to struggling major leaguer. The Yankees quickly gave up on Kennedy, and traded him to Arizona, where he showed decent success as a starter. In three seasons with Arizona, Kennedy compiled a WAR of 10.2.

The Yankees saw something in Phil Hughes. Hughes showed some promise in 2009 as a reliever, and then in 2010 as a starter who compiled a WAR of 2.5. However, there was the problem of Yankee Stadium not suiting Hughes’s skill set. Hughes was a fly-ball pitcher in a stadium that was known for being a hitter’s haven. Hughes always struggled as a Yankee when it came to keeping the ball in the park. The lowest home run rate that Hughes posted as a full season Yankee starter was 1.28 in 2010.

Both Kennedy and Hughes had some success over the  years; one could even argue that Kennedy was one of the best pitchers in the league in 2011. However, for the most part their careers have been a mixed bag. But times have now changed. Kennedy is now with his third team, the Padres, and Hughes is with his second team, the Twins. After mediocre 2013 seasons, the two pitchers are actually performing well.

2014 Season K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP xFIP WAR
Hughes 7.99 0.81 0.67 3.92 2.62 3.22 3.7
Kennedy 9.67 2.46 0.72 3.47 2.93 3.17 2.3

As of right now, Hughes is fourth in the league for FIP among qualified pitchers. The only pitchers who have been better are John Lester, Adam Wainwright, and Felix Hernandez. Hughes is third in the league for WAR, right behind Lester and Hernandez. For the first half of the season Hughes has pitched like an ace.

Hughes has had the second best walk rate among qualified starters. Any walk rate below two is considered to be good, and Hughes’s rate right now is downright ridiculous. We can’t expect Hughes to be this good at not walking people, however the ZiPs/Steamer projections have him finishing the year with a walk rate between 1.31-1.38. That’s a pretty good projection, considering Hughes has never had a walk rate lower than 2.16. Hughes has also improved his home run problem, as he isn’t letting an egregious number of baseballs leave the park. The main change in Hughes approach has been his implementation of the cutter. Between 2012 and 2013, Hughes had dropped his cutter. This year, he reintroduced the pitch — throwing it 23% of the time — and dropped his usage of a slider. The change has proven to be useful for Hughes, and he no longer needs to rely on his fastball.

Then there is Kennedy. Kennedy has turned himself into the ace of the Padres staff this year. The main difference in Kennedy is that he has actually gained velocity on his pitches. Throughout his career he has always been a soft tosser. For most of his career, Kennedy averaged 89-90 MPH on his fastball. In 2013 he was up to 90 MPH. This year he is averaging 92 MPH.

Not only does Kennedy’s fastball have more velocity, but he’s also throwing the pitch more than he ever has since 2009. He has thrown his fastball 48% of the time this year. The last time he threw it more than 40% was 2010.

While it may be good to have more velocity, it also could be a little bit of concern when it comes to Kennedy because his secondary offering don’t appear to be very good. In fact, all of his pitches have negative wRAA values except for his fastball, which has a wRAA of 12.8. Most of Kennedy’s strikeouts have come off of his fastball. Having a good fastball is nice, but when Kennedy gets older — and his velocity starts to decline — he’s going to have a hard time being successful if he doesn’t have good secondary offerings.

Overall, the changes for these pitchers seemed to have worked. They’re succeeding in their own environments. While the Yankees never were able to see their prized prospects come into fruition, these two pitchers have found success away from New York. Learning to pitch at the major-league level is a learning curve. Some pitchers dominate right away. Other pitchers struggle for their first couple of years, and then things somehow start to click for them. I’m not suggesting that Kennedy and Hughes have figured out pitching, nor are they the best pitchers in the majors. However, they have proved that they are  at least very average starters, or maybe even above average major-league pitchers. Only time will tell.

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