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I’ve Made a Hughes Mistake

Writer’s Note: Hughes ranked 132nd on Zach Sanders’ starting pitching rankings.

It might shock a few people to find out that if not for Ricky Nolasco’s pact, Phil Hughes’ three-year, $24 million deal would be the biggest free agent contract handed out in Twins history.

In fact, I’d almost wager that the statement would induce spit-takes from any Yankees fan with a beverage in hand. Really? For Hughes?

The same Hughes who had an ERA over 5.00 last year? The one who allowed 1.5-plus home runs per 9 over the past two? The guy whose career ERA (4.54) isn’t really that much better than either of his FIPs (4.31, both), leaving one to wonder if his ceiling simply isn’t that high?

I’ll cut you off before I get too far down the road to say this: I’m not going to advocate drafting Hughes.

I think from the outset, Hughes is a matchup play against the White Sox at home, for instance. Or basically anywhere that left-handed power is stifled, or against an offense that just isn’t very good. Maybe in more spacious ballparks, too. And if one finds that, maybe after a month or so, Target Field and Hughes is a good marriage, he may well be worth rostering in 12-plus team leagues.

Hughes is a tough one to figure out, quite frankly. Take a look at his splits:

Year v. LHH v. RHH
2013 .294/.354/.509 (.370 wOBA) .276/.322/.471 (.340 wOBA)
2012 .210/.270/.340 (.270 wOBA) .306/.342/.586 (.394 wOBA)
2011* .309/.368/.473 (.364 wOBA) .226/.315/.414 (.321 wOBA)
2010 .233/.311/.417 (.322 wOBA) .250/.292/.381 (.296 wOBA)
2009** .252/.348/.393 (.328 wOBA) .183/.235/.310 (.243 wOBA)
2008* .328/.437/.500 (.414 wOBA) .288/.329/.442 (.332 wOBA)
2007* .264/.358/.488 (.368 wOBA) .206/.269/.294 (.255 wOBA)

*denotes year shortened due to external factors (minors/injuries)
** denotes year spent working almost exclusively as a reliever

You’re probably thinking something similar to what I’m thinking after perusing this table: I know less about Mr. Hughes now than I did before. In the interest of full disclosure, me too. This past season was the first time both of his splits were downright ghastly, but at the end of the day it’s truly hard to say that Hughes particularly struggles with one side of the plate or the other — at least in the context of one more than the other.

The two-year trend of poor performance against right-handed hitters is troubling, especially in light of how well he’d handled them earlier in his career. But ultimately, his career splits aren’t that disparate: .257/.329/.431 (.332 wOBA) versus lefties; .257/.305/.438 (.322 wOBA) versus righties.

One can pretty easily make sense of poor seasons versus lefties, as new Yankee Stadium is extremely inviting to southpaw swingers. In 2013, the HR park factor for left-handed hitters at Yankee Stadium was 116; far and away less than three of the first four years at the new yard (146, 145, 139, and 114  moving backward). But even that brings more puzzlement — if that’s even a word — as the worst park factor for pitchers against left-handed hitters coincides with Hughes’ best year against those types.

And it wasn’t just a good year; he flat out nuked lefties. Even more confusing yet was that — unless I’m reading it wrong — Hughes attacked lefties with fastballs middle up. See for yourself:

461833_L_FA__2012_40_17_2_20120930

From the looks of it, one might expect Hughes would have gotten blasted on the offering. Well, not exactly, as hitters hit just .258/.308/.470 on a pitch he threw more than three times more frequently than any other. It just doesn’t make sense.

A twitter pal offered that his take was that Hughes is a bit of a tinkerer with his repertoire. Looking at his PITCHf/x profile, that makes some sense. He’s always relied heavily on a four-seamer, but has also dabbled with the following offerings:

Slider (2007-’09, 2012-present)
Two-Seamer (2009-’10)
Cut Fastball (2009-’13)
Curve (2007-’13, but career-low in ’13)
Changeup (2007-’13, virtually extinct in 2009 however)

Between the PITCHf/x and Baseball Info Solutions data, it surely looks as though Hughes is a bit of a tinkerer. But that also backs up the assertion that he’s a two-pitch pitcher (fastball-curveball), who hasn’t seen consistent enough results with a third pitch to make it a permanent part of his repertoire. That’s a little scary to give a three-year deal to.

Now for the kicker, at least for Twins fans. One of these pitchers is Hughes, and the other is a former Twin and team faithful whipping boy:

Pitcher A: .73 GB/FB, 20.4% LD, 33.6% GB, 46.0% FB, 10.2% HR/FB

Pitcher B: .75 GB/FB, 20.8% LD, 34% GB, 45.2% FB, 9.3% HR/FB

Pitcher A is Hughes. Pitcher B is Scott Baker, who left the Twins in 2012, and nearly missed all of 2013 before pitching in September for the Cubs.

I hate to go through this grandiose, dizzying display to come to an extremely simple verdict, but I’m afraid I’m left with little choice.

So here goes: Hughes simply stands a pretty good chance to improve solely on the improvement of his home park. The Twins home run park factors for left-handed hitters since the inception of Target Field are as follows (from 2013 backwards): 79, 78, 75, and 82. It’ll certainly be worth monitoring his proclivities versus right-handed hitters, however. Those park factors aren’t as friendly, but are still more beneficial than Yankee Stadium: 94, 103, 90, and 83.

He’ll be a dicey play in any cozy away games, but that isn’t to say he hasn’t shown the ability to pitch better no matter the place. Still on the right side of 30, Hughes has obviously shown at least something for the Twins to think he can help improve their rotation in the near- to mid-term future. At the very least, he should be an upgrade on the P.J. Walters’ and Andrew Albers’ of the world.