If It Ain’t Broke

Here’s how it all started.

THT author John Beamer is currently working on an article on Phil Hughes. He asked me take a look at Hughes’ mechanics. I had briefly seen Hughes pitch before, but I needed a closer look. So I went to YouTube, found some video, broke it down and got back to him.

I’m paraphrasing here, but what I told John was something like this:”He has good tempo, which I like. Excellent arm action: nice, short and elbowy. He seems to open up too early and seems very aggressive with his front side (shoulder problems?). His stuff is nasty, but I would worry about his durability.”

Fast forward to Hughes’ debut on April 26. Hmmm… That’s not the Phil Hughes I remember seeing a few days ago. There’s just something there that I don’t like.

This clip is synchronized to release…

By the way, these pitches are a 95 mph fastball (’06) and a 91 mph fastball (’07).

What’s different?

Here’s a still picture of frame no. 8, which is 17 frames before release.

I showed my girlfriend the above still and asked her what she thought, and she responded with, “It looks like this one (Hughes in ’06) is closer together.” Exactly. She has learned well. I’m so proud of you, Amy.

It does look like the Hughes in 2006 is in a more athletic position here. His back leg has more bend and his center of mass seems to be more centered around his midsection. Notice how Hughes in 2007 seems taller. Also notice that the ’06 version has a better, later hand break which, to me, leads to a quicker arm circle. If you look at the first video clip, can you see how Hughes in ’06 seems to have better momentum. To me, there’s a better rhythm and flow to his mechanics in ’06.

I read this article the other day. The key quote:

He was drifting through the balance point of his delivery a little bit, and it wasn’t allowing him to be as sharp,” Eiland said. “The command and life on his fastball were still okay, but it wasn’t Phil Hughes-like. He worked on that between starts.

Whoa, whoa, hold on. Dear Yankees organization, please don’t turn Hughes into a “tall and fall” pitcher. Please let him “drift through the balance point.” It helps him keep his momentum towards the plate. This one is non-negotiable. Let him drift, it’s better for him.
Want to see a guy who “drifts through the balance point”? Okay, here’s Tim Lincecum:

Arm slot

Here’s Hughes at release, frame 25:

His steeper shoulder tilt in ’07 tells the story. You can also reference the first video clip. Notice how, in ’07, his throwing arm finishes closer to his left leg. That is consistent with a higher slot. This article, a Q&A with Phil Hughes, makes a reference to his higher arm slot. Hughes says:

They weren’t anything major, just things like staying back and getting my arm in the proper slot. I struggled a bit off the bat when I got [to Trenton], but was able to put together a few good starts and build on them. Things started clicking, with a big part of that being the improvement of my curveball… I throw more of a 12-to-6 when I’m mostly looking to get it over, and then with two strikes I throw one that has a little more plane to it; more of a 1-to-7.

In order to get a true 12-6 break on a curveball, a pitcher has to impart true 12-6 back-to-front topspin on the ball so that there is minimal lateral break. This is nearly impossible (except for Eddie Degerman, he of the highest arm slot the world has ever seen) because of the angle of release. I would call Hughes’ curve a 1-7 curve. It used to be more of a 2-8 curve because of his lower release point. The point is that Hughes is trying to make it a 12-6 curve by being more over the top and has done so with all his pitches. A higher release point on his fastball translates to a fastball that is straighter with minimal lateral break. Why do the one-arm pitching machines throw the straightest fastballs? Because they come straight over the top and put perfect backspin on the ball.

Retroactive Review: Ace
Looking back at some of Justin Verlander's most interesting moments.

I froze the animation on the third frame to show his fingers at release. That’s about as true a four-seam fastball spin as a pitcher can have. If you watch his Futures Game appearance last year, you can certainly see that his fastball has a bit more lateral movement than this year’s version.

So is the higher slot good or bad?

It depends on who you ask. I remember Curt Schilling once said that he wanted to be as over the top as possible, so that he wouldn’t have to worry about his ball running in. If his fastball started on the outside corner, he wanted it to stay on the outside corner and not run in a couple of inches. Others will say that they prefer that the ball move laterally. A pitcher then has to compensate for the movement by aiming for a different spot.

However, in order to throw the ball from a higher arm slot, your head must move out of the way earlier in order to make room for the arm to come through. Many think that excessive head movement makes it more difficult to maintain a consistent release point and thus throw strikes. Notice how the Hughes’ head in ’07 (on the clip below) moves left more and earlier.

Front Shoulder

Before I offer my conclusions, I’d like to show the truly ugly part of Hughes’ mechanics. To me, it looks like he opens up too soon, and costs him velocity. If you can bring the ball from further back in the same amount of time, you have better velocity.

Frames eight and nine are the bad. They just look ugly and inefficient. That said, frame 13 is promising. Watch his glove and front elbow. He firms it up pretty well, doesn’t he? Once he starts opening his shoulder (too early), he actually firms up the front side well. I would bet that is a big reason for his excellent command. I also noticed how he doesn’t seem to get the forearm lag (the elbow whip) that many pitchers get. Is it genetics or mechanics? I think it’s his front shoulder mechanics. Those front shoulder mechanics are what make me think that there may be problems with durability down the line. He also doesn’t seem to have great separation between his upper and lower body.

Final thoughts

In terms of how his body moves, I would certainly like him to be more like he was in ’06. Better momentum, better center of gravity, better rhythm, later hand break. I would hate to see him slow down in order to get “balanced” or to focus too much on “staying back.” I don’t think he will keep his velocity throughout his career if he keeps doing what he’s doing now. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that his four-seam fastball’s average velocity is declining slightly already due to those changes.

I’m torn in regards to his arm slot because it seems like he’s had better success with the higher slot. I don’t have a scientific, physics-based reason for this (Magnus Force maybe?), but in my experience, it seems like pitchers that put better 6-12 backspin on the ball seem to get better carry on the ball. If he’s looking for more swings and misses with the bat missing under the ball, then the higher arm slot would seem to be a better fit (if he can keep his velocity). Plus, like Hughes himself says, he gets more of a 12-6 break on his curve.

Although I’m not a big proponent of changing arm slots on pitchers, I do see the value of limiting head movement. I have not seen video of Hughes before ’06, so I would imagine that his natural arm slot is closer to what it was in ’06. With that and his recent performance considered, I still prefer previous arm slot as well. By not moving his head out of the way to create a higher slot, Hughes is able to keep his center or mass closer to his midsection so can rotate around a more fixed axis. As he loses velocity, it will also be easier for him to morph into a two-seam/slider guy with a lower slot (which is still pretty high by the way). Then we’ll finally get to see that killer slider everyone talks about.

And yet, even with his four-seam fastball, and such an over the top delivery, how did he get a reputation for being a groundball pitcher? Is it mostly his curveball that causes all those ground outs? His fastball in ’07 is more conducive with flyouts/strikeouts… I can see the ground balls with his ’06 mechanics, and I’m willing to bet that he’s been getting more fly balls after the arm slot change.

And I’m still worried about his durability. Good luck Phil.

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