Archive for July 21st, 2010

After staring the season like a Cy Young candidate, Phil Hughes’ performance has fallen off considerably of late. In his first six starts, Hughes posted a sterling ERA of 1.38 and OPS against of .446, but in his outings since then, those rates have risen to 5.51 and .828, respectively.

Phil Hughes’ First Six Starts Versus His Last Eleven

Apr 15 to May 12 6 5 0 39 22 14 39 1 1.38 0.243 0.203 0.446 0.223
May 17 to July 20 11 6 3 67 77 18 54 12 5.51 0.333 0.494 0.828 0.323

Source: Baseball-reference.com

No one expected Hughes to pitch to an ERA under two for the entire year, but giving up five and half runs per game over one-third of the season is somewhat alarming. So, what is the reason for Hughes’ recent struggles? Below, we take a look at a few possible explanations.

The Hughes Rules

Two of Hughes’ three losses, and his two poorest outings in terms of game score, have come after layoffs of 10 or more days. Coincidence? Perhaps, but then again maybe the time off has had an impact on the young right hander. More than the typical alibis of “being too strong” and “not being able to “locate” because of the extra rest, the bigger concern could be how the disruptions are impacting Hughes’ preparation. Roger Clemens always said that the most difficult part of pitching was the preparation between starts, so maybe the extended periods of rest have knocked Hughes off of his routine?

It should be noted that Hughes did have consecutive shaky outings against the Red Sox and Mets before taking his first hiatus, but those outings were not as poor as the two the came immediately after his 10-day breaks. If things hold true to form, we could see Hughes struggle once or twice more before regaining his rhythm and routine, just as it seems he did against the Mariners on July 9. If so, then Hughes’ struggles are only a minor concern born of the need to protect his valuable arm by limiting his innings. If the Yankees are prudent, they can avoid having Hughes’ face similar periods of inactivity by carefully planning the rotation down the stretch. With approximately 11 turns through the rotation, Hughes could still come in right at his rumored regular season limit of 170 innings, even while pitching six innings per game (he currently has 106 innings). If the Yankees do need to skip him again, they should at least explore better ways for him to use his “free time”.

Phil Hughes’ 2010 Game Log

Apr 15 LAA 5 3 2 5 6 1 3.6 54
Apr 21 OAK 7.1 1 1 2 10 0 2.19 80
Apr 27 BAL 5.2 2 1 4 2 0 2 59
May 2 CHW 7 4 0 1 6 0 1.44 74
May 7 BOS 7 7 2 1 7 0 1.69 61
May 12(2) DET 7 5 0 1 8 0 1.38 74
May 17 BOS 5 6 5 1 3 2 2.25 37
May 22 NYM 5.2 8 4 3 7 0 2.72 41
May 28 CLE 7 5 2 1 8 1 2.7 66
Jun 2 BAL 7 6 1 1 7 0 2.54 67
Jun 8 BAL 6 9 3 0 4 0 2.71 46
Jun 13 HOU 5.2 7 5 2 6 1 3.11 39
Jun 19 NYM 7 5 3 3 4 2 3.17 56
Jun 29 SEA 5.2 10 6 2 3 1 3.58 24
Jul 4 TOR 6 6 5 2 5 3 3.83 43
Jul 9 SEA 7 6 1 0 5 0 3.65 66
Jul 20 LAA 5 9 6 3 2 2 3.99 24

Source: Baseball-reference.com

No Place Like the Road

Phil Hughes has not exactly enjoyed home cooking in 2010. Across the board, Hughes has performed better on the road than in the Bronx, where he has walked more, struck out less and surrendered twice as many runs per game. The most startling difference between his home and road performance, however, is the number of home runs allowed (or not allowed). When pitching in the road grays, Hughes has yet to surrender a long ball, but when clad in pinstripes, he has served up 13.

Phil Hughes’ Home/Road Splits

Home 6 2 5.22 10 60.1 61 35 13 21 50
Away 5 1 2.36 7 45.2 38 12 0 11 43
Home 1.359 7.5 0.266 0.325 0.489 0.814 0.286
Away 1.073 8.5 0.225 0.271 0.272 0.543 0.299

Source: Baseball-reference.com

Even though the Stadium has been less of a homerun haven this season, it has still surrendered 2.6 per game. That’s bad news for a pitcher like Hughes, who ranks sixth in the American League with a fly ball rate of 44.9%.  Because only 9.2% of Hughes’ fly balls have left the yard, best among all Yankees starters, the sheer number of balls in the air allowed by Hughes may be working against him when pitching at Yankee Stadium. According to hittrackeronline.com, four of the homeruns surrendered by Hughes at Yankee Stadium would have gone out of fewer than two-thirds of all major league stadiums (out of the 10 recorded). Is that a startling revelation? Perhaps not, but if Hughes is even just a little bit more prone to the HR ball at home, it could help explain why he has not only surrendered more long balls, but seemingly been more tentative about throwing strikes.

Top-10 “Fly Ball” Pitchers, American League

Pitcher Team LD% GB% FB% HR/FB
Kevin Slowey Twins 0.22 0.27 0.51 0.09
Jason Vargas Mariners 0.16 0.35 0.50 0.05
Jered Weaver Angels 0.17 0.35 0.48 0.09
Tim Wakefield Red Sox 0.17 0.36 0.47 0.09
Javier Vazquez Yankees 0.19 0.35 0.47 0.12
Phil Hughes Yankees 0.20 0.35 0.46 0.09
Ervin Santana Angels 0.23 0.32 0.45 0.09
Brian Matusz Orioles 0.20 0.36 0.45 0.09
Colby Lewis Rangers 0.17 0.39 0.44 0.09
Matt Garza Rays 0.22 0.34 0.43 0.12

Source: fangraphs.com

Change of Pace

During Spring Training, there was much talk about how Hughes was refining his change-up, which would serve as an all-important extra pitch in the right hander’s arsenal. Well, through his first 17 starts, Hughes has thrown approximately 35 change-ups, or less than 2% of all pitches thrown this season.

One trademark of Hughes fast start was his ability to not only locate his fastball, but also generate swings and misses with it. He also relied a lot more on his cutter for a change of pace. More recently, however, he has begun to re-introduce the curve. Whereas Hughes had been throwing twice as many cutters as curves earlier in the season, that ratio has leveled off. Perhaps this change in pitch selection has resulted in the Hughes’ inconsistent performance? In starts with a game score above 50, Hughes cutter/curve ration has been 1.63, but in starts with a game score below 50, the ratio has been 1.38. It’s hard to say whether this difference in pitch selection is meaningful, but it is worth noting. According to fangraphs, at 2.6 runs below average, Hughes’ curve has been his weakest pitch (fastball is 14.2 above, while cutter is 4.3 above), so his struggles could be attributed to trying to get a better feel for that pitch.

Phil Hughes’ Pitch Breakdown

Average Speed Times Thrown Runs Above Average
Fastball 92.7 62% 14.2
Curve 76.7 14% -2.6
Cutter 88.6 22% 4.3
Change 85 2% -0.3

Source: fangraphs.com

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When the Yankees, who already had a 1-0 lead thanks to a Nick Swisher home run, loaded the bases in the first inning, it looked as if Angels’ emergency starter Sean O’Sullivan was headed for an early shower. After falling behind Jorge Posada 3-1 on four straight off speed pitches, however, the 22-year old righty got the Yankee catcher to roll over on a perfectly placed outside fastball. Even though the fielder’s choice ground out plated a run, it turned out to be a key turning point in the game, especially after the next batter, Curtis Granderson, struck out to end the inning.

Mike Napoli's 2-run HR in the sixth brought an end to another disappointing outing by Phil Hughes (Photo: AP).

Once granted a reprieve, the Angels wasted no time in jumping back into the game by scoring in each of the next three innings off of Phil Hughes. A two run homerun by Macier Izturiz in the fourth finally gave the Angels a 4-2 lead, from which point they never looked back. Hughes surrendered another two-run homer to Mike Napoli before departing in the top of the sixth, by which point the game was all but out of hand.

While Hughes was struggling with the Angels lineup, O’Sullivan was breezing through the Yankees’. After Mike Scioscia smartly had his pitcher intentionally walk Robinson Cano to load the bases in the first, O’Sullivan retired the next 12 batters he faced. That string was snapped when Brett Gardner walked with one out in the fifth, but he was quickly erased on a double play off the bat of the struggling Derek Jeter. O’Sullivan then went on to retire the side in order in the sixth, completing a remarkable reversal of fortune.

Earlier in the year, two early runs would have been enough for Phil Hughes, who posted a 5-0 record with a 1.38 ERA over his first six starts. Since that time, a period covering 11 starts including last night, Hughes has posted an ERA of 5.51, which has boosted his season rate from among the league leaders to the precipice of four runs per games. With Andy Pettitte on the disabled list for at least a month, the Yankees need Hughes to regain his early season form.

Another cause for concern from last night’s game was the continuing struggles of the Yankees bullpen. Although Jonathan Albaledejo did pitch well before being extended beyond his more comfortable inning of work, Chan Ho Park and Chad Gaudin were both very poor. In fact, both pitchers have been so incendiary that if the Yankees had other options, they’d likely have earned a DFA. Perhaps it is time for new faces anyway, ready or not?

Phil Hughes’ Pitch Breakdown

Avg. Speed Max Speed Count Strikes Percentage
Changeup 84.9 85.8 12 3 25.0%
Curve 76.3 78 15 6 40.0%
Cutter 88.7 89.8 10 8 80.0%
Four Seam Fastball 92.2 94.2 61 40 65.6%
Inning Pitches Strikes Percentage
1 13 7 53.8%
2 24 16 66.7%
3 18 11 61.1%
4 18 11 61.1%
5 13 6 46.2%
6 12 6 50.0%
Total 98 57 58.2%

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