What's Good About Him? Hughes strikes me as a good candidate for a bounceback season. In part, that's because of what financial analysts refer to as an "easy comp:" His 2013 was terrible, with a 4-14 won-lost and 5.19 ERA. But you know how when I wrote about Ricky Nolasco I said Nolasco's consistently high batting average on balls in play indicates that he gives up too many hits? Hughes' batting average on balls in play is a model of inconsistency: .275 in 2010 (19 points below the league average), .307 (14 points above) in 2011, .286 in 2012 (7 points below), .327 (29 points above) last year. His ERA followed suit: 4.19 in 2010, rising to 5.79 in 2011, falling to 4.23 in 2012, rising to 5.19 in 2013. The thing is: Hughes' pattern is actually more normal than Nolasco's. Pitchers are sometimes more successful at not allowing hits than at other times, and that success is, for most, pretty random. So Hughes is due to return to normal.
What's Not So Good About Him? Well, he may due for a return to normal, but "normal" for Phil Hughes isn't all that fantastic. Let's compare the 2013 Twins to Nolasco and Hughes over the past three years:
Strikeouts: Nolasco 17.1% of batters, Hughes 18.6%, 2013 Twins 15.7%
Walks: Nolasco 5.4% of batters, Hughes 6.4%, 2013 Twins 7.3%
Home Runs: Nolasco 2.2% of batters, Hughes 3.8%, 2013 Twins 2.7%
Nolasco is a big improvement in all three categories. Hughes gets more strikeouts but his control isn't much better than the average Twins pitcher and he gives up more homers. One of the reasons is that he's one of the more extreme fly ball pitchers in baseball, i.e., when hitters make contact with his pitches, they go in the air rather than on the ground. Last year, 30.5% of the batted balls he allowed were grounders. That's the lowest percentage among the 139 pitchers with 100 or more innings. The major league average was 43.3%.
Ah, but that's another reason for cautious optimism: last year his home run percentage (percentage of plate appearances resulting in a homer) was 4.8% at home and 2.7% on the road. In 2012 it was 5.3% at home, 3.2% on the road. In 2011 it was 4.3% at home, 1.7% on the road. You get the pattern? He gave up a lot of his home runs at Yankee Stadium. Now he's moving to Target Field, where he's faced 83 batters and given up only one homer. (Of course, all 83 were Twins, making the job easier.) As the picture at right (from ESPN's Home Run Tracker) shows, all but one of the 24 home runs Hughes allowed in 2013 would probably be homers at Target Field. But that's just looking at the dimensions of the ballpark. Is there more of a wind blowing out at Yankee Stadium than at Target Field? Probably. According to the Bill James Handbook, Yankee Stadium had a park factor of 125 for home runs over the last three years, while Target Field's was 84. That means there were 25% more homers hit in Yankee games at home than away, and 16% fewer hit at Twins games at home than away. So a homer-prone flyball pitcher is moving from the second-best home run hitter's park in the league to the third-worst. That's encouraging.
And one more thing: Hughes is young. He made his major league debut at age 20, so he's become a free agent earlier than average. He won't be 28 until June. He should still have good years ahead of him.