Thursday, June 12, 2014

What's Going On With: Phil Hughes

2012 26 NYY AL 16 13 .552 4.19 32 32 191.1 196 89 35 46 165 101 1.265
2013 27 NYY AL 4 14 .222 5.19 30 29 145.2 170 84 24 42 121 78 1.455
2014 28 MIN AL 6 2 .750 3.46 12 12 75.1 76 29 7 8 63 117 1.115
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 6/11/2014.

What's The Story? The Twins signed Phil Hughes as a free agent over the winter. I wrote about it here. Hughes had been a promising young pitcher with the Yankees, making the All-Star team in 2010 when he went 18-8. In 2009 and 2010 - he turned 24 during the 2010 season - he was a combined 26-11 with a 3.81 ERA and a 116 ERA+, indicating that his ERA, adjusted for playing in Yankee Stadium, was 16% better than the league average. But from 2011-2013, he went 25-32, and his 4.83 ERA was 14% worse than the league average adjusted for Yankee Stadium. Hughes has always been a fly ball pitcher--about two fly balls for every ground ball during his career, compared to a league average of about five to four--and a lot of his fly balls left Yankee Stadium. As I wrote when the Twins acquired him,
Hughes isn't an elite pitcher. But he's probably better than what he was last year, and the move out of the Bronx should help him keep more balls in the park. By the end of the year, I wouldn't be surprised if his numbers were better than league average. 

If You Don't Want to Read All the Rest of This: He's a fastball pitcher, but he's changed his No. 2 offering from a slider to a cut fastball. He's getting (I hesitate to say "as a result") batters to swing at pitches outside the strike zone, and he's allowing a lot fewer home runs, likely helped by Target Field. 

What's He Throwing?
Against Lefties:
Year   Fastball Change   Curve  Slider  Sinker  Cutter  Splitter
2012      64%     17%     16%      2%      0%      0%      0%
2013      60%      8%     11%     19%      0%      0%      1%
2014      63%      1%     11%      0%      4%     21%      0%

Against Righties:
Year   Fastball Change   Curve  Slider  Sinker  Cutter  Splitter
2012      67%      2%     19%      9%      1%      3%      0%
2013      63%      1%      5%     30%      0%      0%      1%
2014      59%      0%     10%      0%      3%     28%      0%

Year   Fastball Change   Curve  Slider  Sinker  Cutter  Splitter
2012      65%     10%     17%      5%      0%      2%      0%
2013      61%      5%      9%     24%      0%      0%      1%
2014      61%      1%     11%      0%      4%     24%      0%

You have to give Hughes a high score for willingness to experiment. In 2012, he as a fastball/curveball/changeup pitcher. Last year he mostly threw fastballs and sliders, with a few curves. This year, he's given up the slider entirely and now uses a cut fastball that he didn't throw at all last year. (Side note: The reasons he changed his secondary pitches are known mostly to Phil Hughes, it seems. None of the abandoned pitches were particularly ineffective.)

So what's changed with Hughes? Two things stand out here.
Year      Zone%    O-Swing%   HR/FB%
2012      51.3%     33.5%     12.4%
2013      53.4%     29.7%     11.1%
2014      59.4%     35.6%      6.8%
Career    53.6%     30.2%      9.9%

One, he's getting more strikes. Remember the rule: It's good to throw strikes, but better to get strikes. So far this year, 59% of Hughes' pitches are in the strike zone (Zone%), and he's getting batters to swing at 36% of pitches outside the strike zone (O-Swing%). Those rank him No. 1 and No. 4 among American League starters. Last year he was No. 3 at throwing strikes but only 27 (out of 55 pitchers with over 140 innings pitched) at getting swings outside the zone.

The second thing is that his home runs allowed are way down. He was 22nd among 36 AL ERA qualifiers at keeping fly balls in the park in 2012 and 30th among 55 pitchers with 140+ innings pitched in 2013. This year he's tenth among 42 ERA qualifiers. He's gone from below-average to one of the best.

By getting more strikes and allowing fewer homers (the change from homer-friendly Yankee Stadium to pitcher-friendly Target Field helped), Hughes has gone from one of the worst starters in the league to one of the best.

What Does the Future Hold? Hughes has always been good at throwing strikes. His success in getting swings outside the strike zone is new. Perhaps the new cutter's helped.

His improvement at preventing home runs is important, but I have a hard time seeing him sustaining it, at least at his current level. The average American League pitcher this year gives up home runs on 9.6% of fly balls, well above Hughes's 6.8% rate. There is nothing in his past to suggest he can remain this stingy. Regression toward the league average would still give the Twins a good starter who won't be 28 until later this year. 

(All figures are before yesterday's 7 IP, 0 ER, 9 K performance against Toronto.)

(All data here from Brooks Baseball and Baseball-Reference.) 


  1. Any idea where he learned the cutter and/who who suggested he use it more?

  2. Steve, there was an Effectively Wild podcast recently that discussed Hughes. What I recall is that he knew the cutter (had thrown it a little in the past) and wanted a pitch with more speed than a slider/curve and more break than the two-seamer. His choice of secondary pitches does seem a little random to me.