It seems like it happened twenty years ago but New York Yankees pitcher Phil Hughes was once one of the top rated pitching prospects in all of baseball. The future seemed bright for Hughes who would become an All-Star in 2010 at twenty-four years-old. Today, just two years removed from an 18 win campaign, Hughes is struggling to keep a spot in the Yankees starting rotation.
The trouble with Hughes began last season when his fastball velocity was noticeably down and he was getting hit hard. The Yankees hoped he would straighten out but things only seemed to get worse. He pitched to the tune of a 13.94 ERA. Things got so bad the Yankees put him on the disabled list with an unknown injury last season most closely associated with dead arm. For a while the Yankees had no idea what the issue was and chalked it up to arm fatigue. It was later discovered he had some inflammation in his shoulder. When he finally came back last July he began to pitch well, accumulating a 4-2 record and 3.72 Era over the rest of the season.
Hughes entered this season with hopes from the Yankees and their fans that the Phil Hughes of 2010 and the second half of 2011 was going to show up. He pitched well enough in Spring Training to keep those hopes alive. Then, the season started. So far, he has five starts under his belt and has not gone more than 5.2 innings, which he did his last start against the Baltimore Orioles on May 1st. He has allowed at least one home run in each start and has allowed 2 home runs in 3 of those starts. His command, which was once considered the best in the Yankee farm system is just not there. After every start Manager Joe Girardi has been asked if there is something wrong with Phil Hughes. The answer goes back to 2010.
Consider that Hughes’ fastball in 2010 averaged, according to Fangraphs, 92.5 MPH. He would go on to throw 3003 pitches during that year, up from the 1456 big league pitches he threw in 2009. His arm and shoulder, as indicated by the decreased velocity and inflammation discovered in his shoulder, obviously were rebelling against the workload. The Yankees and the media attributed Hughes arm troubles in 2011 to him showing up out of shape in Spring Training. This year, those same folks prophesized a return to glory for Phil, and there was renewed excitement heading into 2012. However, 2012 is starting off similarly to how 2011 did except the velocity is back. Against the Orioles on May 1st he reached 95 MPH and yet still surrendered 2 homers and was credited with giving up 4 earned runs in 5.2 innings.
The problem with Hughes isn’t his velocity. Obviously, last year it had something to do with it but it really only compounded the real problem, pitch location. In 2006, Hughes was listed by Baseball America as the Yankees top pitching prospect with the best curveball and best command. You wouldn’t know that from looking at Hughes today. Hughes’ fastball is straight as an arrow and he too often pitches up in the zone. Even the least accomplished Major League hitter can rip a belt high fastball that sits 90-95 MPH out of the park. Against the Orioles on May 1st it was Chris Davis in the first inning and J.J. Hardy who went deep against Hughes.
After the game Hughes said his stuff was the best it had been all year. Velocity-wise it most certainly was. However, Hughes’ pitch location, especially with his fastball, was not his best. Perhaps this was due to increased velocity which he is not used to pitching with and that led him to leave pitches up in the zone. In pitching, moving your arm slot or release point by a fraction of an inch to compensate for decreased or increased velocity can lead to the ball not going where you desire it to go. Pitching is about repetitive motion and once things get out of whack it can take a while for it to come back, or it may never return.
If Hughes wants to remain in the Yankee rotation he is going to have to learn to keep his pitches down in the zone. Hughes, even when he was at his best was a fly ball pitcher, getting only a 34.9% groundball ratio. This year it is down to 30.9% and his home run to fly ball ratio is 17.9%, up from his career line of 9.3%. It is evident he is getting tattooed when he leaves his pitches up in the zone.
If Hughes can keep his pitches down and put a little movement on his fastball so that it doesn’t stay flat as it passes the zone he will improve. If he doesn’t he will be nothing more than a batting practice pitcher who throws occasional breaking balls. Time is running out for Hughes with Andy Pettitte slated to join the Yankees in mid-May and David Phelps now getting his shot at starting after beginning the year raising eyebrows in the bullpen. Now, there is also D.J. Mitchell hovering in the background as he made his Major League debut on May 1st out of the bullpen after a good start in AAA.
The talent is still there with Hughes. It never really left. Hughes has been slow to adjust and has been getting hit around as a result. Perhaps his best fit is indeed out of the bullpen where he can get by on one or two pitches on any given night. Perhaps he really is the pitcher who had such a bright future as recently as 2011 Spring Training. Only time will tell. Unfortunately for Hughes, time is running out.