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Why Is Phil Hughes Struggling This Season?

Phil Hughes is having a very disappointing season for the New York Yankees. He was expected to take the next step forward this year after struggling in limited time last year. And while Phil Hughes has been better than he was in 2011, he still hasn’t been very effective. With a 4.94 ERA over 78 1/3 innings, it’s clear something isn’t right for Hughes. His biggest problem is his insanely high home run rate, as he’s given up 19 in less than 80 innings.

Last night against the Atlanta Braves was a perfect example of Phil Hughes struggles – he went 4 1/3 innings, allowing 6 runs on 4 home runs, walking none and striking out 5. That pretty much summed up Hughes season with the Yankees – low walks, high strikeouts, an inability to go deep into the game, and a ton of home runs allowed.

So this really begs the question – what’s wrong with Phil Hughes?

As an extreme flyball pitcher (50% FB rate), Phil Hughes will always be vulnerable to giving up a significant number of home runs. But even this year his 16% home run to fly ball ratio (HR:FB) is the worst of his career. He’s given up nearly twice as many home runs at home, so the easy conclusion is that he’s getting torched by left handed hitters who can take advantage of the right field porch at Yankee Stadium. But Phil Hughes has actually allowed 3 more home runs to right handed hitters, which means that the short porch in right field isn’t completely responsible for Hughes struggles this season. As right handed hitters would be more likely to pull the ball, they would hit it to left field as opposed to the short porch in right. It’s especially troubling for Hughes when you realize that he’s faced more left handed batters then right handed batters this season, and yet he’s given up more home runs to right handed hitters..

The numbers are quite shocking, as left handed hitters have a batting line of 200/269/355 against Hughes while right handed hitters have a 349/377/626 line against Hughes. This is very surprising, as in the past Hughes has been better vs right handed hitters. Clearly, something has changed in how Hughes approaches right handed hitters.

This season Phil Hughes is throwing his fastball a career high 67.1% of the time. His fastball has typically been his best pitch, and while that’s still the case for this season it’s been significantly less effective than it has been in the past. Hughes cut down on his use of the cutter, throwing it only a few times a game and only using it as a “show me” pitch. This was an effective pitch against right handed batters, and now that he’s throwing it less often it could be a reason why right handed batters are so effective against him.

Phil Hughes has changed his usage of his offspeed pitches, and I think that might be another key factor. His curveball and change up have never been very effective, but there is little disputing the fact his curve is better than his change up. Which is why it’s odd that Hughes has gone to his change up more often, at the expense of his curveball. It doesn’t make sense, as his curveball has been a much better pitch this season especially when compared to his change up.

Put it all together, and it’s worth noting that Phil Hughes has cut down on the usage of his cutter and curveball, two pitches that make him more effective against right handed batters. He’s increased the use of his change up, a pitch that should give him an edge against lefties. This could be a reason why Hughes is more effective against lefties, but not nearly as effective against right handed batters.

Additionally, Phil Hughes has cut down on his walk rate significantly. For his career Hughes has walked 3.05 batters per 9 innings, and this year it’s down to 2.3 per 9. It seems like Hughes is trying to cut down on the walks, and the only way to do that is by throwing more pitches in the strike zone when you’re down in the count. This has likely led to Hughes getting hit harder than he has in the past, as instead of walking hitters on 3-0, 3-1 counts he’s now throwing them pitches in the strike zone which are much easier to hit. The result has been batters getting more pitches to hit in favourable hitting counts, leading to more extra base hits against Hughes. In this case, Phil Hughes might be better served pitching around certain batters and giving up a walk instead of trying to avoid a walk and giving up a double or a home run as a result.

The numbers show that it’s not just a theory – Hughes is posting career worst wOBA against this season when he has 2-0 and 3-0 counts, with hitters posting wOBA’s of 454 and 626 against him respectively. He’s trying to be more aggressive to avoid giving up the walks, but it’s costing him by throwing too many hittable pitches resulting in extra base hits.

There may be some talent in Phil Hughes arm, but his approach simply isn’t working this season. He needs to go back to pitching around hitters when he’s behind in the count, throwing more cutters and curveballs, and finishing hitters off when he’s in a favourable pitching count. Until that happens, Phil Hughes will continue to struggle under the spotlight of New York.