Phil Hughes: From Power to Finesse?

Phil Hughes broke into the majors as a highly touted 21 year old in 2007, making 13 respectable starts for the playoff bound Yankee.  Sadly, the road to front of the rotation ace has been rocky, and over the past 5 seasons Hughes performance has been anything but ace like.  Hughes was strong in the bullpen in 2009, decent as a starter in 2010, injured in 2011 and . . . well, odd in 2012.

Why odd?  Perhaps just plain below average is a better way to describe 2012 – for the first time in his career Hughes pitched a full season (191 IP), but managed to put up a 4.23 ERA nearly identical to his 4.35 xFIP.  7.76 K/9 and 2.16 BB/9 are solid numbers for most starters, but when you combine those with 35 HRs allowed (2nd highest total in MLB) the result is a slightly below average major league starter.

Phil Hughes splits, however, tell a different story.  In 2012, Hughes faced almost an identical number of LH and RH hitters.  His splits are listed below:

IP AVG OBP SLG wOBA
vLH 104.2 0.210 0.270 0.340 0.270
vRH 86.2 0.306 0.342 0.586 0.394

To add some context, here is the list of leaders against lefties in 2012.  Against Justin Verlander, lefties hit 212/264/344, and they hit 248/299/344 against Felix Hernandez.  In other words, Hughes is a Cy Young candidate against lefties.

So, if Phil Hughes is the among the best pitchers in baseball against left handed batters, how do his numbers break out against right handers?  Well, it takes little in the way of insightful analysis to summarize Hughes against RH – by wOBA, he was the worst pitcher in baseball.

Despite the atrocious showing against right handers, there may be some cause for optimism.  Hughes’ pitch selection in 2012 evidences a concerted effort to throw his developing changeup twice as often as in previous years, up to a total of about 10%.  The success is unmistakable – thrown 319 times, major league hitters produced a 218/265/321 line against the change.  Looking across Hughes pitches:

AVG
OBP
SLG
FB
258
308
470
CU
271
305
451
FC
476
522
1048
CH
218
265
321

Before we ban Hughes from ever throwing his cutter again, it should be remembered that that pitch was thrown only about 2% of the time (though I certainly would throw it less frequently).  But it would appear Hughes’s numbers on the changeup are a strong indicator of a pitcher that broke into the majors as a power pitcher, but now is learning the art of pitching.  The movement down and away for a right handers change explains at least some of the success against lefties;  if Hughes can continue to develop his off-speed pitch and supplement it with more consistency on the fastball/curve combo against right handers we may see the solid SP he was projected to be, albeit with a different pitch mix.

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About Bill Porter

Bill is an aspiring sportswriter (attorney by day) born in Washington DC, raised in New York, and currently living in San Francisco with his wife Kirsten and two spazzy labs, Fletch and Bear. Follow me on Twitter at @wfporter1972
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