2010 Season in Review: Phil Hughes

In the history of Yankeeist, only two players have been tagged in more posts: CC Sabathia, with 78, and Alex Rodriguez, with 77. Phil Hughes is third, having been tagged (coincidentally enough) 65 times. Of course, those tallies only account for the posts in which we bothered to affix their names to the labels at the bottom; in reality those three have appeared in many more Yankeeist posts, but the category tallies are a reasonable benchmark.

However, what those tallies don’t account for is that (as many of you already know) I’ve been writing about Phil Hughes for just under three years now, having developed — like pretty much every other Yankee fan who spends way too much time on the Internet — an affinity for the young hurler after first reading about the ridiculous promise he carried way back when the Yankees first drafted him in 2004.

One of my most exciting moments as a Yankee fan was hearing word that Hughes was being tabbed to make his Major League debut back in 2007. Though the game on April 26 was a bit of a rude awakening for young Phil, there were still plenty of things to be excited about, and no one expected the youngster to come up and flat-out dominate right out of the gate. Only, he actually did in his very next start. On the fateful night of May 1, 2007, Hughes tantalized us all with 6 1/3 innings of no-hit ball in Arlington, his bid coming to an end on a pulled hamstring after a pitch to Mark Teixeira. Hughes would miss several months, and got knocked around during his return in August (6.40 ERA, 5.25 FIP) before becoming a critical asset to the Yankees during their stretch run bid for a Wild Card berth in the last month of the season, pitching to a magnificent 2.73 ERA (4.12 FIP) in the final month of the season. Hughes also picked up his first career postseason victory in relieving an ailing Roger Clemens in Game 3 of that year’s ALDS (a game I’ll never forget), and ended the year on about as positive a note as one could hope for the youngest pitcher in Major League Baseball.

We’re all familiar with Hughes’ injury-riddled and disappointing 2008 campaign, and of course his rebirth as a lights-out 8th-inning guy in the 2009 championship campaign. Prior to the 2010 season officially getting underway, Hughes was announced as winner of the last rotation spot in Spring Training and Yankee fans were finally going to get an opportunity to see what Phil Franchise could do during his full season as a starting pitcher.

Here’s how he fared:

As we discussed in both the Positive and Negative Storylines from the 2010 Season posts, Phil’s season had its share of ups and downs, but on the whole has to be considered a success. With a season line of 4.19 ERA/4.25 FIP/4.33 xFIP, Phil was also one of the few starting pitchers in the American League to post a “what you see is what you get” season, as only four other hurlers carried ERAs within +/- 0.10 of their FIPs (Shaun Marcum, Jered Weaver, John Danks and Ricky Romero — not a bad foursome to be grouped in with), ostensibly relegating luck out of the equation.

Phil of course got off to that banner start during the first two months of the season, lowering his ERA to a microscopic league-leading 1.38 after eight shutout innings in Detroit on May 12. Though his season was only six starts old, it was hard not to start to get carried away with visions of a season ERA in perhaps the low-threes. For what it’s worth, the various projection systems pegged Phil for an FIP from anywhere from 3.35 to 3.98, a range which likely would’ve resulted in a season ERA below 4.00 — more than respectable in the toughest division in baseball.

Unfortunately Phil gave up five runs in five innings to the BoSox the very next start, and followed that up with four runs to the Mets in 5 2/3 innings. Though he did finish May strongly, with 7 innings of two-run ball against Cleveland. Despite the unsightly 5.17 ERA in June, Hughes wasn’t actually that bad that month; as his numbers were skewed by two lousy starts — one against Houston (and he was actually one out away from completing six innings of one-run ball in that game before coughing up four straight runs on a Tommy Manzella two-run single and Kevin Cash two-run homer) and one against Seattle, which was one of his worst outings of the year (only 5 2/3 IP, six earned runs). Interesting that Hughes’ struggles that month not only came against two of the worst teams in Major League Baseball, but two of the worst le="font-style: italic;">players in Major League Baseball (Cash’s wOBA was .272; Manzella’s .238).

Even Hughes’ July wasn’t terrible, though his numbers (5.52 ERA; 5.91 FIP) say it was, as his line took a hit primarily due to two bad outings. Phil finally started to show some significant improvement as the season wore on, and had a fine August (4.30 FIP) and a good September, even though again, the numbers don’t quite bear that out. He had two bad starts and two great starts in the final month of the season, and those two stellar outings came as the team was trying its best to lock up its postseason berth, which went a long way toward easing the sting of the sub-par outings. In fact, Hughes was at his best in one of the biggest games of the season, helping to stave off the charging Daisuke Matsuzaka and the Red Sox and finally effectively eliminating Boston from playoff contention.

Phil was able to ride those good feelings into the playoffs, where he was masterful in his first career postseason start against the Twins. Of course, Phil faltered pretty badly in his two ALCS outings, but the entire team spit the bit against Texas so I’m willing to give him a pass.

Phil Hughes showed a ton of promise in his first full season in the starting rotation, and to get to that next level, he’ll have to focus on cutting that home run rate down (1.28 HR/9, sixth-worst in the AL) — though as Joe at RAB pointed out, to Phil’s credit a lot of those bombs came off the bats of the Toronto Extra-Base Hits, a team unlikely to slug an MLB-high .454 again (not to mention a league-high .595 off Hughes); and the ever-important putting hitters away with two strikes.

As I noted in the afore-linked Negative Storylines post, Phil led the league in Foul Ball Percentage, and if he can get that in check, it’ll only help him work even deeper into games by keeping his pitch count down. Given new Yankee pitching coach Larry Rothschild‘s apparent emphasis on missing bats, hopefully he can help Hughes figure out how to be more aggressive and throw two-strike pitches that look good enough to swing at but aren’t close enough for the hitter to catch a piece of.

Ultimately, as a 24-year-old coming off a 176.1-inning season of 102 ERA+ ball in the AL East, Yankee fans have nothing but even better things to look forward to with The Man Who Would be Franchise.