The following is a guest post from friend-of-the-blog Jacob Hopkins. You can find him on Twitter at @HopJake.
Watching Phil Hughes throw the last time out was very frustrating. While he racked up five strikeouts, he couldn’t even get through three innings. It seemed that there was no life on the ball and the cutter was just flat. Needless to say the start against the A’s — not to mention his three terrible outings at the beginning of the season — was a far cry from last season, when it felt like must-see-TV every time Phil threw the ball. Seeking to channel my frustration into something productive, I decided to go to Yankees.com to pull up some video from the beginning of last year to see if I could spot anything of note.
I began with video from Hughes’ May 7, 2010, start against Boston. His velocity, command and control were all amazing that night — he had great bite on his curve and seemed to be able to do whatever he wanted with the ball. I sent a link to the video to Moshe, pointing out that it looked to be a completely different Hughes on the mound against Boston compared with the guy who couldn’t get out of the 3rd inning against Oakland. After some back-and-forth, Moshe asked me to explore why I thought Hughes had changed so much 15 months later.
I decided to look at all of the pitchers who have thrown a cutter this year with positive pitch type linear weights, per Fangraphs. My hunch was that the majority of pitchers with successful cutters were throwing the pitch with a similar velocity to their primary fastball.
Of the pitchers in this data set, Roy Halladay throws his cutter the closest to his fastball, with an average fastball velocity of 91.3mph on the four-seamer and an average cutter velocity of 90.8. The average delta between primary fastball and cutter came out to 2.8mph. This year Hughes has a 4.4 mph difference between his average four-seamer and average cutter. Last year the difference was 3.7mph, and while that may not sound like a huge difference, this may partially explain why the cutter was an asset for Hughes last season.
Based on my completely amateur eye, it seems to me that Phil is trying to forcefully gain movement on the pitch and as a result is dragging his arm. A term I’ve heard before regarding this type of arm action is “short-arming” the ball. Because of this he isn’t getting as good of an extension, not only on his cutter but also his fastball, which can lead to a velocity decline. This could also be the reason why his velocity dropped along with the movement flattening out, leading to a straighter pitch.
I also noticed what appears to be a timing issue. From the full wind-up last year it appears that it takes a little over three seconds for Hughes to go from starting his motion to throwing the ball. It looks that he is quicker now to the plate and pauses slightly to get himself into position to throw the ball.
The short-arming of the ball also seems to be leading to less effective movement on the cutter. This season his average h- and v-breaks are 0.65 and 7.09 inches, respectively. Last year it moved horizontally -0.38 on average, and 6.83 vertically. The spin rate and spin angle are also down from last year. Basically last year the cutter was coming in on the hands of righties, and now it appears to be breaking slightly more to the other half of the plate, which may partially explain why righties went from hitting .253/.292/.381 against Hughes last year to .256/.330/.488 this season.
In any event, hopefully Phil can work through his issues and regain some of the velocity on that cutter so that it can return to being an effective complement to his four-seamer. Like many Yankees fans, Hughes was my first prospect crush, and I’d love to see him get return to the form that we were teased with last season and have only seen occasional glimpses of since.