Negative Storylines from the 2011 Season: Phil Hughes takes a giant step backward

(Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

Last winter we did just two comprehensive “Positive Storylines” and “Negative Storylines” posts. In the interest of fleshing the 2011 positives and negatives out a bit further — not to mention we have more days to fill with content this offseason — the Positive and Negative Storyline trends are going to be broken up across multiple posts this year.

Phil Hughes. Almost certainly the Yankee pitcher I’ve spent the most time writing about during my blogging career. I’m not quite sure what to make of you anymore, the player formerly known as The Franchise. Our own Moshe has given up on expecting anything better than Hughes developing into a potential #3 starter at best, and based on what we’ve seen out of Hughes over the years, it’s difficult to disagree with that sentiment.

The Phil Hughes story is old as time by now and everyone knows it, but I’m going to recap it anyway. Drafted by the team in 2004, the power righty rocketed up the prospect charts and through the Yankees’ farm system. After roughly a decade of nonproduction out of the team’s minor league system, an inordinate amount of hopes and dreams were pinned on Hughes by the Yankee faithful, as stories of his 95mph fastball and comparisons — ill-advised or not — to Roger Clemens abounded. Hughes made perhaps the most highly-anticipated Yankee debut in a generation on April 26, 2007, and got lit up by the Blue Jays. During his second start it looked as though everyone’s wildest dreams were coming true, as Hughes no-hit the Rangers for 6 1/3 innings on May 1 before coming up lame with a pulled hamstring. While it sounds hyperbolic, one could make a case that Hughes has never been the same pitcher since.

Though he returned later in 2007 and pitched well (including picking up the Yankees’ only victory in the 2007 postseason), his 2008 was disastrous, as he made six mediocre starts before hitting the DL with a right oblique strain. Hughes didn’t make it back to the Majors until the tail end of the season as the Yanks on their way to missing the playoffs for the first time since 1993.

Hughes began 2009 back in AAA, but was called up at the end of April to replace the historically ineffective Chien-Ming Wang. Hughes pitched reasonably well over the seven starts he was granted save for one disaster against the Orioles. If you subtract that May 9 outing Hughes threw to a 3.45 ERA over 33 innings as a starter before the team decided it needed him to bolster the bullpen. Hughes of course shined in that role and wound up turning in one of the top seasons of any AL reliever for for the remainder of the year, though he was disappointingly ineffective during the Yankees’ World Series run that October.

In 2010, Hughes began the year in the rotation for the second time in the four seasons he’d spent in the Majors, and set the world on fire in the early going, posting a 1.38 ERA through his first six starts. He continued to pitch well until the June 13 game at home against Houston. Hughes had been cruising through the first five innings, allowing just one run, before unraveling with two outs in the 6th against what at the time was the Major’s worst offensive team, giving up four straight runs and getting yanked from the game. While it may be arbitrary, to me this was the turning point of Hughes’ season. It was the game that finally hiked his ERA above 3.00, and he went on to pitch to a 4.99 ERA the rest of the way.

Though it’s commendable that Hughes was finally able to make it through a full season in the rotation in 2010, his lackluster performance after beginning the year in such brilliant fashion left much to be desired. His 2010 postseason was also something of a microcosm of his year, as he shut down the Twins in the ALDS before getting shellacked by the Rangers in two ALCS starts, including the deciding game.

Despite the rough end to the season, many expected Hughes to end up inhabiting the #2 starter role in 2011, though more due to the fact that the rotation depth chart included A.J. Burnett, Ivan Nova, Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon than Hughes’ stuff making him deserving of that rotation slot. Still, there was reason to be optimistic, as the unweighted averages of the preseason projection systems saw Hughes posting a 3.85 ERA along with a 3.96 FIP, both of which were the second-best projections of the Yankee starting rotation by a healthy amount.

Near the end of 2011 Spring Training, we began to hear rumblings of Hughes’ velocity being way down for the entire spring, though I don’t recall being overwhelmingly concerned about it, assuming it to be something that represented Joel Sherman trying to fan the fear flames, or that would right itself once the season began. Unfortunately it turned out Hughes’ velocity issues were very real, to the point of the team yanking him from the rotation after just three starts and ultimately throwing him on the disabled list with a dead arm. After two seasons that represented mostly steps in the right direction, Hughes fell backward with a campaign that was suddenly looking remarkably similar to his lost 2008.

To his credit, Hughes only missed about two-and-a-half months this season instead of more than four in 2008, and after he came back the results were fairly positive, and certainly quite a bit better than his early-season woes. While the 4.55 ERA over 11 second-half starts isn’t the most encouraging sign in the world, he actually pitched pretty well if you take away his two disaster outings against Oakland of all teams, with an ERA of 3.13 over 54 2/3 innings. While baseball doesn’t work that way and we can’t change the fact that he gave up 13 runs to Oakland over seven total innings, it seems somewhat fluky that one of the less-potent offensive clubs in the league was able to tee off on Hughes the way they did.

Though Hughes was considerably more effective following his July return, he still wound up generating more questions than answers; in particular one couldn’t help but wonder what happened to his strikeout rate, which fell below an un-Hughes-ian 6.0 per nine. It seemed as though at least part of Hughes’ second-half act was due to some batted ball luck, given the difficulties one would expect an extreme flyball pitcher like Hughes paired with a low strikeout rate to have. And of course, Hughes’ arguably two biggest bugaboos persisted: his continued maddening inability to dispose of hitters with two strikes, and the lack of an above-average secondary offering.

Prior to 2011, Hughes attacked hitters primarily with a steady diet of fastballs and cutters, throwing the occasional mediocre change or curve. This season Hughes dramatically decreased his cutter deployment in the second-half, reinventing himself as primarily a fastball-curveball pitcher, while tossing in the occasional changeup. I plan to delve deeper into his actual stuff and results a little later this offseason, but this new approach seemed to work reasonably well, and his curveball was noticeably harder and had more bite to it.

Though the improved curve remained a below-average pitch by Whiff% (8.9% against 11.6% MLB average), it was a step up from 2010′s meager 5.8% whiff rate. If Hughes can continue to hone his curve — which at one time was thought of as one of his best pitches — and also regain the fastball command he once had many of us drooling over, he may finally be able to rid himself of the doesn’t-have-a-good-secondary-offering/you-can’t-get-Major-League-hitters-out-without-a-usable-offspeed/breaking-pitch shackles, and perhaps we’ll finally get to see just who exactly the real Phil Hughes is.

8 thoughts on “Negative Storylines from the 2011 Season: Phil Hughes takes a giant step backward

  1. CY

    Hello there, I’ve enjoyed reading your blog, I truly have. Thanks for all the in-depth analysis on Yankees.:-) Just a quick fun thing popped in my head while reading your old post “Positive Storylines” of 2010– Gardy vanished in the postseason but so did everyone not named Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson or Lance Berkman; ironically, Gardy happened to be the one that sparkled in this postseason!

    • Absolutely; it was great to see Brett Gardner with a productive postseason effort.

  2. Betsy

    I’ve posted how I feel about Hughes in the other Phil threads – unfortunately, there’s not much else to say. At this point, I don’t think it’s anything to get upset about. He’s just not that good and since I don’t think he’s going to be on the team past this or next year, it almost doesn’t matter. I would give him half a year to get his act together and if he doesn’t, stick him in the pen.

    • Yes, I did see your comments in Steve’s piece yesterday and I think you’re spot on. I guess part of me wonders whether he ever actually was as good as the hype, or if the hype made him seem way better than he actually was.

    • Michael P.

      Agreed. If Hughes pitches poorly, I would rather see Warren, Noesi, or Phelps give it a go and move Hughes to the pen. This year Hughes has to pitch well in order to have a rotation spot going forward in my mind. I am not expecting a 1 or 2 starter out of him but he needs to pitch like a 3. We have Warren, Phelps, and Noesi to fill the “back end of the rotation with mid rotation upside” role, and they’re younger and cheaper than Hughes.

  3. Betsy

    Larry, I never saw him in the minors…….It’s very possible he was that good, but what works against kids does not work against the best players in the world. You have to project what youngsters are going to do and when you do, it’s a crapshoot. He’s not developed at all since he came up – he’s not really progressed at all, and that’s the worst part. Actually, the worst part is that his work ethic appears to be lacking; the one he’s hurting most with that is himself.

  4. Mike

    “ineffective Chien-Ming Wang” He was 55-26 in pinstripes including back to back 19 win seasons. I think the word is “oft-injured CMW”

    • Hi Mike,

      That wasn’t meant as a knock on Wang at all. If you go back and re-read the full sentence:

      “Hughes began 2009 back in AAA, but was called up at the end of April to replace the historically ineffective Chien-Ming Wang.”

      You’ll see that the time and place I’m referring to is April 2009 — not Wang’s entire Yankee career — and, as you may recall, Wang was indeed historically ineffective that month, necessitating the recall of Hughes.

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