In his four starts of the 2012 season, Phil Hughes‘ best offspeed pitch has been his changeup, yet with 89 two strike counts in his favor, he’s thrown only 3 changeups. It feels like it’s happening more and more, and it’s something we’ve uttered his entire career, but the pitcher gives up too many hits two strikes. Looking at selection and location, there’s no reason to wonder, he’s predictable. Take a look for yourself.
|0-2||62% (13)||19% (4)||14% (3)||5% (1)|
|1-2||70% (23)||15% (5)||12% (4)||3% (1)|
|2-2||69% (24)||20% (3)||9% (7)||3% (1)|
|Total||67% (60)||13% (12)||16% (14)||3% (3)|
Early in the game Wednesday, I found myself impressed with Hughes’ curveball, and after he was hit hard by the Rangers in the third inning, I heard Michael Kay say the pitch looked flat. This had me reaching out to PITCHf/x of course, and sure enough the pitch had a well above average 10 inches of additional downward break and 6 inch movement away from right handed hitters. While this doesn’t necessarily mean it was a good pitch, it certainly disproves the notion that the pitch was flat. For Hughes, the movement horizontally is pretty standard, if not somewhat better than 2010, and the vertical break down has increased quite a bit. Of course, only one curveball was hit hard against the Rangers, a double off Michael Young‘s bat on a pitch left in his hotzone. Control was the main problem here, and that includes two hit-by-pitches as well, but there were also two 2-strike counts where Hughes gave up hits, and that leads us back to his selection.
I’ve been doing a daily PITCHF/x post for a few weeks now, and I rarely if ever see a pitcher progressively throw less offspeed pitches while gaining favor in the count, and of course Phil Hughes breaks the mold here. As you saw in the chart above, Hughes throws his four-seam fastball 62-70% of the time with two strikes and non full-count situations. Not that I want to argue similarities, but when I covered Justin Verlander this afternoon, he threw breaking pitches around 55% of the time, if not more. While Verlander’s secondary pitches are undoubtedly more missable, part of the reason why he earns strikesouts is due to his selection. When hitters fall behind in the count, they’ll usually shorten their swing and try to foul off anything questionable, and our 2011 MVP/Cy Young winner will throw something the hitter hasn’t seen, a strong curveball or a slider. For Hughes, he keeps throwing four-seam fastballs that hitters have seen already, and they promptly foul them off or wait for him to miss his spot. Speaking of fouling off pitches with two strikes, thats the reason he’s building up such high pitch counts early in the game.
It’s hard to watch a pitcher like Hughes struggle. Most of us have watched him progress from the minor leagues to the big leagues, to his almost no hitter, to his brilliance in the pen in 2009, to his 18 win performance in 2010, and now to a vagabound pitcher who has no place in this rotation. What makes this all the worse is that we read the movement is good, we see strikeout numbers (9.6 K/9 in 2012) and the control numbers (3.4 BB/9), but the results are dreadful.
“(Hughes) is guy who has tremendous confidence in his fastball,” Martin said. “For him to be successful, he’s got to locate. A.J. had the same problem every once in a while. He’d get into a hitter’s count — he’s confident in his fastball as well — it’s just when you leave one over the middle of the plate, especially those 3, 4, 5 guys, they’re not going to miss it. They’ve got a tremendous lineup. You’ve got to be able to pitch them tough. You’ve got to be able to pitch them backwards. Even when we tried to pitch them backwards, they were still on it.”
Hughes is confident in his fastball you say? Either Russell Martin is being sarcastic here or entirely missing the point by blaming the fastball over the plate in “hitter’s counts”, when the bigger problem is when they’re thrown in pitcher’s counts. Control issues happen now and then, and clearly there was some issue in Texas, but fixing a player’s selection should be easy, and it’s hard to understand what’s holding them back.