“When you get in those jams you just want to go harder and harder and harder and speed things up, and that’s never the right way to go,” Hughes said. “You know that, but when you’re out there in the moment, it’s tough to kind of slow yourself down and throw some breaking balls for strikes and changeups for strikes and things like that. There were probably a few opportunities when I could have really slowed myself down in that first inning, but instead, I was trying to squeeze the leather off the ball and throw a fastball. That’s not a good way to go.”
Did Phil Hughes just say he needs to focus on mixing speed? That’s something I’ve said for over a month now. Watching the first inning of his last start on Monday, it was pretty hard not to notice how often he threw the four-seam, as if he’d forgotten how to mix pitches after a month of success behind the changeup and curveball. But before Hughes admitted that his selection was flawed in his 4 run first inning, he blamed himself for overthrowing the fastball, which would apparently tail into the strikezone. While the command was certainly questionable, I decided to look at how the fastball movement differed from Monday night’s start to the rest of May.
Above is the trajectory of Hughes four-seam fastball for May, the red being the break for his 5 starts from May 1st to May 22nd where he posted a 3.45 ERA, and the black is his start from May 28th where he gave up 11 hits and 7 earned runs. The top image shows the horizontal break from a bird’s eye view, starting from the pitcher’s mound on the right to homeplate on the left. Although Hughes believed that fastball was overthrown and breaking back onto the plate, the trajectory looks nearly identical. In terms of horizontal movement, both pitches have extremely similar total movement as well, both averaging 4.7 inches into right handed hitters as compared to a no-spin pitch.
As for vertical break, the bottom image shows the pitch from the third or first base side. There is actually a bigger difference in rise rather than tailing action, where the four-seam dropped a couple additional inches in the last 35 feet in his last start. While it’s a visible deviation, the movement accounted for only 1/5th of an inch sink, such an insignificant drop that makes me think the fastball was exactly the same.
In the last test, we can look at the average spin angle and spin rate to see if, despite the similar results on the fastball, he threw the pitch any differently. For the fastball in his last start, the spin angle was at 204 degrees, and the spin rate was at 2,264 rotations per minute, but in his previous 5 starts, the four-seam averaged… 204 degrees and 2,321 RPM. So all-in-all the angle showed no signs of deviation, but the spin rate was actually slightly faster in his previous starts. The small loss in spin rate Monday night resulted in a decrease in Magnus force (fights gravity), which is why we see a small loss in vertical rise, but again it wasn’t enough to be significant and isn’t the tailing action Hughes described in his post game interview.
All-in-all it would appear that Hughes wasn’t overthrowing the pitches, but perhaps nerves had more to contribute with a lack of control. As Hughes admitted, a smarter pitcher mixes his stuff to neutralize fastball control trouble, but the lack of offspeed pitches is where I found his strategy most frustrating and the likely culprit for hitter’s jumping on the fastball. Despite the loss, hopefully it teaches him a valuable lesson that will contribute to some better pitching.