Despite What He Says, Hughes Wasn’t Overthrowing the Fastball

“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.

Phil Hughes' Four-Seam Break

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.

10 thoughts on “Despite What He Says, Hughes Wasn’t Overthrowing the Fastball

  1. James

    where do you get this data and who pays you to analyze it? It’s pretty impressive, if the input is accurate…

    • The data I used here is from texasleaguers.com. Occasionally I’ll use brooksbaseball.net, and also my own databse which is downloaded straight from MLB Gameday’s website.

      This data comes from sportvision cameras which were created for the Gameday application. The numbers are incredibly accurate except for rare calibration errors and Gameday’s pitch identification algorithm. In the case of the fastball, the pitch identification problems didn’t come into play, and with such close numbers, the calibration was spot-on.

  2. Rudy

    MY ONLY COMMENT IS CONCERNING THE LACK OF THE PITCHING COACH TO BE ON THE ALERT. MOST OF THE TIMES, PITCHERS GO BESERK ON THEIR PITCHING AND THERE IS NOT A SINGLE TRIP TO THE MOUND TO SEE WHAT IS HAPPENING. I’VE SEEN THIS HAPPEN MANY TIMES, BUT MANAGEMENT DOES NOT SEEM TO PAY TOO MUCH ATTENTON TO THIS. PITCHING COACHES ARE THERE TO DO A CERTAIN JOB, AND THIS PERSON IS NOT DOING IT. I WOULD LIKE TO INDICATE THAT I’M NOT MAKING EXCUSES F0OR THE YANKEE PITCHING STAFF.

  3. Now Batting

    I love this data and analysis. However, I think you’re underestimating a fifth of an inch. That could certainly be the difference between a liner and a grounder.

    • Somewhat, the 1/5th of an inch over a long period of time might show something more significant, but remember that there are calibration differences from stadium to stadium. More so, the spin and RPM would play into effect, since the degree and rotation appears to create groundballs as opposed to the location. I think it was this article by Joe Sheehan that illustrated the importance of the ball spin on the sinker in relation to the groundball outcome, rather than it’s downward location. Since Hughes’ four-seam maintained 204 degrees throughout the latest game, and the RPM is quite similar, I don’t think the actual pitch movement had much to do with the outcome.

  4. Comnsnse

    Hughes at this stage of his career is still a thrower. Given his average MLB fastball and with barely paasable secondary pitches,he has to have excellent control and work corners. To date in his career he’s been unable to maintain control consistency.His no movement fastball is too often where major leaguers can hammer it. The Yankees would be wise to explore putting him a trade before his value completely diminishes. Another “Prince of Potential”!

    • John Hancock

      I don’t get as analytical as you did in this post, but for several years now, I’ve been saying that this guy (Hughes) has been in the majors long enough to be able to figure out how to win – not even taking into consideration the fact that he was such a high draft pick. How many pitchers have come up AFTER Hughes and have had more success with less stuff?

      Hughes sounds so intelligent when he speaks; he’s a very good interview, however, there is something missing, pitching intelligence, drive, focus, or perhaps his injuries have just sapped his ability, but after being in the majors for six years, he should be a much better pitcher than he is now. I’m one of the few people who think he did not have a great year in 2010 – he had a very good half year (he was not good in the second half of that season).

      He needs to step up his game this year or they need to replace him.

  5. At this stage of Hughe’s career, its all about putting the right pitch in the right place at the right time. Velocity is only as good as the late movement across the plate it brings with it. Case in point – Kyle Farnsworth with his 100mph fastball that rises directly over the middle of the plate with little or NO late movement.
    Breaking pitches need to be a few inches 12 to 6, 9 to 3 or 3 to 9 depending on whether its a RHP or a lefty over the plate.
    After about three seasons, one would hope that the stamina, determination and ability to read not only the catcher’s approach to getting hitters out, but making adjustments from the second time through a batting order come into play.
    Hughes is still learning all of this.

    • Agreed. It appears the time in the bullpen only helped teach Hughes how to pitch as a reliever. Out of the rotation, there is a different technique to pitching. Hughes still has a great arm, but he just can’t seem to mix pitches properly. There would be a different margin for error if he had confidence in more than 2 pitches, but thats why he’s developing the changeup. I’d prefer if he evolved his cutter back into a slider, but learning how to use his pitches as a starter is where success begins. The talent is still there, but the mentality was never properly developed.

  6. As we discussed in our e-mail chain, thanks for this piece. I’ve had my doubts on Girardi’s post game explanations for his bad outings, though to be fair both he and Rothschild have also been saying Hughes needs to mix things up more. Seeing Hughes quoted saying that he needs to change speeds is encouraging, but I’ll believe it when I see it. His stubbornness to date has led me to give up on him.

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