It wasn’t long ago that Derek Lowe called himself a tinker, but if this is a competition, Tinker of the Year goes to Phil Hughes. First he lost his cutter, then he added an 11-5 curveball, and then he dropped his arm slot. All these changes have amounted to a Phil Hughes who’s given up just 3 earned runs over the last 21.0 innings.
I believe a lot of the recent poor contact is due to the lower arm slot slightly reducing vertical movement in his fastball, in favor of a tremendous increase in horizontal movement. Two weeks ago, I wrote about the fastball, a pitch that was once the most important whiff pitch in his repertoire, but is now showing the horizontal break of a two-seam. In theory, he should gain more groundballs and less strikeouts over time. While this is a brilliant move for a right handed fly ball pitcher in Yankee Stadium, I questioned whether he’d be able to thrive without a true out-pitch.
Back when Hughes was a young prospect in the Yankees’ system, the word was that Hughes had a great fastball/slider combination. It was the organization that encouraged Hughes to throw out the slider for a curveball, which they worried would strain his elbow while he threw with a high arm angle. He would eventually dump the slider, and he still sports that big slow curveball that we see today. He has consistency with location on the pitch, and he can throw hitters off by changing speeds, but it hasn’t proven to be a great strikeout pitch.
To counter his fastball and curveball, Hughes worked hard to develop his changeup this year, which has been an asset against left handed batters. As good as the changeup has been, he’s struggled getting right handers out after losing his cutter in May. Last night, we saw Hughes add a slider to his repertoire for the first time in his major league career. At times Hughes has messed around with the pitch, but against the Blue Jays, he threw the pitch 13 times.
“I was working on a little cutter/slider hybrid deal in the bullpen and I figured this would be a good team to use it against because they have a lot of right-handed bats in that lineup,” Hughes said. “… I was just kind of messing around with it during catch, threw a few at the end of a bullpen one time and it was decent, so I just kind of started to mix it a little more in. In our scouting report meetings before today’s game, (Larry Rothschild) said, ‘Do you feel comfortable going to it if you need to? Not a whole lot obviously, but just something?’ I said, yeah. The first one was a 3-2 to Torrealba that I threw. After that, Russ and I found a few more spots to use it.”
With righties hitting .327/.359/.622 against him this season, the slider figures to be an important out pitch to the same side hitters. He already drew 3 whiffs last night on his 13 pitches. If he throws these pitches with any consistency, and moves away from the fastball heavy approach against righties, I’m very optimistic that we can expect huge improvements in his platoon splits. We’ll see how things progress in his next start, but Hughes now probably has the most complete repertoire of his career. With a curveball, changeup, and slider, he now has a great set of tools against all types of hitters, and still has a killer fastball that’s much less homer-prone. I haven’t been this optimistic about Hughes in a while.
“I’ve relied on my fastball a lot more (lately), and certainly me throwing a few cutter/sliders is not going to alter that,” Hughes said. “I still need to make sure I trust my fastball and throw it aggressively. In every fastball count, I don’t want to have to throw this (hybrid) pitch. I still need to be an aggressive guy that throws a lot of fastballs, but Encarnacion’s worn me out the last few of starts and it was just something to show him. I didn’t get any outs against him with it, but it certainly had a few spots in the game tonight.”