It’s been six long and tedious major league seasons where we’ve had our hopes built up and our hearts torn out by Phil Hughes. Be it injuries, role changes, velocity declines, or just typical growing pains, Hughes has always found a way to disappoint. After 9 years with the Yankees’ system, the right-hander is still figuring out how to become a pitcher.There’s a number of reasons to like Hughes’ chances in 2013, and most of them stem from how he finished his 2012 season.
Hughes started 2012 with a much improved changeup. The pitch helped him against left-handed hitters immediately, but he still posted a 7.48 ERA and a .298/.365/.617 slash against hitters in the first five starts of the season. Hughes stopped throwing his cut fastball to right-handers, and saw immediate improvement. Then in June, the pitcher slightly dropped his arm angle, changing his curveball from 12-6 movement to 11-5. It also put more horizontal movement on his four-seam fastball, which was growing far too home run prone. Right-handers were still hitting Hughes hard, and in August, he decided to start throwing a slider to replace the cutter he dropped in May. In the 27 starts after losing the cutter, Hughes pitched to a 3.82 ERA a 5.5 BB% and a 20 K%.
By the end of August, Hughes had already surpassed double the amount of innings he threw in 2011. The increased workload had an obvious effect on his performance, as his velocity declined quickly throughout games. In September, Hughes struggled to maintain both velocity and control, and Girardi only allowed him to surpass a 100 pitch count once. When given extra rest during the playoffs, Hughes looked as good as he did mid-season, pitching 9.2 innings with 2 runs allowed, 7 hits, and 9 strikeouts.
During the middle of the season, when the pitcher still had his consistent velocity and made the majority of his mechanical and repertoire changes, Hughes pitched to a 3.24 ERA through 105.2 innings between mid-May and mid-August.
The concern as we enter 2013 is whether or not he’ll stay healthy. It was only two years ago that Hughes doubled his workload from 2009 to 2010 and suffered in 2011. Now that he’s doubled his innings from 2011 to 2012, the pitcher needs to show that his velocity is unaffected. Just yesterday, Hughes was pulled from practice with upper back stiffness. With his history of injuries, it would be no surprise for him to suffer yet another setback in Spring Training.
If Hughes doesn’t suffer another injury like early 2011, expect for him to improve in 2013. His new four-seam, slider, curveball, changeup repertoire looked stunning at times last season. The pitcher’s high spin rate was the reason he was so successful early in his career, and he still brings that to his new set of pitches. It’s been said nearly every year since 2007, but this time the successful mechanical changes and the new pitches he needs to throw already exist, and that 100+ inning mid-season success looks like a good indication of what he’s capable of. I believe that the 26 year old has finally figured out an effective game plan, and if everything aligns the right way health-wise, I believe that Hughes will see vast improvements in his overall numbers in 2013.