I’d assume most Yankee fans have similar feelings about Phil Hughes that I do. He’s an inconsistent starter that will never live up to his lofty expectations. He was supposed to be the next Roger Clemens. He was Mark Prior-good, but without the injury prone mechanics. He had a fastball as good as Jake Peavy, a curveball taught to him by Mike Mussina, and a cutter brought to you by Mariano Rivera. In the end, it wasn’t really fair to Hughes that we expected him to be a culmination of all the great pitchers he was compared to. Seven years later, we can now look back on the development of Hughes and start to see what he’s really become, something far from an ace with an elite repertoire, and more of a Frankenstein’s Monster trying to find his place in baseball.
Hughes again had lofty expectations in 2013. After six years of injuries, bouncing between the bullpen and rotation, and just plain inconsistency, Hughes showed some true promise in 2012. Throughout last season, Hughes lost his cutter, dropped his arm angle, added a slider, and promising change up. From the point where these tinkerings began and ended, May 6th to Sept 30th, Hughes posted a 3.83 ERA through 169.2 innings. For a pitcher in Yankee Stadium, that was good enough for him to be an above average middle rotation pitcher. So why wouldn’t we expect the right-hander to continue this into 2013?
Of course, he’s returned to his old inconsistent self in 2013. Six of his eleven starts have been brilliant quality outings, while the other five have been complete duds. With the help of his new slider, he’s increased his K% to a strong 21.6% high, and kept his BB% in check at 5.9%, but his HR/FB is also at a career high of 13.2% and his GB% is at a career low of 30.1%. His fly ball tendency has always been a mark of the right-hander, and his high home run rates can’t be overstated. Unfortunately, he lives and dies by his four-seam fastball, which is both his best and worst pitch. The remarkable amount of movement and spin he achieves allows the pitch to see upwards of a 10% whiff rate, but the movement also generates a ton of fly balls.
In terms of pure movement, his fastball is extraordinary, and that’s why the Yankees have allowed him such a long leash as a starting pitcher. But as he continues to show inconsistency as a starter, this leash can only get shorter. David Phelps, Ivan Nova, Adam Warren, and Vidal Nuno have all made their case for a starting position this year, meanwhile Chien-Ming Wang and Chris Bootcheck‘s success at Triple-A have to be something to consider. When and if Michael Pineda returns, the Yankees could be looking at nearly a dozen possible starting pitchers. There’s a good chance that Hughes is not one of the five best options.
A lot can happen over the next month, but as things look, the Yankees might be best suited to send Hughes to the bullpen. He’s obviously has success there in the past, and the Yankees can always use bullpen help mid-season. Perhaps the movement of his fastball is better suited for short appearances, where teams are less likely get accustomed to the “rising” action that he sports.
Hughes is also approaching free agency this fall, along with Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte. If Hughes continues to struggle as a starter, his stock could tank as the offseason approaches, and it might be more lucrative for him to be viewed on the open market as a successful reliever rather than a risky starter. Of course, with three of the current five starting pitchers heading to free agency, the Yankees also need to start developing their own cost controlled young starters. Giving Phelps, Nova, Warren, and/or Nuno a chance to start over Hughes could be an important aspect of their development and give the organization a better idea of what they have and what they’ll need when going into 2014.
If Hughes continues to perform inconsistently and the rest of the rotation remains somewhat healthy, sending Hughes to the bullpen looks to become a growing storyline over the next month.