As Brad mentioned this morning, the Yankees have decided to pull Phil Hughes from the rotation in favor of David Huff. Huff, who spent most of the season at Triple-A Scranton, is a big mystery as a starter. His career numbers look troublesome, but as so many fans have agreed, it’s hard to be much of a downgrade over an inconsistent Hughes.
The left-hander looked good enough in Scranton, and has performed extremely well in his recent 15.0 innings with the Yankees, giving up just 1 earned run, 6 hits, and earning 10 strike outs during that time. But Huff didn’t even start the year with the Yankees. The former first-round pick was a failed prospect with the Indians earlier in the year, and something about the starter caught the attention of the Yankees in May.
As I’ve seen in a number of articles today, Huff doesn’t have the best career numbers, owning a 5.18 ERA in 304.1 major league innings. But the Yankees saw something in May, and I believe it has to do with his 2011-2012 performance. Between those two years, Huff pitched 77.1 major league innings with a 3.84 ERA, showing solid control and improved strike out numbers. Compared to his first two major league seasons, where he owned a 5.84 ERA, something might have clicked for the young southpaw.
Indeed, between 2010 and 2011 Huff made a major change on the mound. The lefty moved closer to the center pitching rubber by around 2 feet. Moving his release point closer to right-handed hitters has correlated with a decrease in their production. After holding a .349 wOBA in 2009 and a .380 wOBA in 2010, he lowered that number to .321 and .311 in 2011 and 2012. Thus far, Huff has held righties to a .291 wOBA in 2013, but he’s also had an opportunity to pitch against a number of left-handed batters who now own a wOBA of just .230 compared to his career .380 rate.
Huff has seemingly improved again in the Yankees’ minor league system, by increasing his whiff rates and limiting his walks. Though this is a strong indication of progress, Huff still allowed plenty of line drives and fly balls, amounting to a .279/.316/.445 slash and a .348 BABIP in Triple-A. In his time with the major league team, his line drive rates have plummeted to just 11%, which has limited his BABIP to .135, and his fly ball rate is also at an extreme low. While this is exactly what we want, it doesn’t match what he did in the minor leagues. In his last 15.0 innings with the Yankees, he looks like a completely different pitcher than he did less than a month ago in Scranton.
So there are quite a few factors to think about when judging Huff. The change in release points from 2010 to 2011 should help explain his initial struggles. Though it’s helped him with strikeouts and walks over the last three years, Huff has remained hittable. His recent success with the Yankees looks like an outlier from anything he’s done over his career and no one should expect this to continue. Could he be an upgrade over Hughes? Absolutely, and playing him against a Red Sox team that struggles against lefties should help his cause. Hopefully the Yankees can ride his hot streak over the last month of the season, but keep in mind that despite changes to his mechanics, Huff has remained an extremely hittable fly ball pitcher.