Pinpointing Hughes' Timing Problems

Phil Hughes has a handful of brilliant starts, and a handful of abysmal ones. His last shot against the Mariners was an embarrassing dud where he lasted just 0.2 innings and gave up 7 earned runs. According to Chad Jennings of LoHud, the starter looked at video this week and came to the conclusion that he was "getting on the side of the ball", a bad habit he has when he overthrows. I wondered if we could see any difference between his mechanics from his last start and one of his gems from earlier in the year. Below is a side-by-side comparison of his four-seam fastball.

hughesback

Both pitches are set up in the same relative location, but the pitch from May 15th clearly rises a bit more, perhaps due to "overthrowing". Personally, from rewatching his start a few times, Hughes' timing seemed to be the key issue. His curveballs and fastball all seemed to be missing their locations, and most of the time his hip and shoulder rotation were out of sync. Perhaps this is what he's talking about when he says he was getting on the side of the ball.

hughesghost

Above is another comparison, but with his May 15th start layered above his May 4th start. You can better see how his four-seam fastball is left higher in the zone against the Mariners. Mechanics-wise, it's hard to see much of a timing difference with the lack of frames per second, but it does appear that his shoulder rotation is just one frame faster during the May 15th start, while his hip rotation remains the same.

“Larry said it reminded him of last year when I threw in Anaheim (5.1 innings, 7 earned),” Hughes said. “Sometimes you just get too much adrenaline going and tend to overthrow the baseball. For me, when I do that, I get on the side and rush out a little bit. It’s something I need to recognize when I’m doing that and try to do a better job of handling my emotions, especially in the first inning, which is tough sometimes. I think that’s when you’re amped up the most. Once I get rolling a little bit, it becomes easier.”

Sounds to me like the over-rotation of his shoulder is the culprit here. In Hughes' most recent starts, he's used three different deliveries, from the wind up (with no one on), from the stretch (with a runner on first), and a quick wind up/stretch (with multiple runners on base). These three deliveries allow him to pitch the most effectively without allowing base runners to steal on him, but switching between all these deliveries can lead to timing issues.

Yu Darvish has dealt with similar timing problems, but he found an easy way to fix all this by incorporating what many scouts believe is the future of pitching mechanics. Darvish has largely dropped his windup, and is almost exclusively pitching from the stretch. Though the stretch will arguably provide weaker mechanics, the switch has helped Darvish with timing and momentum. Simply put, repeating the same delivery for 100+ pitches is much easier than switching between three different deliveries throughout a start.

Perhaps the disadvantages of dropping the windup are holding Hughes back, but when Doug Thorburn of Baseball Prospectus took a look at the windups of modern day baseball players in comparison to pitchers of previous generations, he had a tough time finding what sort of advantages today's windups provide. If anything, Thorburn concludes, today's windups are at a mechanical disadvantage because of their lack of momentum and exaggerated timing differences between a necessary stretch move.

He claims to be working on staying behind in his bullpen sessions, but the problem might be greater than just him, it could be a fundamental flaw in the modern game's outlook on pitching mechanics. So keep an eye on Hughes tonight, as we could start to see him pitching more from the stretch.