Phil Hughes: Object Lesson

Elsa

On the 4th of May, Phil Hughes made his sixth start of this season and threw eight shutout innings against the Athletics. He earned just his first victory of the young season, his ERA falling to 3.60.

Just before Hughes' next start, Sports on Earth published Jorge Arangure Jr.'s piece about Phil Hughes' slider. It's a fine piece, well-written and -reported. Hughes has always thrown just the occasional slider, but this season decided to essentially junk his cutter and instead go with a refined slider. And yes, it seemed to be working for him.

Hughes had good reason to abandon the cutter. It sucked. Last season, according to data from BrooksBaseball.Net, hitters walloped Hughes' cutter for a .474 average and a 1.053 slugging percentage. In 2011 it was equally terrible: .500 average, .679 slugging percentage. The pitch was useless, except as a change-of-pace-pitch, but the only pace it changed was to go from getting outs to not getting outs.

First, Hughes began messing around with different grips for the slider. Eventually, Hughes settled on a grip that he had used in high school. Hughes actually had thrown a slider in high school, but Yankees coaches soon after he was drafted told him to swap the pitch for a curveball. The Yankees believed that as a pitcher who throws over the top, Hughes would better benefit from a pitch, like the curve, that tilted downward. Sure enough, the curve became an important pitch in Hughes' development.

But the slider might become an even more important pitch for him. Since adopting the slider, Hughes has become a vastly different pitcher. He is finally living up to the potential placed on him, and he's setting himself up for a possible big pay at the end of the season when he becomes a free agent.

The slider is now arguably Hughes' best pitch...

--snip--

Again, the slider has made all the difference. This season Hughes has upped his slider usage to 21 percent. Batters swing and miss at Hughes' slider 32 percent of the time and have hit just .111 with a .222 slugging percentage.

The slider has made all the difference.

Perhaps it has. But it's funny, isn't it, how quickly things can change in May? Mere hours after Arangure's piece was published, Hughes got hammered by the Royals. Five days later, Hughes got hammered by the Mariners. One moment he was 1-2 with a 3.60 ERA, and the next he was 1-4 with a 5.88 ERA. And suddenly his slider doesn't seem like such a fantastic pitch.

The slider has made all the difference.

Perhaps it has. But you know, it's really difficult for a pitcher to fundamentally change what he does, at least in terms of the statistical results. Maybe Hughes does look like a different pitcher at the end of the season, statistically speaking. But right now? Last season he struck out 3.6 times more batters than he walked (which is excellent). This season he's struck out 3.4 times more batters than he's walked (which is excellent). Last season he gave up 35 home runs in 191 innings (which is lousy). This season he's given up 8 home runs in 41 innings (which is lousy).

The slider has made all the difference.

Perhaps it has. Hughes has thrown almost exactly the same percentage of fastballs this season as last season, but he's thrown a ton more sliders while eliminating the cutter and throwing many fewer curveballs and change-ups. In one sense, he's become a different pitcher, but in the other sense he's exactly the same.

Yes, the ERA's actually much worse this season. But that's a statistical fluke. Last year his xFIP was 4.35, and this year it's 4.30; he's simply been victimized by a ridiculously high (.354) batting average on balls in play and (I suspect) poor relief support.

The slider has made all the difference.

Assuming that Phil Hughes is healthy, he's probably going to remain the pitcher that he's been. Yes, his ERA will continue to be subject to the vagaries of Fate. But as long as Hughes is pitching for the Yankees, he should continue to give up "too many" home runs while otherwise controlling the strike zone. Hughes, a right-handed fly-ball pitcher, is distinctly unsuited to pitching in the new Yankee Stadium; in his career, he's given up 65 homers at home, and just 31 on the road. That doesn't mean the Yankees should dump him; it means he would look like a somewhat better pitcher if he pitched for almost any other team.

It's possible that I'm wrong. It's possible these last two games were just a momentary hesitation on Hughes' path to a new, better, slider-fueled sort of career. But history suggests otherwise.

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