Yankee fan and loyal reader Mike B. mentioned to me that Phil Hughes was off to an impressive start. I agreed and said I wasn’t surprised; he has had the pedigree of an ace since he was drafted in the first round in 2004 out of high school. I am slightly surprised that after being jerked around by the Yankees for the last couple years (much like Joba Chamberlain), he has taken to starting so quickly. He always had been a starter though prior to 2009, so again, it isn’t a huge surprise to me.
I don’t want to spend too much time talking about Hughes’s minor league career, but it was good. He struck out a hitter per inning at every stop and didn’t allow too many walks or any home runs. He started 21 games for the Yankees in 2007 and 2008 and was average. Last year he was Mariano Rivera’s caddy, mowing down hitters in the 8th inning to get to Rivera.
The biggest change for Hughes was that his strikeout rate went way up compared to when he started; his walk and home run rates stayed the same and his BABIP stabilized quickly. Most pitchers are better as relievers than as starters. They don’t have to conserve energy for pitch 90; they just have to get through pitch 15, so usually they throw harder. To be worth two wins as a reliever is pretty impressive, particularly given that he had never done it before.
So far in 2010, he’s given up one home run in 39 innings while striking out 39 and walking 14. His BABIP and his home run per fly ball rates are too low to sustain and will rise as the season goes on; however, I think we’re still looking at a pitcher who finish the season with an ERA between 3.00 and 3.50, so long as he can keep the strikeouts up and the walks down. In 2009, he ditched his slider (easily his worst pitch) and developed a cutter, and no one has figured out how to hit it. It’s the best cutter in the game right now (even ahead of Roy Halladay). He’s getting more swings at pitches that aren’t strikes because he’s now throwing four pitches that he can command (his curveball has always been regarded as a great pitch).
I know a lot of people who have had criticisms of this blog and my way of thinking about baseball think I’m too much about numbers and don’t “watch what’s on the field.” I’m sure if you asked scouts what’s new about Hughes, they might talk about his cutter or his command or his deception; well, sometimes the numbers can spell out what otherwise might not be obvious.