It seems like a long time ago, but Phil Hughes was once Baseball America’s fourth best prospect in 2004 and deemed the Yankees’ future ace. Since then, it’s been a bumpy ride with plenty of ups and downs.
In 2007, he burst onto the scene flirting with a no-hitter in Texas, before coming out due to injury. 2008 and much of 2009 were lost causes for Hughes, as he struggled to return from the hamstring injury he suffered in the aforementioned start in Texas. A transition to the bullpen in the middle of 2009 turned out to be a blessing: he became one of the more dominant relievers during the club’s championship run. He continued the positives in 2010 back in the rotation, earning a trip to the all star team. Unfortunately, 2011 was disastrous for Hughes, when he posted a 5.79 ERA and a 4.80 SIERA, and it was once again legitimate to wonder if Hughes could be a successful starter long term. Plus, his finish in 2010 provided added reason for doubt (4.90 ERA vs. 3.65 first half ERA).
These struggles carried over to the first month of 2012. Hughes was battered, allowing 5 homers and 14 earned runs in 16 innings pitched. The pressure was on with Andy Pettitte on the way back, and Phil’s struggles could have easily made him the odd man out. Hughes picked a good time to turn it around: since turning the calendar in May, he’s posted a 3.40 ERA in 111 innings.
It seems pretty clear that Hughes turned his season around and is back on track to being in the Yankees’ long term plans. But, how much of April can be attributed to bad luck? According to SIERA, Hughes has improved since April, but not as much as it appears. In reality, Hughes experienced a great deal of bad luck in April, which can happen when dealing with a sample size of 16 innings.
During April, batters against Phil had a .373 BABIP, despite the fact that his line drive rate was below his career rate (18.2% vs. 19.6%). Since then, the law of averages has taken effect. His BABIP from May through his most recent start is .266 with a 19% line drive rate. From this, we can determine that Hughes has experienced a slight bit of luck, but deservedly so considering what occurred in April.
Despite the better run of luck Hughes has experienced, he has also pitched better. See the comparison chart below:
As you can see, Hughes’ wOBA was inflated in April much in thanks to an absurd (and sample size) 2.81 HR/9. As should have been expected, his home runs came down (albeit still high). His batted ball types stayed pretty steady, and he certainly was a benefactor of luck with a .266 BABIP, especially considering LD% increased a tad.
At first glance, the three ERA indicators make it seem that Hughes still hasn’t pitched all that well and is due for a regression. His FIP and xFIP still have been above 4 since May, with SIERA just below 4. FIP, however, is flawed in the fact that it does not account for ballpark dimension differences, which is problematic for Hughes in home run prone Yankee Stadium. Hughes may be an extreme fly ball pitcher, but in a more neutral ballpark, his HR/9 would likely be closer to league averages. xFIP accounts for this by adjusting home runs by multiplying a pitcher’s fly ball rate by the league average HR/FB. The ultimate problem with FIP and xFIP is the fact that it completely disregards balls in the field of play.
Here’s where SIERA comes into play as the most accurate of the three. SIERA solely looks at strikeouts, walks, and ground ball/fly ball differences, all the while placing the pitcher on a level playing field with the entire league. SIERA prefers high strikeout, low walk pitchers (Hughes is in pretty good shape here), but values ground ball pitchers (Hurts Hughes here).
Ultimately, it’s not easy to get a good gauge on how he’s really pitched considering the fact that he’s an extreme fly ball pitcher (49% FB vs league average 34%). FIP penalizes him for this, with xFIP at a lesser extent. SIERA is not concerned with home runs in the way the prior two are, but because it values ground balls to a great extent, Hughes his harshly penalized. Of the three though, it’s pretty evident that SIERA has been the most accurate for Phil. SIERA’s advantage over the other two is that it tries to measure the pitcher based on skill (hence the name Skill Interactive ERA). His skills haven’t suddenly gotten better since April, and SIERA sees this with only slight improvement over the course of the season. Perhaps SIERA overvalues ground balls to the extent that it will hinder any fly ball pitcher like Hughes no matter how well they pitch, but there’s no doubt it has consistently shown that Hughes’ has had the ability to be effective this year.
Now, let’s take a look at Hughes’ situational pitching on the season. Hughes has really beared down this year with men on base, with a low .316 wOBA against. He’s even better with runners in scoring position: .252 wOBA. Most importantly, of his 25 home runs allowed this year, just 6 of them have come with men on base. Has Hughes’ been lucky with men on base? Probably, but not as much as one might think. xFIP best shows this because as mentioned, it brings home run rate to league average. His xFIP is 4.37 with the bases empty, 4.49 with men on, and 4.28 with RISP, so the variances are not stark. SIERA also shows a very positive trend, going from 3.99 with nobody aboard, 3.87 with men on, and 3.76 with runners in scoring position. There could be a multitude of reasons for this: With the bases empty, a pitcher may be more likely to throw a ball over the heart of the plate behind in the count. Additionally, a pitcher may focus more with runners on. In theory, these two ideas make sense for Phil, but we cannot be entirely sure.
Hughes’ certainly has good enough stuff and control to be a middle of the rotation guy as we’ve seen since May, but if he wants to maintain long term consistency, he may need to find a ground ball pitch. There’s no pitch in his arsenal that he throws hard with any degree of sink. Rather, he only throws straight four-seamer, on which he’s allowed 17 of his 25 dingers this year. In 2010, his other full season as a starter, he allowed 14 home runs on it. Yet, it’s been generally effective for him career-wise (.239 BA, .311 wOBA, 97 wRC+). When he misses location though, it tends to go out of the park.
On the surface, we can most likely point to Hughes’ 180 from April to his overall home run rate decreasing, some better luck, and strong situational pitching. In truth, though, the talent has always been there from day one this season, as SIERA indicates. The key for Hughes will always be to keep the ball in the park. As mentioned, he’s been very successful at basically limiting opponents to solo shots, but over time I expect this to balance out in all situations. Perhaps an equalizing two-seam fastball could be a project in the coming offseason for Hughes. He has tinkered with a cutter before, but dropped it this year rightfully so (career 175 wRC+ against!).
At this stage, Hughes’ will probably never live up to the ace billing he had as a prospect, but he still has the potential to be a solid middle of the rotation starter. He’s flashed that potential this year since May, but he’s going to need to develop consistency if he wants to stay in the Yankees’ long terms plans. With the way he’s pitching now, he certainly has a spot in the rotation in the near future. If he wants to be in the Bronx long term, he may need to add to his repertoire to keep the ball out of the seats.