In 2007, Baseball America ranked Phil Hughes the 4th best prospect in all of baseball. He was supposed to be the Yankees’ ace for years to come and one of the top pitchers in all of baseball. He hasn’t come close to fulfilling that potential, but he’s become a solid middle-to-back of the rotation starter. The Yankees would certainly take a repeat of 2012: 4.23 ERA and a 3.95 SIERA. But, could 2013 be the year Phil Hughes takes a step forward? A few indicators lead me to believe so.
At the end of 2012, Hughes’ tinkered with his arsenal to include a slider. Back when he was first drafted, the slider was his big strikeout pitch. However, the organization had Phil defer to the curveball, which Baseball America called the best in the system in 2006. Unfortunately, it’s pretty evident to us now that Hughes’ curveball is a bit too loopy and pretty easy to make contact against (95.2% Zone Contact in 2012).
The fact of the matter is, Hughes didn’t really have a put away pitch in 2012. League average outside of the strike zone contact in 2012 was 66.7%; Hughes’ mark was 72.2%. Overall contact rate for the league was 79.7%; Hughes finished at 82.7%. The good news is that Hughes combatted this flaw when he reincorporated the slider in his final start in August. It became his primary secondary pitch in the final month of the season, being thrown 24% of the time – and it was pretty darn effective.Per Brooks Baseball, we are dealing with 165 sliders from his last August start through the postseason. Despite the sample size, the numbers are impressive: 36% of swings were misses, 15% percent better than his curveball, his previously best swing-and-miss pitch (thrown 590 times).
You might point to Hughes’ 5.19 September ERA to counter the idea that Hughes’ slider will make him a better pitcher going forward. I couldn’t disagree more: Phil was a victim of bad luck. FIP and xFIP recognized that a high BABIP and low strand rate had bloated his ERA, and instead pegged him at 3.82 and 3.76 respectively. Furthermore, Hughes struck out more than a batter per inning in September and maintained great control. Again, I understand the sample size caveat, but I don’t think it’s any coincidence his peripherals improved with the slider in tow.
It’s not just the reintroduction of the slider that has me believing in Phil. His impending free agency could lead to better pitching in 2013. Players perform better in contract years, as evidenced in Baseball Between the Numbers. The average performance uptick isn’t huge, but could be worth around .5 WAR.
Most projection systems attempt to temper my enthusiasm. ZiPS is most pessimistic, projecting a 4.73 ERA, 12 % worse than league average. Steamer foresees a 4.29 ERA, the Fans peg Hughes at 4.13, while Oliver is a bit more optimistic at 3.97. Most optimistic is Bill James (which he’s notorious for), who labels Hughes as a 3.76 ERA pitcher. For once, I find James may actually be most accurate.
All told, I think Hughes is poised for a very good 2013. I like Hughes’ ERA to fall between 3.50 and 3.75, which would easily be a career best as a starter. Additionally, we could see his strikeouts enter the 8 per 9 range, also a high other than 2009 when he primarily was a reliever. The home runs will always be a bugaboo because of his straight fastball, but increased whiffs from the slider will make it more difficult for batters to work the count until the heater comes. In terms of value, I don’t think 3 WAR is out of the question.
Sure, it’s risky to base my argument on sample sizes and it being his contract year. Plus, just about all projections think Hughes’ is basically poised to repeat 2012. I’m throwing out what the consensus says, and making my bold prediction: Hughes will be a formidable piece of the Yankees’ rotation in 2013.
Photo by Keith Allison [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons