May 15, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Twins starting pitcher Phil Hughes (45) delivers a pitch in the first inning against the Boston Red Sox at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Is Phil Hughes the real deal?


On Thursday afternoon, Minnesota Twins right-handed pitcher Phil Hughes took the mound against the Boston Red Sox in the rubber match of the three-game series. Boston’s bats were scorching having roughed up Minnesota’s pitching the previous two games for 15 runs. They seemed unstoppable, especially David Ortiz who compiled seven hits (4 home runs) the first two games. The underachieving lineup was finally starting to come around after scuffling in the month of April. Boston was a half game behind the Baltimore Orioles and the lousy first month would be meaningless because they would be tied for first place and by all technicality, would control their own fate. However, that aspiration was long ago (Thursday morning) in some far away place (my couch) because entered Phil Hughes.

Coming into the game, Boston’s lineup collectively had hit .395 off Hughes — a number which would impress even Ted Williams. Don’t chalk it up to small sample size woes because the Red Sox’ lineup has seen Hughes on numerous occasions while he pitched with the Bronx Bombers.

Hughes, a career Yankee before this season, had his share of ups and downs in his seven-year tenure with the Evil Empire. He broke out in 2009, when he pitched to the tune of a stunning 3.03 ERA between the rotation and bullpen. Then, the following year the 27-year-old was named an All-Star as he composed a masterful 18-8 record. After those two glory years, he was never quite the same pitcher and spanning from 2011-2013, posted an abysmal 4.86 ERA. That’s why when Hughes’ contract ended following the 2013 season, the Yankees showed no remorse not re-signing him.

Now, to Hughes’ credit, it’s a daunting task for any pitcher having to work in the hitter friendly confines of Yankee Stadium. Cognizant of this and with an extreme urgency to add starting pitching, the Twins locked Hughes up on a three-year, $24 million pact.

Taking his talents to a much more neutral park, it seemed evident he was in for an ameliorated performance. To what extent remained a mystery. So, after baseball fans begrudgingly waited through the rest of the long, cold offseason and the tease of spring training, it was a relieve when the season opened up on March 31st.

Hughes didn’t take the mound until game three and was promptly knocked around surrendering four earned runs in five innings. This unattractive trend would persist for three games — meaning he allowed four earned runs in five innings each start. By month’s end, he had tallied a dismal 5.14 ERA. The same Hughes that made Yankees fans cringe whenever they saw he was the probable pitcher was present. It was a redundant tradition all Yankees fans had grown accustomed to and now Twins fans were, too.

Despite a poor April, he did show signs that a possible turnaround was plausible. In his last two starts that month, he only allowed 4 earned runs in 13 innings. It doesn’t blow you away but certainly is a huge improvement from allowing four runs every five innings as he did his previous three outings. Would this be the beginning of a resurgence to his former All-Star self? Or would it be just a fallacious few outings, setting us up for an even more disappointing May?

Well, in two May starts, Hughes had only enabled opposing hitters to compile a paltry two earned runs and zero walks in 13 and 1/3 innings of work. He entered Thursday’s start with a 3.92 ERA and one of the lowest BB/9 ratios in the majors. It was not like Ubaldo Jimenez last year who preyed on inferior lineups to thrive in the second half of the 2013 season. No, Hughes pitched against two of the most formidable lineups in Major League Baseball in the Baltimore Orioles and Detroit Tigers. Now, he embarked on his third May start against a hot Red Sox lineup.

Hughes began the game swiftly retiring three tough outs (Dustin Pedroia, Xander Bogaerts, and David Ortiz) and proceeded to dominate from there. He located his fastball brilliantly and looked more aplomb than ever on the hill. Hughes was proving you do need overpowering stuff and/or great secondary pitches to thrive. He was prevailing with a low 90s fastball and just went out there and hit his spots.

According to Pitch F/X, his average velocity in 2013, was 92.3 mph. This year, it has dropped to an average of 91.6 mph and the positive results have shown. Though the velocity difference is subtle, it has had a significant impact. He no longer concentrates on trying to overpower the batter and instead, is simply painting the corners. Because of this, he’s accumulated the 5th lowest BB/9 ratios in baseball at 1.14.

When the game against Boston was completed, Hughes ended the contest allowing just one run, five hits, zero walks, and punching out a career-high eight batters in six innings.

It’s been fun watching Hughes go to work the past few outings and that’s great and all, but a huge question still lingers. The question being; can Phil Hughes continue to pitch well in a Minnesota uniform? I asked the Puckett’s Pond’s (Fansided’s Twins site) editor Collin Kottke if he thought Phil Hughes’ prosperity in a Twins uniform will continue.

“Hughes should flourish as a Twin. Just his move out of the Bronx and the bandbox that is Yankee Stadium should help Hughes’ stat-line. Plus, the Twin Cities media circus is nowhere near the New York five-ring media circus that can be pretty distracting.”

An intriguing point he brought up that we’ve yet to delve into, was the substantial difference between media pressure in New York and Minnesota. It’s feasible to think the media pressure in Minnesota, or lack thereof, will have a tangible, constructive effect on his performance. We’re only human and almost everyone fails to keep their composure facing so much scrutiny from media and fans alike. There are few that can but Hughes may not be one of them, and transitioning to a more relaxed environment seems to have helped him.

I then asked Collin what’s been the biggest difference between his first three starts from his last five:

“He’s pitching better. That sound like an obvious answer, but I think that Hughes is just locating his pitches a lot better. I remember listening to his first home start against the Oakland A’s and he was just getting beat up, and I remember thinking how sad it was that this guy wasn’t going to pan out. After a couple bad outings, he’s really turned it around.”

His answer was the same as I. Phil Hughes is just locating his pitches better. His FIP (fielding independent pitching) is much lower than his ERA at 2.95 because of a stupendous BB/9, reasonable K/9, and low HR/9. So, his peripherals are in check and there’s no reason to believe he’ll resurrect the maligned Hughes of old. With a combination of better location, less pressure, superb control, and getting out of Yankees stadium, Phil Hughes should be the real deal.

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