Phil Hughes‘ time with the New York Yankees (2007-2013) was not kind to him. Despite his stellar season in 2009 as the Yankees setup man, he struggled to live up the high expectations that came with being drafted 23rd overall in 2004.
After parts of six big league seasons with the Yankees, Hughes was considered a bust, at least to those in New York. The Twins, however, saw potential and signed him to a three-year, $24 million contract this winter, a year after he went 4-14 with a 5.19 ERA and a 4.50 FIP.
Well, it turns out the Twins may have been on to something.
Hughes has made 11 starts in 2014 and currently owns the 30th-best ERA (3.12), but more importantly the 10th-best FIP (2.59) among starters in Major League Baseball. This is the same Phil Hughes who entered the season with a below average career FIP of 4.31.
When Hughes left New York for Minnesota, he cited the confines of Target Field as a big reason he was optimistic about his future. And while Target Field is considered more of a pitcher friendly ballpark, it isn’t by much. In fact, according to ESPN.com’s MLB Park Factors, Target Field is the 12th-best hitters park in terms of runs in 2014. He has a 3.72 ERA at Target versus a 2.45 ERA on the road in roughly the same amount of innings, so pitching at Target Field isn’t the reason for Hughes’ success.
Hughes is striking out hitters at a lesser rate (7.27 K/9), but is walking a career low (1.04 BB/9). In 69.1 innings, he’s walked only eight and given up four home runs. Only six starters who have pitched at least 60 innings have given up fewer. He has changed the way he’s used to pitching and he’s being rewarded for it.
After completely abandoning his cutter and sinker in 2013, Hughes has brought back both to his arsenal, particularly his cutter. He scrapped the slider and returned to the cutter. He’s thrown 254 cutters this season, a year after not throwing a single one. So how are hitters faring against it?
Opposing hitters are batting only .258 against Hughes’ cutter with an isolated power of .072. He’s given up 25 hits via his cutter, but only five of them have gone for extra bases. Admittedly, and surprisingly, Hughes’ cutter is ineffective against right-handed hitters, but is shut-down dominant versus lefties. Below are two charts, the first one is his cutter against righties and the second is against lefties.
When Hughes throws his cutter with a right-handed hitter at the plate, things usually don’t go well. Luckily for him, the results are completely the opposite when it comes to left-handers. Re-adding his cutter to his plethora of pitches was not only bold considering, he posted a -4.8 wCT (cutter runs above average) in 2011 and a -6.7 wCT in 2012, but it was also pertinent to his domination this season.
Hughes’ fastball has also been a big pitch for him this season. He has a 7.6 wFB after posting a -13.4 wFB in 2013, which is a dramatic improvement from his last three years in New York.
The thing that worries me the most about Hughes is his opponent’s batting average on balls in play is still relatively high at .311 — 16 points higher than his career average. Of the 27 starters who have a higher BABIP than Hughes, only five have a lower FIP. Because of this, we are likely to see some sort of regression from Hughes in the coming months. Sorry Twins fans, but it’s true. It will be extremely difficult sustain his .259 FIP with that BABIP. Usually only a pitcher with a K/9 around 10 can get away with it.
But for now, Hughes is pitching like the ace the Yankees thought he could be when they drafted him in the first round, and New York witnessed his brilliance earlier this week when he tossed eight innings of two-run ball against them.