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The month of April is a weird month. Players can either come out firing and have the backing of fans through the early-going or they can stumble for the first few weeks and critics come out in droves trying to dissect their every move. (Heck, I even did it to Ichiro in an article last week.) So here we are in the last three days of April with May staring us in the face. I’m betting one person who is delighted to see the next month is one Phil Hughes.
Through his first five starts he’s only pitched in 27 innings. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s fewer than six innings per start. Like his rotation cohort, Ivan Nova, he has taxed the bullpen hard so far. The book on Hughes the last two years is that he has trouble putting away hitters away in two strike counts. He either nibbles on the fringes of the zone or batters foul off countless pitches, both of which drive his pitch count up tremendously. In those 27 innings though, Hughes has pitched to a 4.67 ERA (3.73 xFIP). That last number, in short, means he’s pitched better than his ERA indicates.
A couple of his peripherals look good despite not pitching deep into games. For instance, his K/9 (8.33) is up over last year’s numbers (7.76) so far. Further, his BB/9 is down (1.67 in 2013 vs. 2.16 in 2012), but his home run rate is still the same (1.67 in 2013 vs. 1.65 in 2012). Hughes will always give up home runs because he’s a flyball pitcher who works up in the zone, that’s just the facts of baseball. One stat that’s a tad out of whack is his BABIP, which currently sits at .369. The normal range for this metric is .280-.320, so that should regress to the mean over time, and presumably bring his ERA down with it.
That said, if there is one thing worth noting with Hughes this season, it’s his propensity to throw strikes and be aggressive in the strike zone. The 26-year-old righty has always been good about throwing first-pitch strikes, but through his first five starts he’s been around the zone quite a bit. For instance, the league average for first pitch strikes this year is 59.9%, however, Hughes comes in at 66.4%. Getting ahead of hitters is Pitching 101, and he’s passed that handily. Meanwhile, he doesn’t stop at strike one, he has continually pounded the zone to the tune of 54.9% (46.5% league average), and that’s only for pitches inside the strike zone, not accounting for pitches swung at outside the zone. However, hitters are swinging at fewer pitches outside the strike zone with Hughes this year (29.5% of his pitches in 2013 vs. 32.6% in 2012). Also, the rate at which hitters are swinging and missing has decreased also (7.6% vs. 8.7%). Though, the telling stat his how often he’s pumping in strikes, and that number has taken a significant jump from 48.3% in 2012 to 54.9% in 2013 (remember those numbers come from pitches that land in the strike zone)
The difference this year is his usage of his “baby slider”. The flat cutter he threw for the better part of two seasons has given way to the baby slider The pitch itself equates to a little more vertical and horizontal movement at the cost of some velocity. To lefties he threw that cutter/slider in 2012 only 4% of the time when he was ahead in the count and 7% when he had two strikes on the hitter (with 2% and 3% to righties, respectfully). For a pitch that’s specifically made to get lefties out, he had little faith in it stemming from how poor of a pitch it was.
Fast forward to 2013 and his baby slider is doing wonders for him. Overall, he’s using that slider 17% overall to lefties (28% to righties). Breaking it down, when he’s ahead he uses it 30% when he’s ahead (35% to righties) and 45% of the time against lefties (36% to righties) when he has two strikes. Of the 106 times he’s used that pitch this year, batters have swung and missed at 13.2% of them. Last year his cutter and slider combined induced swing and misses at a 19.4% rate, but the difference lies in the called strike percentage (17.9% in 2013 vs. 14.6% in 2012).
If you need some proof how foolish Hughes has made some hitters look this season, take a look at this .gif that one of my former colleagues made:
Video courtesy of YES Network and MLB and .gif courtesy of Matt Hunter
This season is it for Hughes. What he does for the Yankees in 2013 will decide whether he stays with the team next year. If yesterday’s game is any indication, then Hughes is slowly coming back from the bulging disk he suffered in Spring Training. His first few starts could be classified as gimmes since he had an abbreviated spring, now he has to prove that he’s worth the free agent contract at the end of the year. If he can give the Yankees 15 wins and a 4.30 ERA going forward, he’ll continue wearing the pinstripes. He’ll never live up to the Roger Clemens comparisons he was unfairly given, but he could still grade out as a very good #3 starter in the Bronx.
** Remember, April stats mean small sample size, which means numbers can change pretty drastically, pretty quickly **
Stats courtesy of FanGraphs and Brooks Baseball
Follow Jimmy Kraft on Twitter @jkra0512