In the second inning of a game between the Kansas City Royals and Minnesota Twins, Phil Hughes walked Alcides Escobar to load the bases with two outs in a seven-pitch at bat. Hughes loading the bases with a walk is something Yankees fans and fantasy owners alike have seen a number of times, but what made that moment so memorable is that is the last time Hughes has walked a batter in 2014.
As Hughes took the mound on Sunday in his former house of horrors in The Bronx, he brought with him a streak of 175 batters faced without issuing a walk with him. He also takes a streak of 110 batters faced without allowing a home run as Nelson Cruz is the only batter to hit a home run off him since that April 20th Royals-Twins game when...Alcides Escobar went yard in the eighth inning.
Through his first three starts of this season, Phil Hughes looked like the Hughes we've all come to loathe and despise on our fantasy rosters. He was 0-1 with a 7.20 ERA and a 1.67 WHIP permitting 25 baserunners in 15 innings against the White Sox, Athletics, and Blue Jays. While two of those three offenses are now the two best in the American League, they were not exactly Murderer's Row earlier this season. The silver lining in those early outings was that Hughes struck out 17 batters while allowing five walks and just two home runs – things that always doomed him in the past.
Since that slow start out of the gate, Hughes is 5-0 with a 1.94 ERA and a 1.04 WHIP, winning five of his seven starts while facing Kansas City, Detroit (twice), Baltimore, Boston, San Diego, and most recently Texas. He has struck out 33 batters while walking just Escobar over 46.1 innings. We have seen glimpses of Hughes's ceiling before, but to date, he's carved nearly two full runs off his 2013 ERA and nearly two walks per nine innings from his historical walk rates without sacrificing anything in the strikeout area. More importantly, he has permitted just four home runs this season after allowing 59 from 2012 to 2013.
Is this just a run of luck for Hughes or has he changed something? Let's run him through a similar process that we've used with other pitchers this season.
Is he throwing with better velocity?
In short, not really. While his velocity is a bit up from 2011, his average fastball velocity is only 0.4 mph higher than it was last season.
Is this a mechanical issue?
This link shows his delivery in 2013 and this one shows it this season. The naked eye would show very little difference in the two deliveries. Hughes seems to have a bit more of a closed delivery this season, but the bigger factor is the slightly higher arm slot that Hughes is using this season that the pitch f/x data backs up.
Hughes' release point is around three inches higher this season than it was last season. Pitchers sacrifice a bit of movement with a higher arm slot, but can locate their pitches better if they are struggling with locating the pitches with run to them. The fact Hughes has a bit of a closed delivery and was pitching from a lower arm slot are two factors that lead to pitchers making mistakes out and over the plate when they don't repeat their mechanics properly.
From RotoWire writer and former big league pitcher Jensen Lewis:
Arm slot is so individual to each pitcher, because you can't "cookie cutter" any guy.
Hughes has done a good job of realizing what worked before and getting back to it. Sometimes, we as pitchers get away from our "normal" slot because it "feels" right and the results are there, but in the long run it isn't right.
[I] really like how he's gotten his movement back on his heater and it's made his off-speed [pitches]so much more effective!
Is this a pitch utilization issue?
Moving from the American League East to the lineups of the American League Central (outside of Detroit) certainly helps – just ask Ubaldo Jimenez if he would like to have them back.
Over the past five seasons, Hughes had a 3.99 ERA and a 1.27 WHIP pitching on the road with an opponents' OPS of .695. When he pitched in Yankee Stadium, those figures jumped to 4.82, 1.34 and .802, respectively. Hughes' statistics were begging for a change of scenery, and Target Field has welcomed him with open arms. He has started six games at home this season and has a 3.72 ERA and a 1.10 WHIP with an opponents' OPS of .628. He has allowed just one home run at home in 36.1 innings.
This is a huge factor in what is happening with Hughes. Early in spring training, Hughes said he was throwing away his slider and going with a cutter this year. True to his word, he did drop the slider as he hasn't thrown one all season. He replaced it with his cutter, a pitch that had previously been on mothballs. He has also quietly scrapped his changeup and is now a three-pitch pitcher with his fastball, the cutter and a curveball.
Does The Change In Location Help?
The change in approach is making his fastball more effective. Over the previous two seasons, batters hit .288/.336/.503 against his fastball, bombing 40 home runs. This season, only two home runs have come off his fastball out of 619 pitches entering play Sunday. He is throwing more strikes with his fastball and batters are putting fewer fastballs in play. Over half of the fastballs that are put into play still become flyballs, but the cozier home ballpark turns nearly all of them into outs rather than extra-base hits as they were in Yankee Stadium.
Hughes won his start on Sunday in Yankee Stadium going eight innings, striking out six, and walking Brian McCann twice to end his walk streak. He did not allow a home run, and one of the two runs scored by New York came on a misplayed ball that Brett Gardner turned into a triple. Hughes threw 100 pitches, 72 for strikes, and earned his sixth win in eight starts and more importantly, exercised the demons in his former haunted house. He now has a 1.99 ERA and a 0.98 WHIP over his last eight starts. While he may not strike out as many batters as he once did, this new version of Hughes is better for fantasy owners as he is not creating the self-inflicted damage that held him back when he pitched for the Yankees.