As far as the Yankees are concerned, and most people for that matter, there is only one Phil Hughes. You’d have to think contract details would get kind of messy if there actually was two of him. There's two-way contracts, but they don't work like that. Even still, he’s always seemed to exist as two people in his career. Reliever versus starter, early 2010 starter vs. 2011 starter, and now, 2011 starter versus 2012 starter. We could probably go a step further and say we have seen two Phil Hughes’ this season; early season versus late season. He's Jekyll and Hyde without the murderous lunatic nastiness.
The first two months of the 2012 season looked almost identical to the entirety of 2011. Hughes made it out of the sixth inning only twice in ten starts, posted an ERA of 5.64 and would have likely been ticketed for the bullpen if other rotation failures made his replacement less pressing. There’s always that option with him. There’s that option with just about every pitcher, but it’s an easier option for people to turn to with Hughes. Then in start 11, he faced the Tigers.
Oh boy did Hughes face the Tigers. Not just the Tigers, but the Tigers with Justin Verlander pitching at Comerica. He faced them, shut them down for nine innings and posted the seventh best game of the season by game score. There’s a prevailing belief that Hughes would be a much more effective pitcher in a larger park, but even in a large park, against that lineup, the results were beyond surprising. For the next two months after that start, he finally looked like the pitcher he was hyped up to be. Then in start 11, he faced the Tigers in Comerica again.
This was a whole different version of Phil Hughes. Well, different from what we had seen from him, but the same as what we used to see from him. The version we probably expected to see against a lineup with Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder the first time around. He didn’t make it out of the fifth inning; he got hit hard and could have easily given up more than the four runs he did allow if not for Boone Logan. He was the same in August as he was in June, but we saw him become the pitcher he was in 2011. Something went horribly wrong the second time around. By something I mean his fastball was far less effective.
There’s nothing really complex about why his second turn in Detroit ended as basically the polar opposite of the first. He still did most of the same things in both starts (start one, start two); fastball, fastball up in the zone, another round of fastballs, good lord, throw a changeup sometime. A typical Hughes start. The big difference between the two was the velocity difference on the fastball. It really doesn’t get much simpler than miles per hour on the fastball.
It wasn’t just a ‘left him in too long when he’s dropping off’ thing either. He had it for about six pitches that day, hitting his max of 94.5 in the first and never really coming close again. The baseline in that second start was 92.1 mph, down more than half from the previous start (92.7). Doesn’t seem like much, but given that Hughes threw almost 30 more fastballs in the first start and the effects of a diminished fastball that we’ve seen in past (see: A.J. Burnett), it’s a sizeable gap.
Take what happened in the fourth and fifth innings of that second game:
Phil Hughes threw 59 pitches in those two innings. Of those 59 pitches, one went for a home run (fastball), two for doubles and three for singles, including a 12-pitch at-bat where ten pitches, including the one in play, were fastballs. Now here’s the velocity chart for that game:
That’s Phil Hughes, throwing primarily fastballs up in the zone from pitches 43 to 102 with declining velocity and a low baseline. Against some teams, go for it. A mediocre fastball isn’t the end of the world all the time. Against a team like Detroit that feasts on the fastball, mediocre is bad, in more ways than one. While still not all that great, in the first start, that velocity difference helped double Detroit's whiffs (10) and gave him a little extra leeway to miss. You can miss up, or actually try to pitch there, with 93 a lot easier than with 91.
Now we come to today. Game Three of the ALCS and once again it's Phil Hughes against Justin Verlander in Detroit. We don't know which Phil Hughes we're going to get, but then again, we never know that. Neither start really tells us what to expect, only what to be on the lookout for. He could show up with June velocity and still get knocked around; Hughes and baseball are frustrating like that. Show up with that August velocity though, and the calls for the pen might need to be a lot louder and happen a lot sooner. Just leave Hughes' name out of it; at that point it's a little late.