It's Now or Never For Phil Hughes

A.J. Burnett was just shipped to Pittsburgh. I don't know how Cashman got a team to pay 13 million of his salary- whether it was his manipulative negotiating skills, or if he planted drugs in the Pirate GM's office just before they started negotiating, or if the Pirates are flat out stupid. But it's done. And unless somebody fails a physical (and I apologize, but I can't help but hoping a little bit that this happens), A.J. Burnett will not be reporting to Tampa tomorrow.

But this post is not about AJ, nor is it about those two throw in prospects the Yankees got that will likely never reach the major leagues. I remember that one of their names was Diego, because I like that name. Thats about all I'm going to remember. No, this post is about Phillip Joseph Hughes.

First, a little history review. Phillip was the Yankees first round pick back in the 2004 draft and he did nothing but look absolutely Philthy through the minor leagues. His total minor league stats as a Yankee are as follows...

Phil Hughes Minor Leagues: 32-8, 2.35 ERA, 344 innings pitched, 234 hits, 11 HR, 85 walks, 385 strikeouts

Basic stats obviously (fangraphs for minor leaguers please), but still easy to tell how Philthy he was. Those stats are good for a K/9 of 10, a BB/9 of 2.2, and a HR/9 of 0.3. It's easy to see why people expected Phillip to be an ace. Just for fun, here are a couple minor league comparisons for Phillip.

Player A: 24-9, 2.98 ERA, 296.1 innings pitched, 259 hits, 25 HR, 56 walks, 251 K, 7.6 K/9, 1.7 BB/9, 0.8 HR/9

Player B: 41-35, 3.84 ERA, 638 innings pitched, 628 hits, 54 HR, 209 walks, 417 K, 5.9 K/9, 2.9 BB/9, 0.8 HR/9

Hughes was better in the minors than both these starters in every single pitching category. The only one where he gets beaten is Player A has him beat in BB/9. Thats it.

If you're interested, here's Player A, and here's Player B. Now after the jump to continue history review...

OK, we all know how dominant he was in the minors. But that doesn't matter if it can't be translated. Phil Hughes has had a difficult start to his major league career, there's no doubt about that. People who expected him to be an ace have been very disappointed. Hughes has compiled a 7.2 WAR so far in his young career, but managed only a 0.7 last season as the least productive starting pitcher on the staff.

Hughes' best moments as a Yankee came in 2009 and early 2010. After being in the rotation earlier in 2009, he was sent to and he stabilized a bullpen that was having Jose Veras pitch meaningful innings. He earned the setup role and absolutely excelled. He was throwing hard, throwing strikes and looking very confident. He finished 2009 with a 3.03 ERA, but the K/9 of over 10 and the walk rate in the twos were what was most impressive about that season. He was throwing strikes and putting hitters away.

Then came 2010, his first full season as a starter. The first half and the second half were very different. Whether it was because he ran out of gas or hitters figured him out or he didn't work as hard or whatever it was. But the season numbers were still very solid mid-rotation numbers. He finished with a 4.19 ERA, 4.25 FIP and a 4.13 xFIP. The control stayed where it was from the previous season. The only concerning thing was the dramatic decrease in strikeouts, going from a K/9 of over 10 in 2009 to a K/9 of 7.45 in 2010. And it showed too, especially in the second half where he had difficulty missing bats. But he finished with less than a hit per inning, was dominating in the clinching ALDS game against the Twins and despite failing miserably in the ALCS, had a very solid first season as as starter, compiling a total WAR of 2.5.

Then in 2011, he fell apart. He came into camp out of shape, had no velocity on his fastball, then had to go on the DL for months with a "dead arm" before coming back. This is where he lost the confidence of many Yankee fans. The once "can't miss" prospect had an ERA of 5.79, a BABIP against him of .304, a BAA of .277, an increased walk rate and a severely decreased strikeout rate. An injury in September ended his season as a starer, and he came in relief during his lone playoff appearance in the Tigers clinching Game 5.

Well thats his story. His total major league numbers thus far are as follows...

36-23, 443.2 innings pitched, 7.51 K/9, 3.18 BB/9, 4.46 ERA, and a fWAR of 7.2.

When looking at his numbers and watching him pitch, his biggest problem that he needs to correct to me is clear. He struggles putting hitters way. He gets to two strikes, then he can't put them away and they work long ABs. The longer an AB is, the more likely it is a pitcher makes a mistake and gets hit. The period in the bullpen when he was dominant and then the first half of 2010, he was putting hitters away quickly. He had his best results then. He needs to figure out how to do that again. Whether it's adding a sharper breaking ball or coming up with a new pitch or changing his approach in order to be more deceptive, he can't let hitters constantly foul balls away until they get one to hit. That to me seems to be his biggest problem. And it's correctable.

Everything we've heard says that Hughes has worked ridiculously hard this offseason to get himself in shape. I hope it's true. Now that Burnett is gone that fifth starter spot should undeniably be his. If Freddy Garcia gets it over him I'll be fuming. But this former can't miss prospect isn't a prospect anymore. He's gonna be 26 years old and he's getting ready to enter free agency in a couple years. The ability is still there. You don't pitch 344 innings of dominating ball in the minor leagues by luck or accident. All is not lost for him. He can still turn it around. It wouldn't be the first time a pitcher has turned it around after a difficult start to his career. And since everyone seems to love mystery player comparisons, here's one now. Here are the first 4 years of each of these respective players careers. One is a mystery player, and then there's Hughes. The pitcher I'm comparing him to was always a starter while Hughes spent lots of time out of the bullpen, so that accounts for the small difference in WAR.

Please note: I am NOT trying to compare Hughes to this pitcher to say that he's going to become who this man is. This is merely evidence to point out that pitchers have turned careers around after a difficult start. And I like mystery player comparisons.

Mystery Player:

Season 1: 3-3, 52 innings pitched, 7.57 K/9, 3.44 BB/9, 3.61 ERA, 4.35 FIP, 0.7 WAR

Season 2: 14-8, 179 innings pitched, 8.09 K/9, 4.09 BB/9, 5.43 ERA, 4.97 FIP, 1.5 WAR

Season 3: 18-5, 202 innings pitched, 6.37 K/9, 2.32 BB/9, 3.79 ERA, 3.79 FIP, 4.0 WAR

Season 4: 14-11, 200.2 innings pitched, 5.79 K/9, 2.60 BB/9, 4.40 ERA, 4.73 FIP, 2.4 WAR

Season 5: 5-8, 97.1 innings pitched, 6.10 K/9, 3.33 BB/9, 6.29 ERA, 5.48 FIP, 0.2 WAR

Total WAR: 8.8

Phil Hughes:

2007: 5-3, 72.2 innings pitched, 7.18 K/9, 3.59 BB/9, 4.46 ERA, 4.35 FIP, 1.1 WAR

2008: 0-4, 34 innings pitched, 6.09 K/9, 3.97 BB/9, 6.62 ERA, 4.34 FIP, 0.5 WAR

2009: 8-3, 86 innings pitched, 10.05 K/9, 2.93 BB/9, 3.03 ERA, 3.23 FIP, 2.4 WAR

2010: 18-8, 176 innings pitched, 7.45 K/9, 2.96 BB/9, 4.19 ERA, 4.25 FIP, 2.5 WAR

2011: 5-5, 74.2 innings pitched, 5.67 K/9, 3.25 BB/9, 5.79 ERA, 4.58 FIP, 0.7 WAR

Total WAR: 7.2

But the Yankee fan base and the team may be running out of patience. If he wants to stay a Yankee for a long time, he needs to start translating that minor league dominance to the majors in 2012.

It's now or never for Phil Hughes. Here is the Mystery Player.

Oh, and here's this. Have a nice weekend.

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