Reasons to Be Optimistic About Phil Hughes

May 6, 2012; Kansas City, MO, USA; New York Yankees pitcher Phil Hughes (65) delivers a pitch against the Kansas City Royals during the first inning at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-US PRESSWIRE

Phil Hughes, for most of this season, has been extremely difficult to watch. He's shown inconsistent command, he hasn't been able to pitch deep into games, and at times, his stuff hasn't been sharp. Specifically, he was having a lot of trouble throwing his cutter, a pitch that had been highly successful for him as recently as 2010.

However, in 2012, with a lack of velocity and late action on his cutter, it became very frustrating for fans to watch him show poor command with it. On May 1st, through just a few starts, his cutter was already -2.0 runs below average. Therefore, after seeing his numbers, I tweeted that he should drop the cutter and go back to throwing a two-seamer, with the idea that he would still throw a fastball that moved. Going back to the two-seamer made sense to me: it offered an alternative to his pin-straight fastball and the last time he used it consistently, it sat just 0.2 mph slower than his fastball. Meanwhile, his cutter is sitting 6 mph slower than his average fastball in 2012.

In his last two starts, Hughes hasn't started throwing his two-seamer again (sort of), but he has stopped throwing his cutter and his average fastball velocity is up. Earlier in the season, Hughes threw his cutter well over 10% of the time, but in his last two outings, he's used the cutter just two times combined, one in each start. His cutter has essentially been a batting practice fastball, so lessening his dependance on it probably contributed to his recent (relevant) success.

Hughes has been far more effective than what he showed in early April, especially in his last start when he finally pitched into the seventh inning while striking out seven batters and sitting 93-95 mph with his fastball. It was nice to notice Phil throwing harder, and Eric Schultz (linked above), noticed it, too. That made him take a look at Hughes' velocity from start to start, and he found that it has improved in each of his last three starts. On April 19th, Hughes' average velocity on his fastball sat just under 91.5 mph, but in his most recent start, Hughes' average fastball sat at 93.34 mph, topping out at 95.6 mph.

In addition to the harder fastball, it has shown a bit more horizontal movement, which may have negated the necessity of a true two-seamer or cutter. As Schultz noted, his fastball had it's highest horizontal break of the season, -6.46, compared to his season average of -4.37. The extra two inches of horizontal break makes a huge difference, as more break makes it more difficult for batters to square up his usually pin-straight fastball.

Obviously, just one start with an improvement in the quality of his stuff is not enough for fans or management to hand him the keys to his rotation spot for the remainder of the season. He will need to show that he can maintain consistency in his pitches to stick in the rotation long-term, or at least in 2012. However, Hughes displayed that he has made progress, and there are certainly reasons to be optimistic about him. He's throwing his fastball harder, it's moving more, and he's seemingly eliminated a below average option from his repertoire of pitches.

Hopefully, he'll maintain his ability to strike batters out, command his harder and improved fastball, and continue to make positive strides. He has a long way to go, but we have to hope that his improvements will continue.

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