Phil Hughes and Homer Bailey: A tale of two prospects

Joe Robbins

What does Bailey's recent success mean for his former prospect list rival?

This Tuesday turned out to be a pretty fine evening for the two best pitching prospects of 2007: non-Dice-K division.* By now I'm sure you've seen highlights of Homer Bailey's utterly dominant no-hitter against the defending champion Giants. Bailey's second career no-hitter has inspired a deluge of reflection and analysis, such as this Rob Neyer "be patient with big arms" piece and this fascinating look at the Cincinnati media's anti-Bailey bias. A few minutes after Bailey's now-infamous post-game F-bomb, Phil Hughes was putting the finishing touches on a seven-inning, one-run performance against the punch-less Minnesota Twins - not quite dominant, for sure, but absolutely crucial for a team in danger of falling out of the playoff race.

* In 2007, there was some debate as to whether or not Daisuke Matsuzaka truly qualified as a prospect - some included him, some didn't. This is hilarious in hindsight, cuz LOLZ Dice-K sucks.

For those prospect watchers who remember 2007, Hughes and Bailey will forever be linked. Just about every spring Hot Prospect list had both of them in the top ten - often side-by-side. Many Bailey prospect blurbs mentioned Hughes, and many Hughes prospect blurbs likewise contained mentions of Bailey. Project Prospect and Baseball America ranked Hughes just ahead of Bailey, while Sports Illustrated had Bailey one spot ahead.

So what happened? Both pitchers started their careers in 2007, and both struggled with early promotions and out-of-control hype. Now, with Bailey ascendant, and with Hughes perhaps days away from being traded, it would be easy to portray this as a story of two careers on opposite paths. But the story is more complicated than that; when it comes Phil Hughes and the Yankees, it's always complicated.

The Bailey narrative wraps itself into a neat little bow at the moment, as articles like the one from Rob Neyer can attest: a young Texas fire-baller overcomes youthful control problems and learns to harness his prodigious stuff. An ace is born, the end.

So if Bailey is becoming an ace, then surely his prospect list rival Phil Hughes must be considered a failure, right? Looking back at these old prospect lists, two things become readily apparent. Firstly, Bailey always had better pure stuff than Hughes, who never possessed that elite, high-nineties fastball. Even Project Prospect, which ranked Hughes above Bailey, include the caveat that Bailey, "...could be [a] better ace than Hughes." Secondly, and most importantly, Hughes never developed the way he was expected to. Just look at this description from SI:

"Far more impressive than Hughes' heavy sinker or jaw-dropping curveball is his understanding of pitching; he is the most intelligent phenom in recent memory. Hughes does not give in to any bat, rarely allows free trips to first base, and gets groundballs consistently from the stretch. "

Umm...excuse me, Mr. Prospect Man, but that does not sound like Phil Hughes. Somewhere along the line, Hughes' elite minor league ground ball rates flipped turned upside down, and when that happened, it essentially doomed him as a viable starter in Yankee Stadium. He also never developed an elite strikeout pitch to compensate for the lack of ground balls.

Does that make Hughes a bust? Absolutely not. He's been much better than other 2007 Prospect list stars like Cameron Maybin, Delmon Young and Brandon Young. As of now, he still has a comfortable lead over Bailey in career bWAR, 7.3-to-4.6, though that's likely to change. And, no matter what happens between now and his next contract, Hughes was a vital piece of the Yankees 2009 championship team, a fact that even some Yankee fans like to forget. In hindsight, those prospect rankings, and the hype they produced, were the worst thing that could have happened to Phil Hughes. He could sure use a fresh start with a new franchise, free of the all the prospect hype that doomed him in New York. And perhaps the Yankees should sign Bailey when he (hopefully) becomes a free agent in 2015.

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