Farewell to Phil Hughes: The rise and fall of a star pitching prospect

Chris Trotman

Once upon a time not so long ago, Hughes was the future of the Yankees' rotation. Now, he's off to Minnesota after a disastrous finale in the Bronx. What happened?

Spring Training 2006

"I didn't know who he was. I thought he was going to throw about 88 [mph], and he came at me with 95. I immediately asked Mark Newman if he was one of our top prospects because I was like, 'Who the [heck] is that guy?'"
- Alex Rodriguez

"He throws hard, and he's just a baby -- 19 years old. The thing that's unusual for a kid as young as he is, his curveball is really impressive. His stuff is very real."
- Joe Torre

"That kid is going to be good; he reminds me of Rocket. He's young, but that fastball, it's late. I don't care what the radar gun says, it seems like it's on top of you. He's got good stuff."
- Jason Giambi

"He has the best arm in camp, no doubt about it. Better than all these guys (points to a row of lockers which included Randy Johnson and Mariano Rivera). I don't care how old he is. He's unbelievable. It's effortless the way the ball comes out of his hand at 95-96. He's that impressive. He's the best prospect we've got. It's fun to see."
- Jorge Posada

***

Those were the days. After the 2006 season, Baseball America ranked Phil Hughes as the best minor league pitching prospect in the game. This lofty praise was no small feat--here are just a few of the other Baseball America Top 100 pitching prospects who were ranked behind Hughes:

  • Homer Bailey (#5 overall): Two no-hitters, 92 ERA-, 6.2 fWAR, and 417 innings pitched since start of 2012
  • Tim Lincecum (#11): Two Cy Young Awards, no-hitter, 90 ERA-, 1,510 strikeouts, and 27.8 fWAR
  • Yovani Gallardo (#16): 93 ERA-, 1,080 strikeouts, and 16.9 fWAR
  • Matt Garza (#21): 2009 ALCS MVP, no-hitter, 93 ERA-, 1,001 strikeouts, and 18.1 fWAR
  • Clayton Kershaw (#24): Pitching Jesus, two Cy Young Awards, 68 ERA-, 1,206 strikeouts, and 28.4 fWAR

Granted that hindsight is always nice with these prospect rankings since the likes of Andrew Miller and Adam Miller were also highly ranked (with Daisuke Matsuzaka number one, though I'm not sure why he's on this list), but it seems incredible now to think that scouts once thought Hughes was better than them all. Many pitching prospects' careers flame out before they even reach the majors, so on one level, the Yankees should perhaps be grateful that they received any major league production at all from Hughes during his seven years in New York prior to his unsurprising departure as a free agent for the Minnesota Twins.

However, it is going to be tough to get over the fact that for years, Hughes was the face of the Yankees' future on the mound.

2004: Amateur praise

The Yankees selected Hughes out of Foothill High School in Santa Clara, California with the 23rd overall pick of the 2004 MLB draft, a compensation pick from the Astros for signing away Andy Pettitte. Among the other players still on the board when the Yankees took Hughes were Gio Gonzalez (38th overall pick), Gallardo (46th), Hunter Pence (64th), and Dustin Pedroia (65th). The Yankees felt strong about their decision though, and it was hard to blame them:

"Philip Hughes is a high school pitcher who our guys felt is very much like a college pitcher," said Mark Newman, the Yankees' senior vice president of baseball operations. Our guys felt that Hughes was a very sophisticated, physically mature high school pitcher with a better fastball than any college pitcher that would present himself to us... We've got left-handers with average fastballs, pitchability guys like Alex Graman and Brad Halsey at Triple-A who are pitching well, but we felt we needed right-handed power. He's a mature, polished high-school pitcher, and we think he's more like a college pitcher."

"He has everything we looked for, including his makeup," said Gordon Blakeley, the club's senior vice president of player personnel. "He's from a good background, a good family, and those things are important. To play in New York, you need more than good stuff, you need good makeup."
(Source 1) (Source 2)

With forgettable guys like Alex Graman and Brad Halsey at the peak of the farm system, it's no wonder that the Yankees liked Hughes so much. Just looking at his scouting report and high school numbers were enough to inspire a great deal of confidence in the young righty:

Scouting report:
TALL, LARGE FRAME. BROAD BACK, SHOULDERS. WIDE HIPS. STRONG, THICK LOWER HALF. LONG, LOOSE MUSCLES. NO WINDUP, HIGH 3/4. SIDE STEP TO START, HIGH LEG LIFT. HIDES BALL WELL. QUICK, COMPACT, LIVE ARM. SHORT IN BACK. SITS ON 90-91, OCCASIONAL PLUS 92-94. SOLID MECHANICS W/ GOOD BODY CONTROL. FLASHES MAJOR LEAGUE SLIDER W/ LATE BITE, GOOD DOWN PLANE. GOOD MOTION ON CHANGEUP. BIG, STRONG-ARMED PITCHER W/ PROJECTABLE MAJOR LEAGUE OR BETTER PITCHES ACROSS THE BOARD. AROUND PLATE W/ ALL PITCHES, CHANCE FOR PLUS CONTROL.

Hughes went 9-1 in 2004 with a 0.69 ERA, striking out 83 and walking just three batters in 61 innings. Hughes allowed 41 hits, holding opponents to a .181 batting average. In 2003, Hughes went 12-0 with a 0.78 ERA. In 72 innings, Hughes struck out 85 and walked 19, holding hitters to a .192 average. Before the draft, Hughes was ranked No. 16 among prospects by Baseball America.

2005-06: Taking the minors by storm

Hughes had tremendous stuff, and he took off in 2005. Splitting the year between Low-A Charleston and High-A Tampa, Hughes succeeded in both places, pitching to a 2.19 ERA, 9.7 K/9, 2.1 BB/9, and a remarkable 0.857 WHIP in 17 games (86 1/3 innings).This performance was enough for Baseball America to rank him on their Top 100 Prospects for the first time, where he placed 39th, ahead of future pitching successes Anibal Sanchez, Jered Weaver, Cole Hamels, and the aforementioned Gonzalez. He was already the Yankees' best pitching prospect. The Yankees invited him to Spring Training the following year, and that led to his memorable encounter mentioned above with Yankee stars who were awestruck by Hughes's pitching.

He began the 2006 season in Tampa since he only pitched 17 2/3 innings there at the end of '05. It didn't take him long to earn a promotion; he blitzkrieged Florida State League competition with a 1.80 ERA, 30 strikeouts, and just two walks in five starts. The Yankees moved him up to Double-A Trenton. Shortly thereafter, Minor League Ball's John Sickels wrote about Hughes in comparison to the Mets' fellow rising pitching prospect Mike Pelfrey:

Hughes is extremely mature for his years, with a reputation for thriving under pressure... His fastball can hit 96 MPH and is consistent at 91-93, though his velocity has reportedly increased a bit this year. He has two breaking balls, a strong slider and a strong curveball, both with the potential to be above average. He also has a good changeup. His command is outstanding, and like Pelfrey he has a great feel for his craft. Hughes has had nagging injuries as a pro, including a sore shoulder in 2005 and a sore elbow in 2004. None of these are considered major by themselves, but in the aggregate they lead to unavoidable concerns about his stamina... Hughes projects as a number one starter at the major league level, a rotation anchor.

Sickels expressed some concern about his low innings count thus far, but his review otherwise raved about Hughes. The higher league did not slow Hughes down at all. In 116 innings (21 starts) in Trenton, Hughes dominated with a 2.25 ERA, 2.26 FIP, 138 strikeouts (10.7 K/9), and 32 walks (2.5 BB/9). Nothing seemed to be stopping Hughes from his quick ascent to the major leagues. At the start of 2007, Baseball America gave him his high prospect ranking, and Baseball Prospectus author Kevin Goldstein (currently a pro scouting coordinator with the Houston Astros) had this to say about the 20-year-old:

The Good: The total package, making him the best pitching prospect in the game. His 92-96 mph fastball has good movement to go along with outstanding location, and his hard curveball gives him a second major-league-quality out pitch. His change-up is at least average, and has nice fade and deception. His size is ideal and his mechanics are nearly flawless.

The Bad: 2006 was Hughes' first season with no health problems, and he was treated with kid gloves at the end of the season. He's yet to prove that he can hold up under a full-season workload, although he was as dominant as ever at the end of the year.

The Irrelevant: In the first inning of games, opposing hitters facing Hughes hit .125 (11-for-88) with 34 strikeouts.

In A Perfect World, He Becomes: An absolute ace--a legitimate No. 1 on any team.

That's a ton of good, and not much bad. Goldstein said that he should be up before the All-Star break, but due to the Yankees' starting pitching injury woes, Hughes received his opportunity earlier than expected. After just three starts above Double-A with Scranton, Yankee fans finally got the chance to see this highly-touted prospect pitch in the pros.

2007-09: Struggles and an unclear role

Hughes's MLB debut against the Toronto Blue Jays on April 26, 2007 was not very impressive. He appeared tentative at times, and veteran Toronto hitters like Frank Thomas and Vernon Wells (functional version) were not fooled. He gave up two runs on three hits in the first inning, then after three decent frame, the Jays knocked him out in the fifth with three more hits. A.J. Burnett was brilliant for Toronto and the Yankees lost, 6-0. It was an inauspicious debut, but Hughes made everyone forget about with his start a few days later in Texas against the Rangers.

On this warm May afternoon, Hughes faced a tough Texas lineup that had all of its first seven hitters end the season with an OPS+ over 100. One of the two players who didn't was rising slugger Nelson Cruz. It was a good mix of veterans like Kenny Lofton and Michael Young with promising young talent in Ian Kinsler and powerful first baseman Mark Teixeira, Hughes's future teammate. Despite the Rangers' potency, Hughes absolutely mastered them. He struck Tex out after a double play erased Lofton's leadoff walk, and he added five more strikeouts to his ledger. Two later batters managed to reach base via walk, but just two others were able to even lift a fly ball against Hughes entering the seventh. He had a no-hitter going into the latter stages of the game in just his second big league start. On this very site six and a half years ago, then-PSA lead scribe John Amato was very impressed by the kid:

Last night against Texas he was THE top prospect in baseball. This was the kid who has pinpoint control, a nasty curve and a new and improved change up that will be the key pitch in his arsenal. What I really liked about his performance was that he took the ball and threw quickly. He had a plan, picked up the pace from last week and dominated.

As was the trend with the '07 Yankees though, the fun did not last. After retiring Young on a fly ball to center, he fired two quick strikes against Teixeira, then felt a pop in his leg. Suddenly, the no-hit bid was over and Hughes departed the game in disappointment. He had a hamstring pull, and he did not return to the Yankees again until August. (The no-no also ended when Mike Myers surrendered a leadoff double to Hank Blalock in the eighth.) Some have argued that the moment before Hughes's hamstring popped was the apex of his Yankees career; after reaching such unsustainable heights, how could he meet the expectations, which were high anyway?

Hughes pitched out of the rotation in the final two months of the season. August was rough, as he struggled to rediscover his form and opposing hitters torched him for a 6.40 ERA. He did rebound against lesser teams in September, finishing the regular season with a 2.73 ERA in September and even finding some playoff glory by bailing out an aged and injured Roger Clemens in Game 3 of the ALDS against the Cleveland Indians with 3 2/3 scoreless relief innings. The Yankees rallied to avoid a sweep and Hughes earned a playoff win.

Yankees fans had every reason to be optimistic about the future headed into the '08 season with Hughes and fellow highly-regarded pitching prospects Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy poised to play a role in the rotation. They were the "Big Three," the young guns who would inject some youth into an older team. The season turned out to be a complete and utter disaster. Kennedy pitched poorly and his postgame comments always seemed to indicate complacency with his performance. Joba was kept from the rotation until June, and after the slow process of stretching him out, he hurt his rotator cuff on a weird play involving new catcher Ivan Rodriguez. As for Hughes? He had a horrendous 9.00 ERA through six April starts, then was shut down with a stress fracture in his rib cage--he would not appear again for the Yankees until they were just about eliminated in mid-September.Just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong. It was a lost season for Hughes.

Despite his '08 injury woes, the Yankees felt Hughes was ready to go for the '09 season. He began the year in the rotation and once again got off to a slow starts. He was excellent in some starts, miserable in others, and he carried an unsightly 5.45 ERA into June. A crowded rotation that now featured free agent imports CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett in addition to Joba and Andy Pettitte now had former ace Chien-Ming Wang returning from injury, so instead of demoting Hughes, the Yankees decided to keep Hughes on the MLB roster in the bullpen.

The move turned out to be a masterstroke, as the Yankees' setup man to Mariano Rivera up until then was the inconsistent Brian Bruney. Hughes was so good in the setup role that the Yankees felt they couldn't afford to move him back into the rotation. They agreed to potentially stifle his growth in exchange for improving a team weakness, and in '09, it turned out to be a fine move. Hughes pitched to a 1.40 ERA out of the bullpen with a mere .172/.228/.228 triple slash against in 44 games. The Yankees went 35-9 during his games, and they romped to the AL East with 103 victories. Hughes experienced the rough side of bullpen pitching during the playoffs, when his .257 BABIP good fortune reversed. The Twins, Angels, and Phillies all handled him without a problem in October, as he was beaten up to an 8.53 ERA in 6 1/3 innings (nine games). Fortunately by then, the Yankees had found other bullpen assets in David Robertson and Damaso Marte, who helped bridge the gap to Rivera once fortified by Hughes. He became a World Series champion Yankee, though in a role he never could have predicted on the day he was drafted in 2004. He still had the pedigree of a big-time pitching prospect, but given his '09 bullpen success, would he be a starter or a reliever going forward?

2010-13: Sudden success and the beginning of the end

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Photo credit: Ronald Martinez

The Yankees answered the question of starter or reliever with Hughes in a hurry, unlike Joba. The Yankees decided to put Hughes back in the rotation for the start of 2010 and to send Joba, who rarely pitched deep into games, back to the 'pen. This time, the rotation was crowded by Sabathia, Burnett, Pettitte, and the re-acquired Javier Vazquez, so the Yankees decided to gamble on Hughes over Joba. The decision immediately paid off, as Hughes was excellent for the first couple months of the season, providing the Yankees with more value than ever before by pitching to a 2.71 ERA with 68 strikeouts in 11 starts and 69 2/3 innings pitched. Opponents only OPS'd .577 against him, and a highlight came when he no-hit the Athletics for seven innings on April 21st before a mishandled Eric Chavez comebacker broke it up. Although he began to slump toward the end of June, he was named to the AL All-Star team. For awhile, it looked like Hughes would finally live up to the expectations that had long been placed on his shoulders.

Unfortunately for Hughes, that slump was a greater sign of what was to come than the All-Star berth. His stumble toward the end of June was no blip on the radar; from June 13th until the end of the season (18 starts), he was a disaster. His ERA over this period was 5.15, and opponents hit .260/.320/.461 against him with 21 homers. The high dinger total would plague him throughout the rest of his Yankees career. Hughes ended the season with 18 wins, but he was lucky to have a 10-7 record over that awful 5.15 ERA stretch. Although his 4.19 ERA (98 ERA-), 4.25 FIP (99 FIP-), and 2.5 fWAR appeared respectable, it was very hollow beneath the surface since most of the good numbers were accumulated during his first 11 starts.

The Yankees used him in the playoff rotation, and he briefly inspired some hope with a seven-inning, four-hit shutout effort against the Twins during another ALDS sweep. The Rangers destroyed him in the ALCS though; his 11.42 ERA in two starts was one of the main reasons the Yankees were unable to repeat as AL champions. Joe Girardi gave him the ball in Game 2 after a stunning five-run comeback helped the Yankees steal Game 1, and he surrendered any momentum the Yankees might have had by giving up ten runs and seven hits in just four innings. The Yankees lost two of the next three games, but they decided to try Hughes again on the mound in a possible elimination game in Game 6 rather than turn to Pettitte on three days' rest. Hughes wasn't much better, leaving the game with the Yankees in a 5-1 fifth inning hole that they could not escape. The season was over.

The 2011 season began ominously for Hughes. He did not look good at all in Spring Training, as his velocity was down and he didn't have much movement on his pitches. It showed in his first three starts of the season, when the Tigers, Red Sox, and Orioles bludgeoned him for 19 hits, 16 runs, and four homers in just 10 1/3 innings, a 13.94 ERA. The Yankees could not wait for him to get better while they lost, so they shut him down with shoulder fatigue, which was blamed on him pitching close to 200 combined innings in 2010 after never having come anywhere near that figure before. Hughes did not return until the beginning of July, and he only made 11 more starts for the rest of the season. He pitched a little better to a 4.55 ERA in those starts, but again, he was very inconsistent. He did not make the playoff rotation and instead just pitched out of the bullpen in the Yankees' five-game ALDS loss to Detroit.

2012 was again the tale of two halves for Hughes. He was awful in April and not much better in May, ending the month with a 5.64 ERA. He went through a streak of 12 consecutive starts with at least one homer allowed. A complete game four-hitter against the powerful Tigers on June 3rd began to turn his season around. From then on, he was much better, though he continued to fall victim to the long ball. Hughes pitched to a 3.70 ERA over his final 22 starts of the season, but by season's end, he had given up 35 homers, the second-highest total in Yankees history. He won 16 games, but only had a 2.3 fWAR season and a mediocre 4.23 ERA (101 ERA-) and 4.56 FIP (108 FIP-) to show for it. Hughes did make the playoff rotation, and despite a few hard-hit balls, he pitched well in his ALDS Game 4 start against the Orioles: 6 2/3 innings, four hits, eight strikeouts, and one run allowed (on a homer of course). Back stiffness forced him from his Game 3 ALCS start against the Tigers after three innings; the ALCS sweep brought another middling season to a close.

Many hoped that in his free agent walk year of 2013, Hughes would step it up in hopes of earning a nice contract as the youngest reputable starter on the market. It was not meant to be. His Yankees career ended with a whimper, as he was smacked around by opposing hitters all year long. The year ended with a 5.19 ERA (127 ERA-) and a 4.50 FIP (110 FIP-). He was so bad that he was below replacement level by Baseball-Reference measures and during a desperate last-ditch September run at a Wild Card spot, he was briefly replaced in the rotation by the uninspiring David Huff. The 0-2-to-walk-or-hit became a Hughes specialty; this Jeff Sullivan tweet just about sums it up:

At the beginning of the season, the consensus among fans seemed to be that the Yankees and Hughes would likely part ways during free agency, but at least the Yankees would receive draft pick compensation for letting him go after giving him a qualifying offer that would almost certainly be declined. Hughes's 2013 was so miserable though that the Yankees could not afford to risk giving him that qualifying offer of one year and $14.1 million, since his stock had fallen so much that there was a chance he could take it and be just as bad in 2014.

So Hughes's Yankees career ended in shame. He received a nice three-year, $24 million contract from the Twins, but in return, the Yankees did not get much out of the pitcher once touted to be the future of the franchise. At his best, the Yankees received a good half-season out of the bullpen (which most starters can luck into at one point during a career), a couple months of hope in 2010, and roughly league-average pitching in 2012. At his worst, he was pounded for the greater parts of seven seasons. Three of them were completely lost causes ('08, '11, and '13).

Given the lofty praise of guys like Giambi and Posada in 2006, it would have been difficult for any prospect to meet those high expectations, and Hughes did give the Yankees some value. Many prospects give their original teams jack squat. However, it will be always be a bummer to look at his final line with the Yankees and see this:

Year Age Tm W L ERA FIP G GS CG SHO IP H R ER HR BB SO ERA- FIP- WHIP rWAR fWAR
2007 21 NYY 5 3 4.46 4.35 13 13 0 0 72.2 64 39 36 8 29 58 99 98 1.28 0.9 1.2
2008 22 NYY 0 4 6.62 4.34 8 8 0 0 34 43 26 25 3 15 23 152 101 1.706 -0.3 0.5
2009 23 NYY 8 3 3.03 3.23 51 7 0 0 86 68 31 29 8 28 96 66 71 1.116 2.6 2.4
2010 24 NYY 18 8 4.19 4.25 31 29 0 0 176.1 162 83 82 25 58 146 98 99 1.248 2.0 2.5
2011 25 NYY 5 5 5.79 4.58 17 14 1 1 74.2 84 48 48 9 27 47 138 110 1.487 -0.1 0.7
2012 26 NYY 16 13 4.23 4.56 32 32 1 0 191.1 196 101 90 35 46 165 101 108 1.265 1.9 2.3
2013 27 NYY 4 14 5.19 4.50 30 29 0 0 145.2 170 91 84 24 42 121 127 110 1.455 -0.7 1.3
7 yrs 56 50 4.54 4.31 182 132 2 1 780.2 787 419 394 112 245 656 107 101 1.322 6.3 11.0

I'll appreciate Hughes for his relief efforts on the '09 champions, but other than that, it's going to be hard to look at that final stat line and not sigh in disappointment of what could have been. What if Hughes had found some way to limit the long balls? What if Hughes had figured out a way to put batters away after getting them down 0-2, like he had so often in the minors? What if he had been able to refine his command so that he wasn't missing targets on pitches that ended up in the middle of the strike zone? Oh well. Baseball is cruel to its pitching prospects.

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