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Know Your 40: Phil Hughes

Homer-happy Hughes should be less homer-happy. Discuss.

"Please stay in the park..."
"Please stay in the park..."
Alex Trautwig

Name: Phil Hughes
Position: Starter (RHP)
Age as of Opening Day 2013: 26 (born 6/24/1986)
Height: 6’5" Weight: 240 lbs.
Remaining Contract: One year, $7.15 million (Free Agent after 2013)
2012 statistics: (MLB) 32 starts, 16-13, 191.1 IP, 4.23 ERA, 4.56 FIP, 9.2 H/9, 2.2 BB/9, 7.8 K/9, 101 ERA-, 108 FIP-

Future ace. Bust. Converted relief ace. Future starting ace again. Injured lost cause. League-average starter. At the still-young age of 26, Phil Hughes has been all over the grid for the Yankees as he enters his 10th and perhaps final year with the organization that made him the 23rd overall pick of the 2004 MLB Draft.

The big righty from California projected to be an electrifying starter, and his 95 mph fastball at age 19 in Spring Training ’06 drew rave reviews from manager Joe Torre and established sluggers Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi, and Jorge Posada. Hughes blew through the minors like few Yankees have over the past decade. In ’05, he pitched to a 2.19 ERA in 86.1 innings between Low-A Charleston and High-A Tampa with a 0.857 WHIP and 9.7 K/9. After five dominating starts in Tampa to begin ’06, he spent the rest of the year with Double-A Trenton, where he asserted himself as not only the best prospect in the Yankees’ system, but among the most promising in all of baseball. He made 21 starts and pitched to a 2.25 ERA and 2.26 FIP with a 0.905 WHIP and 10.7 K/9.

Entering ’07, Hughes was ranked by Baseball America as its fourth-highest prospect and started the season in Triple-A Scranton. A rash of injuries to the big-league rotation that eventually forced retreads like Chase Wright and Matt DeSalvo into the rotation inevitably ushered the sooner-than-expected arrival of Hughes in the Bronx at the end of April. Despite the injuries, everyone was ecstatic about how the Yankees' highest-rated prospects in years would fare in "The Show." Hughes was battered by the Toronto Blue Jays in his debut, but although he faced a potent lineup in Texas that included future teammate Mark Teixeira in his second start, he dominated. Hughes carried a no-hitter with six strikeouts into the seventh inning, but after retiring Michael Young on a flyball, the Yankees' recent injury bug picked the worst time to sting again. Hughes was felled by a left hamstring strain and was forced from the game, not to appear again for the big club until August. (This hamstring injury was the last straw for the Yankees given the many injuries incurred in April; the new strength and conditioning coach was fired.)

Hughes was rusty in his return, evinced by his 6.40 ERA in six August starts, but he recovered down the stretch to help the Yankees to a Wild Card berth with a 2.73 ERA in five September starts. He also saved the Yankees from an ALDS sweep by relieving an injured Roger Clemens in the latter's final big-league appearance and pitching 3.2 scoreless while the Yankees rallied to win Game 3. It only delayed the Cleveland Indians' celebration though, as the Tribe knocked the Yankees out of the playoffs the next day. Optimistic about Hughes and fellow young pitchers Ian Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain, the Yankees chose to hold onto Hughes in '08 even as rumors of a possible Johan Santana trade swirled around the media. Unfortunately, '08 was a complete disaster for the plan, and Hughes was a big reason for the collapse. He was crushed in almost all of his April starts, and a stress fracture in his right rib cage sent him to the Disabled List for nearly the entire season. Even though his final two September starts were good, it was a miserable year for Hughes and the Yankees, who missed the playoffs for the first time since Hughes was in elementary school.

The Yankees chose to go with Chamberlain over Hughes in the rotation to begin the '09 campaign, and Hughes began the season in Triple-A. He did not last long down there, promoted after three stellar starts with a 1.86 ERA. Hughes pitched to a 5.45 ERA in seven starts however, and when former rotation ace Chien-Ming Wang returned from injury with some great bullpen work, manager Joe Girardi swapped them. The 'pen turned out to be a great fit for both Hughes and the Yankees, who were struggling to find a good setup man for closer Mariano Rivera. Hughes was terrific in relief, pitching to a 1.40 ERA and 0.857 WHIP in 44 games and 51.1 innings, striking out 11.4 per nine. He faltered in the playoffs, but Hughes was still a very important cog of that World Series championship team.

Hughes returned to the starting rotation for good in 2010, and his journey since then has gone just about everywhere. He was named an All-Star for the first time, as he pitched the best overall baseball of his career for a couple months--after a start on June 8th, his ERA stood at 2.71 and opposing batters were hitting just .218/.273/.304 against him. The second half was terrible though, and he was pounded by the Rangers in two ALCS starts after a fine start against the Twins in the ALDS. His second-half slump continued into the next season, an injury-shortened 17-game, 5.79 ERA horror show. Hughes suffered shoulder inflammation and fatigue that the Yankees blamed on "dead arm" following a big jump in innings between '09 and '10. Yippie.

Hughes kept his spot in the rotation at the start of last season, but another poor start in April did not bode well for him. Thankfully for him, there was no viable candidate to replace him once David Phelps jumped in for the even-worse Freddy Garcia. Hughes began to turn his season around with a 7.2 inning, one-run gem at home against the light-hitting Seattle Mariners (a cure for almost anyone's pitching woes), and from then on, his ERA was 3.81. There were good days and bad days for Hughes throughout the summer, and it usually depended on how many people were on base when he surrendered one of his near-franchise-worst 35 homers. Hughes was good at keeping men off base though; his 2.16 BB/9 was among the best in baseball. He seized the final spot in the playoff rotation and pitched well in ALDS Game 4, but was forced to leave ALCS Game 3 with back problems.

One can only hope that the 124-inning jump from '11 to '12 doesn't hurt Hughes in '13 as the '09 to '10 jump did in 2011. If he's truly broken free of the innings limit problems that have plagued young Yankee pitchers in recent years, then it will not be a concern. He hit a career-high last year was 191.1, and if he wants to get paid at least as well next offseason as innings-eater Jeremy Guthrie did this time around (three years, $25 million), then he should be hitting 200 without issue. If he can do that with a BB/9 and K/9 remotely close to his 2012 rates, then whoever signs him (be it the Yanks or whoever) will have a nice commodity on their hands, even with the homers.

Some cause for concern does linger in the gradual decline of Hughes's fastball. It has never routinely hit the 95 mph speeds clocked in Spring Training against Giambi seven years ago, and FanGraphs actually weighted it negatively last season (-0.8 wFB). That's not good for pitch he throws two out of every three times; his '10 wFB was 14.6 and his '11 wFB was 5.3. His curveball is not much to write home about at -6.9, but that has not changed at all over the previous three seasons. He used to throw a cutter, but he mostly eschewed that last year in favor of more changeups and a slider not seen since '08. Given his '11 struggles with the cutter (-4.8) and his relative success in '12 with the change and slider (0.8 and 2.9), it was probably a good decision. There's room for improvement with all of his pitches, but as long as he has good control, they can make him a solid starter regardless (just ask the Jamie Moyer of a few years back).

If 2013 is the last time we will see the man some call "Philthy" in a Yankee uniform, let's hope he makes his last hurrah one to remember. In a way, it seems like he's destined for a departure regardless. If he's too good, then he'll price himself out of the Yankees' plan for a $189 payroll in '13, and if he's not good, then it will seem debatable to bring him back. I think the only way he comes back is if he's merely average, as he was in 2012. That way, the Yankees might re-sign him to a more-affordable contract. Of course, there is still no guarantee that would happen.

I'm not thinking of Hughes's plans beyond this year though. I want him to break through with his best season yet by maintaining his stellar walk rate and keeping the meatballs to a minimum. Whatever happens in the off-season will happen in the off-season.