Good or Bad: Phil Hughes

On a recent episode of The Daily Show, Jon Stewart lampooned TV newscasters for boiling down complex questions into a simplistic dichotomy: good or bad? Well, much like the real world, the baseball world has many complexities that cannot be explained in terms of black and white. But in this segment, we try and pull our best CNN anchor by positing the question: good or bad? We start by analyzing the talents of Phil Hughes.

Phil Hughes is an enigma inside a riddle inside a right handed pitcher.

Phil Hughes is an enigma inside a riddle inside a right handed pitcher.

The New York Yankees, and thus the entire baseball world, had high hopes for Phillip Joseph Hughes.  After a 2006 season in which he posted a 2.25 ERA as a 20-year old in AA ball, Baseball America rated him as the fourth-best prospect — not in the Yankee system, in the entire sport.  He was said to have four plus pitches, and plus command that made him a complete package.  When he made his debut in April of 2007, he was described by Tyler Kepner of the New York Times as, “the most important player to the future of the Yankees.”  Expectations for Hughes were sky-high.

6 years later, has Hughes lived up to those expectations?  Not by a longshot.  Part of the reason is the myriad injuries he has suffered in his career.  In his second major league start, he had a no-hitter going through 6 1/3 innings, but pulled his hamstring and missed 3 months.  A nebulous “dead arm” in Spring Training 2011 caused his velocity to drop under 90 MPH, and he missed another 3 months.  But more than injuries, Hughes’ career has been marred by inconsistency and ineffectiveness.  Even in his strongest season, 2010, he displayed a maddening inability to put together a strong full campaign — he started off the year 11-2 with a 3.65 ERA and an all-star bid, but collapsed in the second half, to the tune of a 4.90 ERA.  And last year, Hughes was again either very good or very bad; he gave up 5 or more earned runs in 7 of his 29 starts, but allowed 1 or fewer runs in another 7 starts.  But for Hughes in 2013, the bad outweighed the good — the 5.19 ERA he posted was 4th-worst among AL starters (min. 140 IP).  This offseason, in his first crack at free agency, Hughes managed to procure a 3 year, $24 million contract from the Minnesota Twins, a team willing to pay a premium for starting pitching.  But the question posed in this article isn’t about the merits of the contract.  The question posed here is much more basic: is Phil Hughes good or bad?

Well, according to the simple stats, Hughes is not just bad, he’s among the worst starters in the league.  Since entering the league, Hughes’ 4.54 ERA ranks 84th out of the 99 pitchers who have thrown at least 750 innings.  And according to the advanced metrics, he’s been better, but not substantially better.  His 4.34 career FIP is almost exactly league average — in fact, his 101 career FIP- (normalized FIP) means that he has been exactly 1% worse than league average over his career.  But why?  FIP relies heavily on the three things that, according to baseball statistician Voros McCracken, a pitcher can control; strikeouts, walks, and home runs.  And in all three of those respects, Hughes has been almost exactly average: his strikeouts are a little bit higher than league average, his walks a little lower, but his home runs a little higher (the MLB average from 2007 until the present is .994 HR/9, while Hughes is at 1.29 HR/9).  And going from Yankee Stadium, which had the ninth-highest home run total last year, to Target Field, which allowed the 4th-fewest, can only help Hughes.

But there are far more troubling signs for Hughes’ future.  As we’ve mentioned, when Hughes came up, he was projected to have four pitches that were above-average major league caliber.  But last year, not only did he not have four above-average pitches, he didn’t even have one.  According to FanGraphs, all four of Hughes’ pitches — the fastball, curveball, slider and changeup — were below-average last year.  Although Hughes’ fastball velocity is the same as it was when he came to the big leagues, its’ value has declined precipitously.  And Hughes throws his fastball well over 60% of the time, meaning that he works off the pitch — if the heat isn’t working, it’s likely that nothing is.

So, is Phil Hughes good or bad?  The answer is, he’s average.  While his stuff seems to be declining, a move to Target Field should help him limit his home runs, making him an effective, if unspectacular, starter.  And, given that excellence seemed predestined for Hughes just 7 years ago, average is a huge disappointment.


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