• Expectations and Phil Hughes

    There are plenty of reasons to celebrate this impending Phil Hughes deal as a coup for the Twins. After all, Hughes is a relatively young pitcher who has potential upside and, as a fly ball pitcher, he finally gets to leave the launching pad in the Bronx (not to mention, away from the beasts of the east). For an average annual value of $8M, a value he has eclipsed in three of the past five seasons according to Fangraphs.com, it is hard to find a downside.

    In terms of the configurations of Yankee Stadium and Target Field, there’s no question that Yankee Stadium’s layout vastly favors the hitter, particularly for the left-handed swingers. In the Bronx, the right field porch seemingly looms just a few feet past the infield while in Minnesota, Target Field’s right field walls require distance and height to clear safely. So it should not come as a surprise that, in terms of true home runs distance measured by HitTrackerOnline.com, Yankee Stadium’s average home run distance has been 386.2 feet while Target Field has been at 394.1 feet. As Hughes’s former Yankee teammate Nick Swisher once observed about the Twins’ home park, it takes a man to put one out to the right field seats.

    The natural conclusion as applied to Hughes is that the transition from Yankee Stadium (where 76 of his career 112 home runs have been served) to Target Field will yield significant improvements to his results. In theory, even if a few of the would-be home runs in New York become off-the-wall doubles in Minnesota, Hughes’ totals figure to be better.

    While the statistically inclined community will nod at that hypothesis, those in New York who have witnessed Hughes’ career in person -- both those who emphasize stats and otherwise -- portray him differently. Part of that may be due to the overhyped expectations of a prospect coupled with various injuries that have taken him out of commission.

    Nationally, Baseball Prospectus’ annuals have documented a telling curve on how Hughes has been viewed. In the 2006 edition, there was excitement surrounding what could be a 20-year-old starter in the Yankees organization who had the potential to reach Double-A, a considerable feat in the deep New York system. By 2013 the staff from BP summarized the sentiments by writing “If Yankees fans could only forget that Hughes was ever expected to be an ace, they might be happier with him.” Sandwiched between 2006 and 2013, the analyses focused on Hughes’ oft-injured resume and swimming upstream against the hitter-friendly environs of Yankee Stadium.

    Yankee Stadium or no Yankee Stadium, when hitters have connected, the ball has jumped off their bats. Since 2012, his well-hit average against of .202 is much higher than the league average of .179. While balls have not become souvenirs on the road as frequently, teams have been able to knock him around during stretches of his career which is why he has not exactly matched his prospect hype.

    The scouting report on Hughes: As goes his fastball, so goes Hughes.

    His fastball has been unquestionably a solid weapon for him over the last two seasons. According to ESPN Stats & Info, he has had the best strike percentage with his fastball among all qualified pitchers at 72.2% (minimum 500 thrown). Attacking the strike zone is something the Twins coaching staff has encouraged from their pitchers but, unlike the consortium of Twins starters the past several years, Hughes has missed bats with his heater as well as just throwing it over the plate. Since 2012, Hughes' 18.6% miss percentage on his fastball has been the 14th-highest in baseball. To put that in perspective, the rest of the league carries a 14.6% miss percentage on their fastballs.

    Of course, it is when he does not have the command or hitters don’t miss his fastball that he begins to have issues. Lacking the plus secondary offering to miss bats at a high level, if opponents are able to sit on the fastball, they have hit it hard. In the past two years, hitters have levied a .226 well-hit average off his fastball, compared to the .209 MLB average.

    Not having a complementary secondary pitch has been frequently cited as the reason Hughes has never accumulated strikeouts in bunches (a career rate of 19%, equaling the MLB average) and why his fastball has so often been launched deep into the New York night.

    Hughes changed his approach in 2013, eschewing a slow curve that was hit hard for a harder slider to alter his style from a north-south pitcher (fastball/curve) to having a pitch that runs from side-to-side. Previously armed with a cutter, the terrible outcome with that pitch convinced him to reduce its use and he increased the usage of his slider to 23.8%. Early, the results were strong. In the first-half of last season, opponents hit just .160 off the newly resurrected pitch. However, perhaps with the element of surprise removed, in the second-half of the season, hitters began to recognize the slider more and hit .324 on it.

    So while the upside involves Hughes’ results being improved from pitching in a new home, the downside is that he continues to have a second-pitch identity crisis and has not found a suitable partner for his fastball. The limited success of his repertoire has made critics think he is better suited for the bullpen where his two-pitch combination can thrive in short stints. (Consider this: last season Hughes averaged just five innings per start and, over his career, he has been just a half-inning better.)

    Where does this leave Hughes’ future with the Twins?

    Going back to the 2013 Baseball Prospectus comment, it is the hype that clouded the previous judgement on Hughes rather than seeing him for what he is, which is an above average starter. Certainly injuries that have plagued him throughout his professional career could come into play again and his arsenal could give him fits, but he should provide value equal to or exceeding the team-friendly contract over three years even if he simply matches his performance in New York -- in a park environment better suited for his skill set, no less.

    The Twins should come out winners on this one.
    This article was originally published in blog: Expectations and Phil Hughes started by Parker Hageman
    Comments 28 Comments
    1. Willihammer's Avatar
      Willihammer -
      I expect marginal improvement. Hughes actually gives up more of his HRs to righthanders, which is still probably easier in NYS but the difference doesn't appeat to be as great.

      I appreciate that Hughes figures to be an improvement over whoever he displaces, but on a contending team he's probably in the pen.
    1. Brock Beauchamp's Avatar
      Brock Beauchamp -
      Quote Originally Posted by Willihammer View Post
      I expect marginal improvement. Hughes actually gives up more of his HRs to righthanders, which is still probably easier in NYS but the difference doesn't appeat to be as great.

      I appreciate that Hughes figures to be an improvement over whoever he displaces, but on a contending team he's probably in the pen.
      He is homer-prone from both sides of the plate, for sure... But we all know RF in Target Field is a tough place to put one out of the park. LF is probably marginally harder to hit one out than Yankee Stadium as well.

      Phil Hughes is going to give up homeruns. Anyone who thinks he'll magically stop is deluding themselves. The question comes down to two things, IMO:

      1. Will the move to TF help his homer rate significantly enough to matter

      2. Will the move out of NYC help Hughes center himself a bit

      I think both things will happen... But to what degree is very much up for debate and we'll have to wait for games to be played to know for sure. There's a reason Hughes was signed for $8m a season at the age of 27 years old, after all. He's not a perfect pitcher by any stretch of the imagination. The question now is whether Anderson, Minnesota, and Target Field will be enough to turn him into a 4.00 ERA pitcher or whether he's destined to float around a 4.50 ERA for his career.
    1. Thrylos's Avatar
      Thrylos -
      Good stuff.

      A few more points:

      - getting out of New York City, by itself, can do wonders for one's career (ask AJ Burnett and Carl Pavano and even Javier Vasquez - twice)

      - In addition to the general Yankee Stadium Mark III vs Targer Field numbers, lefties hit .298/.354/.509 (that would be .219 IsoP, and if a qualified batter had that IsoP, he would rank 20th in the majors last season; Mike Napoli territory) last season off Hughes. I suspect that this would be suppressed at Target Field as well. Do not have his HR/FB by LHB numbers, but I suspect that was high as well.

      - His complementary pitches have been an interesting story. That curve-slider change is not totally accurate. He is a different P against LHB and RHB (and you can see the data here): In 2012 he threw his fastball and curveball pretty much equally to lefties and righties but his slider/cutter (which I think that it is the same pitch based on the fact that the Vs of what PitchF/X calls a cutter are more like those of a slider) pretty much exclusively to righties and his change pretty much exclusively to lefties. In 2013 He started throwing the slider to everybody and he kept the slow curve pretty much exclusively for lefties. I don't know how much difference that made, because all his secondary stuff have been pretty much horrible, but the point is, that if you look at pretty much every season, he has changed his pitching mix often. To me this says that a. he is not comfortable with his secondary stuff and/or someone has been "messing" with him (pitching coaches, teammates etc.) and once he finds and gets the feel for a good secondary pitch (or 2, paging Bobby Cuellar), he will be better.
    1. Parker Hageman's Avatar
      Parker Hageman -
      That curve-slider change is not totally accurate.
      Yes, it is.

      http://www.sportsonearth.com/article/47103196/

      But I think that you are right in the sense that time with a different coaching staff may help in being able to harness a pitch - or game plan - better.
    1. mike wants wins's Avatar
      mike wants wins -
      Give me 3-5 starters that can usually get 2-3 runs given up in 5-6 innings....that is a HUGE improvement over last year. But, this offense still needs a lot of help, imo.
    1. Parker Hageman's Avatar
      Parker Hageman -
      I expect marginal improvement. Hughes actually gives up more of his HRs to righthanders, which is still probably easier in NYS but the difference doesn't appeat to be as great.
      This is true, but the bulk of his savings in the transition would occur in right field at Target Field, which is why it was outlined in the article. After all, right field plays much more even at Target Field.

      For comparison sake, StatCorner.com's HR Factor had this split between left-handed and right-handed batters the two ballparks in 2013:

      NYY: 122 RHB/116 LHB
      MIN: 95 RHB/79 LHB

      (To those unfamiliar, a Park Factor of 100 is neutral while anything above that favors the hitter while anything below favors the pitcher.)
    1. Thrylos's Avatar
      Thrylos -
      I love Jorge A's stuff, but that was written 40 days into the 2013 season and contains this:

      The slider is now arguably Hughes' best pitch.
      which might have been true in early May 2013, but looking at pitch values, it was a horrible pitch for him as a whole for 2013....

      And he did not stop throwing the curve. He threw 222 of them, as well as 603 sliders. The ratio of curve/slider was reversed and then some from 2012

      Just another indication that coaches have messed up with the guy.
    1. Parker Hageman's Avatar
      Parker Hageman -
      which might have been true in early May 2013, but looking at pitch values, it was a horrible pitch for him as a whole for 2013....
      Right, which is exactly why I wrote this:

      "Previously armed with a cutter, the terrible outcome with that pitch convinced him to reduce its use and he increased the usage of his slider to 23.8%. Early, the results were strong. In the first-half of last season, opponents hit just .160 off the newly resurrected pitch. However, perhaps with the element of surprise removed, in the second-half of the season, hitters began to recognize the slider more and hit .324 on it."

      The point is, he went from a guy who threw his curveball 18% of the time to one who used it just 9% of the time while increasing his slider from 4% to 24%. He essentially abandoned his curve for his slider. True, he threw the slow curve sporadically in 2013 but it definitely feel out of favor.

      What will be interesting to monitor is whether or not the Twins attempt to get him to throw a balance of the two pitches instead of leaning on one or the other.
    1. Willihammer's Avatar
      Willihammer -
      Quote Originally Posted by Parker Hageman View Post
      This is true, but the bulk of his savings in the transition would occur in right field at Target Field, which is why it was outlined in the article. After all, right field plays much more even at Target Field.
      I downloaded the data posted on fangraphs a couple weeks ago in their batted ball tableau chart for 2012-2013. If the run values they used (1.41 for a HR, 1.07 for a triple, etc.) are accurate then TF actually played slightly better for RH bats than NYS:

      min nya
      0.073 0.067

      These are average run values for all fly balls.

      For LH hitters, the avg run value of fly balls are:
      min nya
      0.044 0.113

      So sure, Hughes should clean up his fly ball luck when he faces LH at home (about 1/6 of PAs). But he's not going to have Gardner or Ichiro out there to shag balls that stay in the park and so overall I think its reasonable to expect a pretty marginal improvement. And again I'll take a ~4.3 ERA starter over the 5s that we've gotten used to seeing.
    1. Parker Hageman's Avatar
      Parker Hageman -
      But he's not going to have Gardner or Ichiro out there to shag balls that stay in the park and so overall I think its reasonable to expect a pretty marginal improvement.
      Sure, at least in the first year, however, he could be looking at Buxton/Hicks in year two/three.
    1. Brock Beauchamp's Avatar
      Brock Beauchamp -
      Quote Originally Posted by Willihammer View Post
      But he's not going to have Gardner or Ichiro out there to shag balls that stay in the park and so overall I think its reasonable to expect a pretty marginal improvement.
      No, but he could have Hicks out in right as soon as Opening Day 2015.

      The OF defense is probably going to be bad for most of 2014... But that could rapidly change in late 2014 or early 2015 as Buxton slides Hicks out of center.
    1. thetank's Avatar
      thetank -
      If the signing keeps a young pitcher from coming up earlier than he should this signing is fine. Hard to believe his ERA won't be under 4.9.
    1. twinsfan34's Avatar
      twinsfan34 -
      Quote Originally Posted by Parker Hageman View Post
      Sure, at least in the first year, however, he could be looking at Buxton/Hicks in year two/three.
      A 3rd Outfielder is kind of a bonus at that point...
    1. mcrow's Avatar
      mcrow -
      I think Target Field will make his life easier that is for sure. The TF is more pitcher friendly and he comes to MN where there is almost zero pressure in comparison to NY. We all know how much the mental part of pitching affects a pitcher.

      Even if the change of stadium and having less pressure help, I'm not sure it makes him better than a #4 starter.

      His ERA since becoming a fulltime starter is something like 4.85 with a WHIP of 1.37 or so.

      If he can get to around a 4.5 era or less I think that will be better than I expect, if we get 4.85 out him then we have a decent 5th starter.
    1. Riverbrian's Avatar
      Riverbrian -
      There was a time when Phil Hughes was the top pitching prospect in baseball. He was the Dylan Bundy of 2007.

      He had stuff and that stuff worked quite well in the bullpen setting up for Mariano.

      As as a starter though... I haven't seen decent use of his secondary pitches to make him a quality starter for multiple innings.

      I've seen some decent starts from Hughes but usually I've watched him fold when it gets tough.

      I'm excited about his potential and ability. I'm happy he is here because of that potential and ability... It's something that just might be realized down the line.

      But... I've watched him throw too many cookies when a cookie was a bad idea to be completely comfortable.

      The downside is quite low but I hope he figures it out because his upside is as high as is downside is low. In my opinion... Of course.
    1. cmb0252's Avatar
      cmb0252 -
      When Hughes was drafted he had a solid two pitch mix of a low 90s fastball and a potential out pitch for a curve ball. Hughes crushed the minors, was named BA's #4 prospect in all of baseball, and debuted shorty after. Here is Keith laws analysis of his current stuff:

      "His fastball is pin straight and he tries to work up in the zone with it, so he's been line drive- and homer-prone throughout his career. The Yankees tried at various times to get him to work with a two-seamer or cutter so he'd have a fastball option with life or sink, but neither was ever consistent for him and he remains a fastball-heavy guy who is regularly beaten on his primary pitch because it doesn't move and he can't locate it well side-to-side.


      Hughes spent most of 2013 working with a short, soft slider that he couldn't command, losing the low-70s curveball that was his potential out pitch when he was still a prospect so many years ago, and he's never had a solid third pitch."

      He goes on to note, which most have, Hughes has historically underperformed relative to his peripherals. Hopefully not only will he benefit from moving to Target Field but works hard with our development staff, which is one of the best at developing change ups, to get a solid third pitch.
    1. frightwig's Avatar
      frightwig -
      "Going back to the 2013 Baseball Prospectus comment, it is the hype that clouded the previous judgement on Hughes rather than seeing him for what he is, which is an above average starter."
      ------

      He has a 4.74 career ERA as a starting pitcher. His xFIP's in each of the last 3 years (during which he had a 4.85 ERA): 4.39, 4.35, 4.90.

      Yeah, he has a good fastball which has helped him rack up a decent strikeout rate, and I'm sure the Twins like that he "throws strikes." But he's not an above-average starter. If a "change of scene" helps him record an ERA closer to his xFIP levels, he's probably going to give the Twins an ERA in the low-to-mid 4's. Which would make him a back-end starter, Kevin Correia with a nicer strikeout rate.

      For some reason, the Twins thought it's worth betting a 3-year deal on that kind of pitcher. Even stranger, Twins bloggers are trying so hard to get psyched about it.
    1. Parker Hageman's Avatar
      Parker Hageman -
      For some reason, the Twins thought it's worth betting a 3-year deal on that kind of pitcher. Even stranger, Twins bloggers are trying so hard to get psyched about it.
      I posted this on Twitter recently but I'll share it here:

      http://www.fangraphs.com/leaders.asp...yers=1767,7450

      Over the past three years, Hughes and Correia have provided strikingly similar results. The main difference, is that the leagues and the park play a significant role in their WAR totals. You have cited xFIP, and rightly so, but that does not adjust for the competition nor the environment (although it attempts to in neutralizing the HR rates).

      While there is a chance Hughes never achieves the expectations that "bloggers" are "psyched" about (which I think was clearly outlined in the post above at length), Hughes' age, the shift in league competition (away from the AL East) and to a pitcher's park has people thinking he can provide better results in 2014 and beyond.
    1. orangevening's Avatar
      orangevening -
      Whoa...all those stats and splits and fastballt this and "soft slider" (love) that.... I'm getting a headache. Hughes might be good, he might be injured all season. Who knows. We don't know what will happen til it happens. Just glad T.R. is spending some $ on pitching, he (&we) might get burned, but at least he is doing something different.
    1. sconnytwinsfan's Avatar
      sconnytwinsfan -
      I like that the approach so far has been to get veteran arms, who are in their prime, who fit well as mid-rotation guys. That doesn't mean that I'm not hoping they pull off a Homer Bailey trade or Matt Garza signing. It would be amazing and I think getting a guy like Bailey (who has already "arrived) is likely worth the thought of including Gibson or May or Berrios in the deal. But for now the idea should still be that Meyer & Gibson (or maybe May) are intended to fill that 1 & 2 slot in 2015 or 2016 with Nolasco & Hughes moving down the line. If you think about it that way, then Hughes even settling in as a .500 pitcher making 28-33 starts and pitching 175-200 innings at a 4.10-4.25 ERA would make him a steal on this deal. Put another way....remember Nick Blackburn of 2008-2009? 22-22 with a 4.04 and 402 innings? Is there anyone who wouldn't pay $8 million a year to get that production from a starter on this rotation now? Is there anyone who doesn't at least like Hughes' chances of getting close and vastly outperforming the 28 & 29 year old Nick Blackburn? I know he's a completely different kind of pitcher, but he misses WAY more bats. The big question is can Rick Anderson revive his reputation by helping Hughes develop a plus second pitch.
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