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.
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Expectations and Phil Hughes