Anatomy of a player: Phil Hughes

Phil Hughes release point. Yankess at Tigers 4/29/08 (Icon/SMI)
Introduction

Phil Hughes is one of the most talked-about players in the game today. The soon-to-be 22-year-old pitcher pitched in 13 regular season games and two more in the postseason for the Yankees in 2007 and started this year in the rotation starting before going on the DL after six starts. It was a rocky start to the season for Hughes, who compiled an even 9.00 ERA and 1.00 K/BB ratio.

He is close to ready to begin throwing again, though it will take some time before he returns to the majors after that. His struggles, especially this year, are exactly why he is so talked about. Pretty much everyone has a theory as to what might be going wrong with Hughes and our very own Paul Nyman has created a nice starting list of possible solutions. I am not an expert on pitching mechanics, but I do know a thing or two about PITCHf/x data, so I am going to throw in my two cents to the discussion.

Velocity Drop

Much that has been written has been about Phil Hughes losing several ticks on his fastball from around 94-95 mph to 91-92 mph late last year and into this year. Depending on who you read, either this drop is real or maybe 94-95 was only his max effort fastball. Whatever the case, even Yankees GM Brian Cashman was concerned.

An explanation was given by Hughes himself that the dip in velocity was due to coming off an injury. But when the 2008 season started and Hughes was still throwing in the low 90s other explanations were needed. Now I am not going to be able to tell you whether Hughes is going to be pitching closer to 95 mph than 90 mph when he comes back, but I can say that this year his fastball has been averaging just over 92 mph, which is almost exactly the same that is was while PITCHf/x was watching him last year.

It certainly is possible that when he comes back later this year or maybe next year, he will be back averaging in the mid-90s, but because that isn’t the direction the data is pointing. Right now, I am going to evaluate Hughes with the nearly exactly average fastball speed he has shown.

Arm Angle

The other thing people spend a lot of time looking at is Hughes’ arm angle. It appears that his arm angle has risen since 2006, though the question is how much? Some people think that it needs to go even higher for him to be successful. I have no data from Hughes for 2006, but I do have data from 2007 and 2008, so let’s take a look at his release point and see if anything has changed.

While there is a slight move to the left (as seen by the catcher), the big thing that jumps out is that his release point has become exceptionally small. To see just how small it is, I have come up with a new metric I am calling repeatability that simply measures the variance of a pitcher’s release point. Here are the results for the 455 pitchers who have thrown at least 100 pitches this year.

You can see that while the mean is just over a foot, the mode is at nine inches. The difference is due to pitchers who like to alter their arm angles and drop down sidearm. So where does Hughes’ rank? He is on the extremely low end at 3.4 inches of variation.

That is remarkably small, though I couldn’t word it better than Dan Fox, who called it “about the size of a postcard.” So if someone tells you that Hughes doesn’t have a consistent release point, they are wrong. Because his release point is so steady, you would think that comes from a very repeatable delivery and, indeed, that is reportedly one of his best traits. In fact, you have to wonder if his release point is too consistent. The way he is throwing right now, the batter knows exactly where the ball is coming from. That might be helping him pick up the ball earlier and give him more time to determine the pitch type. This is something that needs future investigation, so consider it a theory right now.

What does Hughes throw?

Now that we have looked at his release point, let’s move on to what Hughes throws. Hughes throws a fastball, curveball, slider and change-up. Here is his movement plot.

The slider he only throws to right-handed batters and the change he reserves for lefties. Neither of these pitches are used often, however, as Hughes throws them less than 10 percent of the time combined. His fastball he throws about two-thirds of the time and his curveball nearly a quarter of the time. Starting with his fastball, we have already seen that Hughes’ current velocity is near league average, but it also has been described as having late life, especially while he was in the minors. This could be a result of his lower arm angle, which would have produced more side spin and less back spin than the fastball he is throwing today.

Currently, Hughes’ fastball is very straight, with only about 4.5 inches of horizontal movement in towards a right-handed batter. This is nearly an inch less than league average. His fastball does “rise” a bit more, checking in with about 11.5 inches vertical movement, which is about two inches more than league average. Therefore, I would not describe the pitch as having great movement. The result is hitters are knocking it around as he has a 0.33 runs100 for his fastball this year (negative numbers are good for pitchers).

His curve is a knuckle curve, which has just an amazing amount of movement on it. He is generating more than 7 inches of horizontal and more than 8 inches of downward vertical movement. This blows away the league average in both directions. No wonder why he is throwing his curve so often. Sadly, there is some potentially bad news about his curve. Because of the large movement, his curveball isn’t staying in the same plane as his fastball in either direction. Here is a side view and a top view of the pitch.

Most pitchers who throw over the top also throw a 12 to 6 curve. Ben Sheets is a great example of this. But because Hughes throws a knuckle curve, his curve isn’t over the top; it is almost exactly between 1 to 7 and 2 to 8 from his perspective.

Apparently this pitch, too, has undergone some alteration, as in an interview in 2006 Hughes himself claimed the pitch was 12 to 6 or 1 to 7 depending on if he wanted to throw the pitch for a strike or not. Previous work indicates that horizontal movement isn’t all that useful for curveballs and, even worse, I wonder if that might be helping to tip the pitch to batters. While he isn’t giving the pitch away from the release point, because it is so constant hitters might have more time to identify the hump or the large horizontal movement.

Hughes’ slider is more of a slurve thrown at 79 mph with a lot of horizontal movement. When Hughes was drafted, he didn’t throw a curve, but the Yankees taught him the pitch to reduce strain on his arm. I really think this is a good pitch for Hughes and if the Yankees will let him, I would recommend him using it more often. He has good command and should be able to get plenty of swings and misses from right-handed batters if he starts the pitch on the outside corner and has it tail away.

His change-up is more of an issue, however. He doesn’t seem to be able to replicate the spin of his fastball and his control with it leaves something to be desired. This is certainly a pitch that he should continue working on, as it would be nice to have an effective off-speed pitch that moved down and away from left-handed batters. Still, he is a very young pitcher and this is something that he should be able to work on as he matures.

Conclusions

Phil Hughes has a huge amount of upside, but there still are concerns. If he continues to not use his slider and change-up, he effectively becomes a two pitch pitcher. Now despite what you might have heard, starters can make it in this league with only two pitches as long as they are both quality pitches and if he can control them well. Hughes’ control doesn’t seem to be an issue despite his spate of walks this year. Everything that I read makes me think his control will be between good and great. The quality, though, might be an issue.

The fastball that Hughes has shown so far is average at best. He might be able to spice up the movement with a lowered arm angle or make some mechanical adjustments to get back some lost velocity, but if it continues as it is right now, major league batters will hit it hard. His curve has extraordinary movement but maybe too much movement for his own good. If hitters don’t have to worry about the slider and the change, identifying the curve will be that much easier because I don’t see a good solution to how he can disguise the pitch any better than he already is.

I feel like it is paramount that he throws his slider or change-up more often (preferably both) to keep hitters honest. Even if neither of these pitches are plus pitches right now, the slider at least has that potential. Most of Phil Hughes’ future is ahead of him and he should turn into a great pitcher, but he isn’t there yet. Time will tell if he makes it or not.

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