Dr. Strange Phil, or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Believe Phil Hughes Is Ready

When the Yankees announced that Philip Hughes would be making his major league debut tonight against the Toronto Blue Jays, most of the media saw it as a sign that the Yankees were panicking. While this might be the case, the available evidence gives us a different answer.

After signing as a first round draft pick in June of 2004, Hughes has dominated at every level of the minor leagues. His worst performance at a level was his stint in Triple-A. Though he only sports a 3.94 ERA at the level, his peripherals paint a more promising picture and thusly, his performance at that level could be looked at in a positive light. In addition to Hughes’ statistical dominance, the way he’s been getting his results would also lead one to believe that he’s up for good.

Hughes’ primary weapon is a four-seam fastball that is typically 90 to 94 mph, touching 96 mph on occasion. Hughes will elevate this fastball from time to time in order to get a strikeout, but likes to hit the low inside and low outside corners with it for strikes. Hughes also throws a two-seam fastball that he pounds the lower half of the strike zone with, leading to his high groundball rates.

The other major weapon in his arsenal is his curve ball. This pitch comes in the mid to high 70s and has an 1-to-7 break to it. He typically uses it to get swings and misses, and is not afraid to throw it early in counts or in fastball situations. The final two pitches that he throws are a slider in the low to mid 80s that is rarely seen and a change up thrown around 80 mph. While the slider was Phil’s best pitch in high school, the Yankees have largely done away with it due to an organizational emphasis on curve balls. The change up is the pitch that Yankee officials like to point to as reason for Hughes still being in the minors.

I don’t quite buy this theory because while Hughes’ change up isn’t turning the heads of any scouts, it’s a pitch that is good enough that at its current level, and given the rest of his arsenal, minor league hitters aren’t going to do much with it; his command and control of his arsenal are simply too good for minor league hitters to do much against him. This is what makes him unique in the pitching phenom lineage.

Many of them have had low minor league walk totals, but those totals were often a result of batters swinging at every overpowering fastball or knee-buckling curve, rather than because the pitches were particularly well placed. In other words, Hughes’ stuff isn’t Josh Beckett or Felix Hernandez impressive, but his placement plays it up. The only place for him to learn about the dangers of not improving his change up, as far as facing repercussions, would be the majors.

The other reason the Yankees have given for keeping Hughes in the minors is his having an inning cap of 180 for this season. The reason given for this cap is that they do not want him to experience too large a jump in innings from one year to the next. This sounds well and good and has been publicly accepted, but is curious when put in the light of Hughes already having made an inning jump of 65.2 last year, counting the playoffs.

Furthermore, if the Yankees were actually so concerned with this inning cap, it’s curious that they pitched him 16 innings in his first three starts of the year. This might not seem like much, but for an example of what lengths an organization might go to in order to enforce a cap on a pitcher, look at what Boston did with Jon Lester last year. In 11 games, he pitched 46.2 innings.

Given the available evidence, the logical conclusion would be that the Yankees anticipated having to call on Hughes this year. They likely wanted to avoid the hoopla of him breaking camp with the team or any other such pressure situation, but can no longer do so. The move to call Hughes up was borne of necessity, but in the plans. He might have a tough go of it his first time out, as he usually takes two or three starts before settling in at a level, but given the fragility of Carl Pavano, the performance of Kei Igawa, and Hughes’ merits he is up for good. Amidst a questionable rotation and quickly tiring bullpen, the Yankees can at least be fairly optimistic about 164 innings of good baseball from their young right-hander.

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