The rise of Philip Hughes

The Yankees’ farm system is a bit like public transport in a heaving metropolis: you wait an age for a bus and then three pitch up at once. Until recently, talking about the Yankees’ farm conjured up images of a decrepit cattle ranch in bone-dry mid-Texas manned by aging cowboys tending some malnourished bovine life forms.

Well, no longer. Suddenly the Yankees’ system is starting to resemble a Kentucky stud farm having produced a couple of above-average prospects in the guise of Robinson Cano and Melky Cabrera over the last couple of years, while also nurturing perhaps the hottest prospect in baseball today: 21-year-old flamer Philip Hughes.

Phil Hughes was called up to the Yankees to start against the Blue Jays on April 26. He did not play particularly well, giving up four runs in 4 1/3 innings. In his second start a few days later he was magical and on track for a no-hitter before being pulled in the seventh after suffering a hamstring injury. He hasn’t played for the Yankees since but in recent weeks has made a few minor league rehab starts and is presently expecting another big league call-up.

So, how does a young Phil Hughes compare to some of the other great pitchers in recent times? Before we answer let’s get properly acquainted.

Meet Philip Hughes

Hughes was born on June 24, 1986 in California and it was there he grew up and went to school. He was a born thrower from day one hurling a perfect game as a High School All-American pitcher, going 12-0 with a 0.78 ERA in his junior year and 9-1 with a 0.69 ERA in his senior year. He was drafted in the first round (23rd overall) of the 2004 draft by the Yankees and on his current trajectory should be pick of the class.

He’s technology savvy and even has his own website, which although stylish currently lacks a bit of substance—not something that can be said about its proprietor!

Since becoming part of the Yankees organization in 2004, Hughes has demonstrated a rare trifecta of pitching talent: control, power and youth—okay, youth isn’t a skill but is an important determinant of future success. Check out his numbers since draft day (ignoring this year as he has mostly been injured):

Year  Level Team            Age   W     L     ERA   IP    K/9     BB/9
2004  Rk    GCL Yanks       18    0     0     0     5     14.4    0.0
2005  A     Charlst-sc      19    7     1     1.97  68.2  9.5     2.1
2005  A+    Tampa           19    2     0     3.06  17.2  11.0    2.1
2006  A+    Tampa           20    2     3     1.8   30    9.0     0.6
2006  AA    Trenton         20    10    3     2.25  116   10.7    2.5

At all levels of the game he has impressed. He strikes out a ton of hitters while still being stingy with walks. Moreover as he has shot up the various leagues his stats haven’t degraded, which bodes well as he embarks on what should be a fruitful big league career. Add in the fact that he has just turned 21 and it isn’t difficult to conjure up comparisons with other star phenoms.

Pitching comparisons

Take a look at how those numbers compare to other historically good 19-, 20- and 21-year-olds playing at a similar level. I could have picked many pitchers but I went for a combination of established power-fuelled superstars (Johan Santana, Pedro Martinez, Mark Prior) and some upcoming phenoms (Scott Kazmir, Francisco Liriano)

A AND A+ LEVELS
Player    Year     Lg       Age      Level    ERA      IP       BB9      K9       WHIP
Hughes    2005     SAL      19       A        1.97     68.2     2.1      9.44     0.9
Hughes    2005     FSL      19       A+       3.06     17.2     2.04     10.7     0.68
Hughes    2006     FSL      20       A+       1.8      30       0.6      9        0.7
Liriano   2002     SAL      18       A        3.49     80       3.49     9.56     1.15
Liriano   2004     FSL      20       A+       4        117      3.31     9.62     1.38
Kazmir    2003     SAL      19       A        2.36     76.1     3.3      12.38    1.02
Kazmir    2003     FSL      19       A+       3.27     33       4.36     10.91    1.36
Kazmir    2004     FSL      20       A+       3.42     50       3.96     9.18     1.42
Santana   1999     Midw     20       A        4.66     160.1    3.09     8.42     1.35
Martinez  1991     Calif    19       A+       2.05     61.1     2.79     12.18    0.98

AA LEVELS
Player    Year     Lg       Age      Level    ERA      IP       BB9      K9       WHIP
Hughes    2006     East     20       AA       2.25     116      2.48     10.71    0.91
Prior     2002     Sou      21       AA       2.6      34.2     2.6      14.28    1.04
Liriano   2004     East     20       AA       3.18     39.2     3.86     11.12    1.56
Liriano   2005     East     21       AA       3.64     76.2     3.05     10.8     1.25
Kazmir    2004     East     20       AA       1.73     26       3.12     10.04    0.96
Kazmir    2004     Sou      20       AA       1.44     25       3.96     8.64     1
Martinez  1991     Tex      19       AA       1.76     76.2     3.64     8.69     1.15

At A and A+ Hughes held his own against the best of them, showing an awesome combination of power and control as well as remarkable consistency. In fact, all our star hurlers had a K/9 rate around 10. Only Kazmir’s A season in 2003 and Pedro’s A+ season in 1991 were significantly better. Looking at walk rates and WHIP we can see that Hughes is definitely a top-quartile performer. The most dominant hurler in today’s game, Johan Santana, had a BB/9 of 3.09, a K/9 of 8.4 and a WHIP of 1.35 during his A-ball foray—all marks that Hughes easily bested.

What about AA?

Well, Hughes’ stats stack up even better there compared to his peers. In 2006 while pitching for Trenton in the Eastern League Hughes’ peripherals included a K/9 of 10.7, a BB/9 of 2.5 and a WHIP of 0.9. Out of his contemporaries Hughes had the best BB/9 and WHIP; only Prior’s K/9 of 14.28 was significantly better. The other thing to note is that Hughes is, if anything, on the younger side compared to the other pitcher seasons we are looking at.

No wonder the whole baseball community is excited about Phil Hughes. It begs the question: how did he slip down to 21st draft pick? Almost every team missed him, some twice (Minnesota, I’m looking at you).

Pitch repertoire

Hughes’ ace-like projections are based solely off of one pitch: an uber-strong fastball, typically a four-seamer but also with some two-seam stuff mixed in. It tops out at 96 mph and regularly sits in the 91-95 mph zone. Combine that with plus command and you have a top-draw strike out pitch. Let’s define plus command. Simply put, he can place the ball exactly where he wants when he wants while hurling 95 mph gas. This command and power combination will sit at the cornerstone of Hughes’ success or failure for years to come. If he becomes a Hall-of-Fame caliber pitcher it will be because of this, likewise if he sinks to obscurity. He launches the fastball around 60-70% of the time.

Hughes has a plus 12-6/1-7 curveball that supplements his fastball; he throws the curve 20-30% of the time. Incredibly when he was drafted Hughes didn’t have a curveball but Yankees minor league pitching coach, Nardi Contreras, made him swap his slider for a curve largely to reduce pressure on the arm that the slider imparts. You’d have thought it would have taken a while for Hughes to master the pitch wouldn’t you? No. Within a few months, and after a bit of help from Mike Mussina, Hughes had one of the finest curves in the minors. This ability to quickly learn new pitches is also why many suspect he’ll age well. What he’ll lose in velocity he should more than make up for in guile. Oh, and did I mentioned he has Zito-esque control of the pitch. Want it above the zone? Or prefer it in the dirt? Or want him to pain the top-left corner? Nine times out of 10, Hughes will hit the spot.

Obviously he still has his slider although he doesn’t use it all that much, if at all. He’ll probably keep it in his back pocket and throw it on the odd occasion when a hitter may have worked out his combinations.

The only pitch he hasn’t yet mastered is the change-up. The speed/change combo is one of the most devastating in baseball. Santana has got it down to a tee and it sat at the heart of Pedro’s historic seasons in the late 1990s. If Hughes wants to become a top draw pitcher he’ll need to acquire it. He can throw it but struggles to locate it properly and as such tends to launch his curve when in trouble, which can hang and get launched into the seats. That’s one of the reasons why the Yankees were reluctant to push him into their rotation this year: they were keen for him to develop the change into a plus pitch while serving time in AAA.

Let me repeat: This combination of power and command has the potential to underpin a Hall-of-Fame career. Many pitchers have the command; many pitchers have the power. But Hughes has both, and he is just 21 years old. If, and this is a big if for young pitchers, he can stay healthy, he should be established in the rotation by 2008 and the staff ace by 2009.

Thoughts on mechanics

Never seen Hughes pitch? If not, I urge you to have a look at the following clips:

  • Clip 1: This is the condensed game from mlb.com, where Hughes throws a no-hitter until he is pulled in the seventh inning against Texas. (You’ll need to click on condensed game and have an mlb.com subscription to watch the video.)
  • Clip 2: Hughes at the 2006 Futures game held at PNC Park in Pittsburgh just before the All-Star game.

Now I’m not a professional scout but those in the know are seriously impressed with Philip’s mechanics and arm action. Kevin Goldstein, of Baseball Prospectus, called it flawless, and here is what a scout friend of mine said:

“His action is raw but hugely impressive. He generates power through body torque, rotation and strength rather than putting huge strain on his elbow. If you were going to teach a Little Leaguer how to gun a fastball then Phil Hughes is a great role model .”

Compare this to the so-called worst arm action in the world which THT’s pitching whiz, Carlos Gomez, bestowed on the unfortunate Mark Redman a few months ago. Note how all the flaws that Carlos points out in Redman’s action—lack of rotation, tailing off at the end—don’t apply to Phil’s action.

I asked Carlos what he thought about Philip Hughes’ mechanics. He said,

“His tempo is nice and quick. Not the quickest guy, but still in the “power pitcher range.” From top of knee lift to release, he gets his body moving forward
quickly. Arm action is nice and short. He keeps his elbow at least slightly bent on the way back. His “scap load” isn’t excellent but it’s good enough. I would probably give him an A-/B+ in arm action.

He keeps his posture pretty well into an efficient, pretty classic 3/4 arm slot. He doesn’t tilt his head much to make room for his arm. Arm slot and posture is
something I think is pretty natural, but for control purposes, it helps if a pitcher doesn’t tilt his head to make room for his arm. His follow through tells me that he’s put good effort into the pitch and his arm follows a nice path as he decelerates.

The “not so good.” While at first it looks like he firms up the front side pretty well, I slowed it down and saw that it seems like he opens up a little too early. I think he pulls his front shoulder out of the way, which leads to…..Let me explain, as soon as I saw that, I said “shoulder injury” in my head. I knew nothing about Hughes injury troubles, but after I saw that, I Googled “Phil Hughes shoulder injury,” and well there ya go. I think I would worry about his durability. Unless he gets that front shoulder under control, I think shoulder injuries will haunt him throughout his career.

His stuff is NASTY though, holy crap.”

Incidentally Carloz wrote this before Hughes’ major league debut—talk about prescient. Following this exchange Carlos wrote a column on Phil, which you can find here with a follow-up here.

The future

Everything we’ve seen from Hughes in the past suggests we are looking at a future ace. So, what do the three-year THT projections say?

Year    Age     IP      K/9     BB/9    WHIP    ERA
2007    21      134     8.6     2.8     1.4     4.06
2008    22      139     8.4     2.7     1.3     3.99
2009    23      144     8.2     2.6     1.3     3.91

Bear in mind that the 2007 numbers are shot because of his recent injury, but let’s ignore that for a minute. Looking at the A/A+/AA comps these forecasts look a touch conservative. Saying that, ZiPS and CHONE, the only other two systems to look at Hughes, both expect him to be worse across the board. Look for these numbers to be the floor of his performance; there is a ton of upside here.

There is one concern surrounding Hughes, and that is health. This is especially pertinent given that he has been out for half the season with hamstring issues. Ill health has blighted many a young hurler’s career. Liriano, for instance, could have trotted off with the AL Cy Young last year had he not busted his elbow. Also given that Hughes is most often compared to Mark Prior then health is most certainly a question mark. Aside from the hamstring, he has had minor shoulder and elbow complaints over the last two years. While these are nothing to be too concerned about over the long term, they imply that he doesn’t have rubber arms and legs and this lack of apparent durability at such an early stage in his career is concerning.

Final thoughts

If he stays healthy, Phil will anchor the Yankees rotation for the next 15 years. He is the best (and almost only) pitching prospect to emerge from the Yankees farm since Mariano Rivera. Rivera is going to the Hall of Fame. Hughes has a golden opportunity to follow him.

Shush. Don’t tell anyone but if the Yankees line-up stays the way it is he could even win 300 games.

References & Resources
All minor league stats came from the Baseball Cube. Thanks to everyone (too many people to mention) who have posted scouting reports on Hughes that I have been able to rely on.

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