Phil Hughes Changing Up To Stay Ahead
Image courtesy of Rick Osentoski, USA TodayIn the eyes of some, Hughes' start in Detroit on May 17th of last year was deserving of criticism – the sign of a player who wasn't invested in a team that had already gone off the rails. As you might recall, the righty had gotten through 6 1/3 innings with one run allowed before reportedly pulling himself at 75 pitches during a mound visit, giving way to a bullpen collapse that led to a lopsided loss.
Whether Hughes asked out or simply allowed Paul Molitor to take the ball from him, various fans and members of the media – particularly those of the old-school bulldog mindset – implied that the incident demonstrated softness. No fiery competitor would willingly leave a close game in which he was seemingly in control at that pitch count. Right?
I saw it differently, and wrote as much at the time. Noting that Hughes clearly didn't have much that night, I commended him for recognizing that he was out of gas and letting the manager go to fresh arms for the last eight outs. It didn't work out, but it easily may not have worked out the other way.
Hughes put up a 6.61 ERA while allowing a 1.011 OPS over his next four starts, then broke his leg, and then underwent thoracic outlet surgery to address a longstanding shoulder issue that had sapped his pitches of zip and left him to rely upon control and guile to navigate through outings. Sometimes, it worked. More often, it didn't, as his increasingly unsatisfactory numbers in 2015 and 2016 showed.
The early portion of his 2017 season has been reminiscent of those last two campaigns. Nine months removed from his operation, Hughes hasn't gotten his fastball back, not yet anyway. Through four starts, his heater has been registering under 90 MPH on average per FanGraphs, lower than any other point in his big league career and nearly three full ticks below where he was at during that sensational 2014 season.
It seems the veteran had been preparing himself for such a reality. During spring training, one big storyline was his heavy usage of the changeup, a pitch he'd rarely thrown in 10 MLB seasons.
"You're always trying to stay ahead," Hughes said after one Grapefruit start in which he threw the pitch a ton. "I don't just want to hope that I come back healthy and surgery did its job and I'm back to where I was.
"I wanted to do something proactively to facilitate that ... I truly believe that adding a changeup is going to do nothing but help."
Indeed, Hughes has gone to the change an unprecedented 20 percent of the time thus far while greatly reducing reliance upon his fastball, seemingly an acknowledgement that his top pitch isn't close to where it needs to be. To that end, the 30-year-old told Brandon Warne of Zone Coverage recently that he's been trying to add spin to his fastball so as to get more out of it.
While the overall results haven't been great – he has a 4.71 ERA and hasn't yet pitched past the sixth – Hughes is certainly out-pitching his stuff, which is frankly just plain unimpressive.
On Monday in Texas, he managed to induce only one swinging strike on 86 pitches, but still battled his way through six innings of two-run ball en route to his third victory in four turns. It was the same kind of crafty and gritty outing as we saw on that evening in Detroit last May – right down to the skepticism about his coming out on a low pitch count.
This is both a good and bad thing. It's nice to see Hughes craftily finding ways to get the job done while lacking much sizzle on his pitches. But that lack of sizzle is certainly troubling, and as long as his arsenal continues to drag, every start is going to be an adventure.
Hopefully, as he further distances himself from surgery, Hughes will gradually regain arm strength and the velocity will begin to creep upward.
Until the fastball catches up, he'll need to keep searching for ways to stay ahead.
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