Phil Hughes' Long Curving History
Year in and year out, there has been an inability to choose a secondary pitch. While it has mainly been a big, slow curve, it has seen several variations followed by abandonment in 2013 in favor of a slider. Hughes’ Year of the Slider produced mixed results as opponents struggled against his new weapon in the season’s first-half, hitting just .160 off it, but then the competition zeroed in and smashed it around to the tune of .360 in the last half of the year. This spring, after a year of opting for the hard slider, 2014 will be the Return of the Curve (also a great follow-up single for Mark Morrison).
If you google “Phil Hughes curveball”, you will find several pieces dating back to 2009 that are dedicated to his bender. When Hughes was one of the game’s top prospects in the Yankees’ farm system, Baseball America raved about curveball. Prior to the 2007 season, as River Avenue Blues cited in 2010, Baseball America’s prospectors were elated when Hughes decided to forget the slider for the big curve:
“Hughes’ greatest accomplishment as a pro has been to forsake his slider in favor of a knockout curveball, which is more of a strikeout pitch and produces less stress on his arm. It’s a true power breaking ball that sits in the low 80s with 1-to-7 break. Club officials call it the best in the system because Hughes can throw it for quality strikes or bury it out of the zone, and because he uses the same arm slot and release point he uses for his fastball.”
The bipolar relationship with his curveball followed him throughout his major league career as well.
In 2009, the Yankees asked him to change his curve from the low-70s loop for a more “power curve” as Hughes described it. It would be fashioned off the same curve that Mike Mussina and AJ Burnett threw at that time, with the same arm speed as his fastball. After averaging 71 and 72-miles per hour on the curve in 2007 and 2008, respectively, he was averaging 77 on the curve in 2009.
Two years later in 2011, Hughes was again trying to reinvent his curve. After not getting the results he wanted on the pitch, Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild made the suggestion to switch his grip from the knuckle or spike-curve to a more standard curve grip. The reasoning was that Hughes felt opponents were tracking the pitch out of his hand, and this change would give him that harder break the Yankees believed would benefit him.
In 2012, he admitted to throwing two variations of the pitch, one from a different arm slot to change things up. Last year, his concern that hitters were picking up the curve out of his hand forced him,at the behest of the Yankees, towards the slider to allow him to throw more east-west across the strike zone.
Overall, the curve never became the big weapon that Baseball America projected almost a decade ago. Since 2009, only 105 of his 575 strikeouts have come on his curve -- a vast majority these have come on the fastball (337). Part of that is simply a pitch selection decision, since he threw his fastball three times more often in two strike counts. Is that because of lack of faith in his secondary pitch or just knowing his fastball is superior? Did the Yankees’ constant tinkering add to that as well?
In addition to returning to the curve, it also appears Hughes will be using the spike-curve again (as seen in his Twins spring training debut photo above). With the exception of the 2011 alteration to the standard grip, Hughes has favored this variation over his career. What’s more, from 2009 to the end of 2012, ESPN/tru media’s pitch database shows that his curve has dropped -8.2 inches, one of the biggest drops in the game. That has not equaled success, to be sure, as his well-hit average of .174 has been one of the highest among qualified starters (and well above the curveball average of .137).
The Twins are eager to see if Hughes can rekindle the curve, believing the change in speed will help him overall. We don’t know how it will work, but we know that Hughes has been down this road before with mixed results.