Phil Hughes Big Switch pitching performance on Friday night successfully stared down a three-game losing streak and Justin Verlander. It was also his fourth straight quality start, suggesting that Hughes is in the midst of his own Big Switch. That switch is half of what we thought it would be, but half unforeseen, though maybe we should have expected it.
When the Twins signed Phil Hughes this offseason to a 3-year, $24 million contract, reactions to the deal were split, with very little middle ground. The agreement was an easy target for criticism. Hughes record last year was just 4-14 with a 5.19 ERA. In what world did those numbers justify a three-year deal, let alone $24 million guaranteed?
The Twins are looking to switch things around this year. Every week, Metro Transit recognizes a Twins player who successfully switched the outcome of a game for the better.
The alternate view boiled down to one hope: like Snake Plissken, Hughes just needed to Escape from New York. Part of that argument was subjective. Hughes was once the top pitching prospect in the minors, the guy that Yankees wouldn’t trade for Johan Santana. He was called up as a 20-year-old, and even now is just 27 and approaching his prime. By all accounts his stuff has been better than his performance. He had faced the brightest of spotlights on the biggest of stages with the highest of expectations as one of the league’s youngest players. All of which could overwhelm anyone.
But the other reason to get him out of New York was more objective: Hughes has always been hurt by his home ballpark. In particular, his tendency to give up long fly balls was hurt by Yankees Stadium’s smaller dimensions, especially in right field. For instance, last year Hughes gave up seventeen home runs in Yankee Stadium and just seven on the road. His ERA at home was 6.32, but 3.88 on the road. His record was 1-10 in the Rebuilt House that Ruth Built, but 3-4 everywhere else. Perhaps Hughes just wasn’t made to pitch in the Bronx Bandbox.
So far, the home run theory is holding water. Hughes home run rate has dropped 40% to .9 HR/9 from 1.5 HR/9 last year. This year’s rate, by the way, matches his home run rate on the road last year. His 3.92 ERA also almost matches what he had on the road last year. Maybe this success isn’t such a surprise.
But there is another change, too. Hughes walk rate (1.3 BB/9) is half of what it was last year (2.6 BB/9) and over his entire Yankees’ career (2.8 BB/9). This is probably also something we might have anticipated, though maybe not to this degree. Pretty consistently, when pitchers have come to the Twins and pitching coach Rick Anderson, we have seen a decline in walk rate. Of course, we’ve also see a decline in strikeout rate, which we’re also seeing with Hughes, from 7.5 K/9 down to 7.0. Still, that’s a trade worth making.
Taken all together, there are some reasons to believe that this offseason’s best case scenario is coming true, and we’re watching a Big Switch in a player’s career. If so, instead of being foolish, the three-year deal the Twins signed would be brilliant. Hughes would be locked into a relatively affordable $8M contract through his 30-year-old season. It could work out well for Hughes too – that’s a good age to look for his next big deal, whether it is from the Twins or some other team. The contract, widely derided nationally, is paying off for both sides in the early going.
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