That may be a bit extreme but it has been so long since the Minnesota Twins have been able to pencil a strong candidate into the rotation that you forget what a good pitcher smells like.
(Answer: Good pitchers smell like Cy Young Awards -- a combination of polished chrome, rich mahogany and saddlewood).
OK, so a Cy Young this year is a stretch considering he has to rely on a stagnant Twins offense to score runs in order to continue to accumulate wins that the voters love so dearly, and the Yankees have a pitcher named Masahiro Tanaka who is doing unforgivable things to other teams, but at least for the first-half of the 2014 season Hughes has been pitching and putting his name in the conversation. So far, he is in the top 25 of pitchers in notable categories including WHIP (13th), K/BB ratio (2nd) and walks per nine innings (1st). And, if for some reason MLB decided to throw out the stats from the first month of the season, Hughes’ ERA of 2.17 would be the fifth-best in baseball.
When the Twins signed Hughes this offseason, there was the belief he would improve his numbers simply by not having to pitch at Yankee Stadium. In reality, his numbers have been improved not just because of the bigger ballpark but because of an overhaul in his approach.
Reports from Florida was that with the help of Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson Hughes was going to rekindle his relationship with his curveball that he roundly ignored in 2013. During spring training, he paid extra attention to improving the pitch, attempting to keep it from being spotted coming out of his hand. In short, this season he was going to ride back into Strikeout Town on a horse named Uncle Charlie with guns a-blazing (bang, bang).
That, however, has not played out that way. Hughes is having a marvelous season but it has little to do with his curveball being a knee-breaking offering.
He has incorporated the curveball slightly more than last year but it is not used in the same capacity. Last season, as Hughes told me this past March, he mainly used his curve in first-pitch situation as a get-me-over pitch. This season not only does he rarely spin it to start a count but because of the significant difference in velocity, he is using it more as a substitute for his changeup (which, along with his slider, has been shelved).
What makes Hughes’ curveball valuable is that it has sped up his already impressive fastball. With a near 17-mph velocity difference between it and his fastball, turning on the heater has proven difficult for hitters this year. According to ESPN/trumedia, after pulling the ball 32% of the time from 2009 to 2013 opponents have turned on it just 23% of the time (the lowest among qualified starters).
So if it is not his curveball creating all the strikeouts, what is?
That would be his cutter. The cutter, the slider’s cousin, has been used more frequently as of late across baseball. According to a recent Providence Journal article, Boston Red Sox pitchers have turned to cutters as a way of confusing hitters. Their theory is that the shorter, quick break generates more swings at pitches out of the zone that the looping curve or the tilting slider. It looks like a fastball and has late break.
It is because of this pitch that Hughes has been successful against left-handed hitters. From 2009 to 2013, lefties had posted a 861 OPS while mainly facing his curve and change as secondary pitches. With a transition to the cutter as his secondary pitch, this season he has kept left-handed at bay with a 527 OPS, the fifth best rate among qualified starters.
What makes the cutter effective against left-handed batters is the ability to spot it on the outer-half, using it as a backdoor pitch on two-strike counts. Hughes has registered 42 strikeouts of left-handers this season, 21 of which have been looking. Of those 21, 18 were on his cutter. Below is an ESPN/trumedia heat map of the cutter’s location on those 18 caught-looking strikeouts which demonstrates Hughes’ ability to expand the strike zone on the outside.
In last night’s start, Hughes froze Red Sox outfielder Daniel Nava on this pitch:
The cutter comes out of Hughes’ hand at a velocity much like his fastball (89 mph compared to 92 on the fastball), but rather than residing up in the zone like his fastball, he keeps the cutter down in the zone -- helping change a hitter’s eye level as well. With the last second tail and Hughes’ precision placement, lefties appear hopeless against the pitch.
Beyond his arsenal, it is his overwhelming ability to attack the strike zone that has positioned him well. As noted above, Hughes’ walk rate is the best in baseball and he also leads starters with getting ahead in the count. On the first pitch, Hughes leads baseball with a 66% zone rate (average is just slightly higher than 50%) and he continues to push to two-strikes quickly. This puts hitters on the defensive and gives him a sizable advantage.
Phil Hughes is having an outstanding rebound season but not because of the reasons people initially thought. The inclusion of his cutter combined with his world-conquering strike zone dominance has elevated Hughes’ into a top-of-the-rotation starter that was once predicted for him in New York.