If you told me at the end of 2013 (5.19 ERA) that Phil Hughes would have a chance to win a Cy Young, I would’ve told you, no way. If you told me in 2012 (4.23 ERA) that Phil Hughes had a chance to win a Cy Young, I would’ve said it was highly improbable. If you told me in 2011 (5.79 ERA) that Phil Hughes had a chance to win a Cy Young, I would’ve told you to get out of my face; the guy would be lucky to be in the starting rotation (the Yankees starting rotation). That’s because for a large part of his career Phil Hughes was a terrible starting pitcher. Not a bad starter, a terrible starter. Over the last three years before 2014, he was actually one of the worst starting pitchers in baseball.

2014, though, was a different story. In the 2013-14 offseason Hughes signed a 3-year $24 million contract with the Minnesota Twins. That year Hughes had one of the best seasons in all of baseball, and needless to say, the best season of his career. Just how good was Hughes in 2014? Well, he pitched a career high 209.2 innings. His ERA was moderately good at 3.52 but he had the sixth best FIP in all of baseball at 2.65. The only pitchers to have a better FIP in 2014 were Garrett Richards, Chris Sale, Felix Hernandez, Corey Kluber, and Clayton Kershaw. Of those five only Hernandez and Kluber pitched more innings than Hughes.

Hughes finished with a relatively above average K/9 that year at 7.98, but he led all of baseball with .69 BB/9. His BB/9 in 2014 was one of the greatest BB/9 of all time (37th). In fact, the last pitcher to have a BB/9 better than him was Carlos Silva, also of the Twins, in 2005 at .43. Hughes’s great peripherals and BB/9 allowed him to finish 2014 with a 6.1 fWAR, which was tied as the fourth best in all of baseball among pitchers. Only Kluber, Kershaw, and Hernandez were better.

The 2014 season, however, was a complete anomaly for Hughes. For most of his career he’s been awful. So how can one determine if he will be a Cy Young candidate in 2015? First I think it’s important to consider one’s BABIP. This after all could have just been a fluky BABIP year. It, however, was not. Hughes was actually unlucky by BABIP standards at .324. BABIPs can be inflated when a pitcher gets a lot of groundballs, but Hughes does not. HIs GB% is at 36.5, which is below average. Hughes has predominantly been a fly ball pitcher so I do expect his BABIP to normalize somewhat next year.

Then I think it’s important to see if Hughes made some adjustments to his repertoire and his pitching style. In the table below, provided by Brooks Baseball you can see his pitch usage since he’s entered the big leagues.

Year Fourseam Sinker Cutter Curve Slider Change Split
2007 67.60 0.00 0.00 22.39 3.88 6.03 0.00
2008 62.65 0.00 6.79 22.58 2.72 5.26 0.00
2009 59.72 3.01 16.11 20.59 0.00 0.58 0.00
2010 63.94 0.00 15.82 16.81 0.00 3.44 0.00
2011 59.41 0.00 12.13 20.96 1.82 5.69 0.00
2012 65.31 0.44 1.71 17.37 5.16 10.00 0.00
2013 61.48 0.00 0.00 8.64 23.72 5.12 1.04
2014 60.78 4.36 20.27 14.36 0.00 0.20 0.00

 

It seems the important element to observe here is Hughes has always thrown a ton of four-seam fastballs and that clearly has not changed; if I were him I probably wouldn’t change that strategy. What has changed, however, is his use of sliders, cutters, sinkers, and changeups. He essentially rebuilt his repertoire in 2014, apart from his curveball and four-seam fastball. Hughes abandoned the slider and changeup and basically added a sinker. He also restarted using a cutter, a pitch he barely used over the past two years. Now, it’s the second most used pitched in his repertoire.

I don’t know who in the Twins organization told Hughes to restart throwing a cutter, but he probably deserves a raise (unless he decided to throw it all on his own of course). He throws his cutter at an average speed of 89.15 mph. He threw the pitch a total of 509 times and the wRC+ against it was only 71. It also netted an IFFB% of 23.4 and a GB% of 46.4.

This of course was not the only adjustment made by Hughes in 2014. Hughes was never someone who walked a lot of hitters but a .69 BB/9 is extremely low. Below is his heat map for 2014.

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As you can see, Hughes basically decided to throw the ball down the middle. Is this a good strategy? To be honest I’m not 100% percent sure but it sure did work for him in 2014 and it’s definitely efficient. This strategy obviously isn’t conducive to a lot of walks and it won’t tire a pitcher out. Plus when one considers the low scoring environment, throwing a pitch right down Broadway may not be such a bad idea. It’s also not like Hughes is throwing a ton of off speed pitches down the middle; most of the pitches he throws are fastball and cutters — in fact more than 80% of them are. Which makes his success all that more impressive.

This strategy may be devised to fit Hughes’s new environment and more specifically his new ballpark. As I’ve already mentioned, he’s a fly ball pitcher: his FB% last year was 40.2%, which was the 15th highest in the majors. When Hughes was pitching for the Yankees he was pitching in a stadium that gave up a lot of homeruns. In 2014 Yankee Stadium yielded the third most in the majors, after Great American Ball Park (Cincinnati) and Coors Field (Colorado). Giving up a lot of fly balls in a home run heavy ballpark is typically not a good mix. In 2012 Hughes’s HR/FB ratio was 12.4%, well above average and in 2013 it was 11.1%. The Twins stadium (Target Field), however, is not conducive to homeruns, in 2014 it ranked 23rd in home runs allowed. Phil Hughes’s HR/FB ratio dropped to 6.2%.

So is this going to translate into another great 2015 season? Well one thing is certain, Hughes is staying put and so he will play most of his games in Target Field, which should keep his number down (in a good sense). However, there’s no way of being 100% sure or accurate on this, and Steamer does project a 3.89 ERA with a 3.90 FIP. But I do think he has a very good chance of repeating his success due to his pitching adjustments and new pitching approach. Plus, his high BABIP of 2014 should normalize somewhat. Maybe next year he’ll have a low BABIP and his numbers will look even better, netting him a Cy Young. Who knows? I think a lot of people have a hard time believing in one year of success and with good reason, for all we know it could just be a blip on the radar. That being said pitchers, sometimes just figure something out, sometimes things just click. Maybe they invent a new pitch or maybe they rediscover an old one, like Hughes. Sometimes they even change their entire approach to pitching and find success in the latter years of their career, such as Cliff Lee. Phil Hughes could very well be that guy and he definitely wouldn’t be someone I would write off in 2015.

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