Who is this man and what has he done with Phil Hughes?
Or rather, why did it take him so long to become the Phil Hughes we were promised?
Hughes was a top prospect in the Yankees system, but his career with the major league club failed to live up to the high expectations. While he had some excellent seasons, Hughes was more often than not an inconsistent pitcher who gave up too many home runs to be successful in the Bronx for the long haul.
He signed a three-year, $24 million deal with the Twins following last season and this year has been a huge bounceback for the 27-year-old righthander.
After going 4-14 with a 5.19 ERA and 1.45 WHIP with the Yankees in 2013, Hughes is 5-1 with a 3.23 ERA and 1.19 WHIP during his freshman season with the Twins. He starts against the Yankees in the Bronx on Sunday.
What's changed? Plenty.
- Hughes is pounding the strike zone like never before. A career-high 57.4 percent of his pitches are in the zone. His career rate is 50.5 percent. In turn, hitters are swinging at more of his pitches than ever before (56.2 percent swing rate, 49 percent for his career), especially pitches out of the zone (career-high 36.5 percent out of zone swing rate, 29.6 percent career).
- Hughes is notorious for year-to-year tinkering with his arsenal, often eliminating a pitch completely from his repertoire and adding a new one in. Last season, Hughes relied primarily on his slider and fastball with a few curves and changes thrown in. This season, Hughes is going with his fastball, cutter and curve with less than one percent of his pitches being change-ups. The cutter is being used a career-high 24.7 percent of the time. The other two seasons during which he prominently featured a cutter? 2009 (16.1 percent) and 2010 (16.4 percent), arguably his two best campaigns before this year.
- He has a 92.2 mph career average fastball speed (92.4 mph average last season). It's at 92.1 mph this year.
- His hit types haven't changed much:
2013 – 22.7% liners, 30.8% grounders, 46.5% flyballs
2014 – 22.8% liners, 32.6% grounders, 44.6% flyballs
- But . . . Hughes has given up only four home runs this season, and hasn't allowed a homer in any of his previous four starts. He last gave up a long ball on May 4, his sixth start. Last season, he gave up his fourth home run during his third start on April 18. He'd already allowed 11 home runs following his start on May 27, 2013. He gave up a total of 24 last season.
- Heading into Friday night, Hughes led qualified pitchers in the American League with 0.9 walks per nine innings.
- Hughes started the season 0-1 with a 7.20 ERA in his first three games. He allowed 20 hits in 15 innings, striking out 17 and walking five (3.4 K/BB).
- He turned a corner on April 20 at Kansas City. In his last seven starts, Hughes is 5-0 with a 1.94 ERA and 47 hits in 46.1 innings, striking out 33 and walking 1 (33 K/BB rate).
- April 20 was the last time Hughes walked a batter, Alcides Escobar. It came with two outs in the second inning. In the 44.2 innings he's pitched since, he's struck out 32.
- Hughes has six total walks. Last season, he walked his sixth hitter during his sixth start of the season on May 4. Hughes had walked 13 hitters following his May 27, 2013 start.
- Hughes has absolutely owned lefthanded hitters this year, holding them to a .194/.229/.291 line in 110 plate appearances. Righties have an .807 on-base plus slugging percentage in 143 PAs.
- In six starts at home, Hughes has a 3.72 ERA, but in four starts away he has a 2.52 ERA. That's in keeping with his career trend. In 101 home games (Yankee Stadium and Target Field), Hughes has a 4.85 ERA; on the road he has a 3.98 ERA in 91 games.
- Can he sustain this start? Hughes' peripherals look strong. He has a .328 batting average on balls in play and 74.6 left on base percentage. Those are normal. Anything below a 70 percent LOB is a cause for concern. Starters tend to have a BABIP around .300. Hughes' is .296 lifetime. So, if anything, his .328 is a little high and it could come down.