With the New York Yankees recently announcing that Phil Hughes would be their number five starter, I decided to check out his start today and see what his stuff looked like in his new (old) role.
Hughes pitched 4.2 innings, allowing three runs, all earned, on six hits, while striking out five and walking one. Although Minnesota picked up a couple of runs in the first and tacked on another in the fifth (although that last one scored on a ball that Brett Gardner should have caught) it was a solid outing for Hughes. He mixed in all four of his pitches and seemed to approach the outing in a manner similar to that of a regular season start.
First of all, Hughes' mechanics, as always, look very sound and easily repeated. He has always had solid control and showed that again today, although he did benefit a bit from an umpire calling a wide strike zone. As is traditionally the case when he starts, the vast majority of balls in play against Hughes were fly-balls, a concern in a hitter's park like Yankee Stadium, but less of one this year with the newly revamped defense.
Hughes' four-seam fastball was sitting comfortably in the low-90s today and peaked at 94. He commanded it well, particularly to his arm-side, although in a perfect world you would like to see him get the ball down a bit more. His fastball remains fairly straight, but it had good life and few hitters were able to square it up. It was his best pitch on the day and should be the backbone of his repertoire throughout the year.
As the game went on, Hughes appeared to switch gears, working more on his cutter than the four-seamer. His cutter ranged from 86-89 with a little bit of movement. His command of the cutter was not nearly as good as the straight fastball, but it was adequate and even when he missed in the zone, the slight wrinkle did throw off hitters just enough. If Hughes can locate the cutter consistently he should be much stronger against left-handed batters than he was early in his career.
The curve ball remains a frustrating pitch when I watch Hughes. As a reliever, he threw it harder and was able to get more swings-and-misses, but as a starter it often gets a little too soft. Every curve he threw today had plenty of break, but because it was generally thrown from 72-76 MPH hitters had plenty of time to adjust. Hughes also has never shown the ability to bury the curve in the dirt for strikeouts, almost always leaving it right at the knees where hitters can handle it. I would actually like to see him throw it with more velocity and less break, but as of right now it is, at best, an average pitch.
Hughes' fourth pitch is a changeup and even though he has supposedly worked hard on it this spring, Hughes only threw a handful of them today. The velocity was excellent with plenty of separation from his fastball, ranging from 81-83. He also appeared to maintain the same arm-speed and mechanics through his delivery, but it was difficult to see for sure from my angle. However, Hughes struggled to locate the pitch, almost always missing down and to his arm-side. I would never expect the changeup to be more than a fourth option for Hughes, but if he is unable to throw it where he wants, it is not even usable in games. He should get one more start in the spring and I believe his changeup should be a point of emphasis in that outing.
I was pleased when Hughes was named to the rotation; I always thought he was a safer bet to make it as a starter than Joba Chamberlain, even though Chamberlain boasted greater upside. Hughes has the repertoire, stamina and poise of a starting pitcher but he still has flaws. I think he will do fine this season and the biggest reason is that he can locate a plus fastball. If you are able to consistently do that in the majors you can have success. Whether he is able to develop into more than a back-of-the-rotation pitcher will depend on the development of his secondary options, all of which do still need a bit of work.