Has Phil Hughes Actually Turned His Performance Around?
It's April 20th, 2014. The Minnesota Twins lead the Kansas City Royals, 2-0, in the bottom of the second at Target Field. With runners on second and third and two outs, Twins starter Phil Hughes walks number nine hitter Alcides Escobar after getting ahead 0-2 to load the bases. To say that's not the ideal outcome of an at-bat may be a mild understatement.
Since that Escobar at-bat, Hughes has faced 147 batters. He has walked exactly zero of them. That's 33 days, 37 2/3 innings, 113 outs without walking a single batter. Over that same span, Justin Verlander has walked 17 batters. And this is Phil Hughes we're talking about.
That walk signaled a turning point for Hughes on the season. He got Norichika Aoki to fly out on the next pitch he threw, getting out of the bases-loaded jam. It has been smooth sailing ever since.
In his first four starts, Hughes had a 6.43 ERA. In five starts since, that number is 1.08 (four runs in 33 1/3 innings). This has not been yo daddy's Phil Hughes over the last month. This is a new, robotic, less poopy model that is making some hitters look silly.
The question now becomes, though, which Phil Hughes is the real Phil Hughes? Is he the guy that was flirting with demotion from one of the worst staffs in baseball, or the guy that is trolling the heck out of Yankees fans by pitching like the guy everyone thought he'd be?
Let's start with the good news first. Along with his now-3.15 ERA, Hughes is sporting a 2.68 fielding independent pitching (FIP), which is a measure of a pitcher's effectiveness based on the number of walks, home runs and hit batters he allowed compared to his strikeouts. Obviously, Hughes is going to keep his FIP down with this ridiculous streak without walking a batter. His 7.79, while not door-bangingly awesome, is borderline illegal for a Twins staff that is historically averse to strikeouts.
Also in Hughes's favor is the batted ball statistics of opposing batters. Compared to last year, he has shown improvement in his line-drive, groundball, fly-ball, and infield fly-ball percentage against. Then again, his 5.19 ERA last year would make you pray to the Minnesotan lutefisk-eating, Grainbelt-Beer-drinking deity that there would be across-the-board improvement if you're going to make it rain $8 million per year on this guy.
Now comes the bad news. There are a few things within Hughes' rate stats that are unsustainable moving forward, indicating he's due to settle somewhere between his early-season performance and where he is now.
First, over his fancy little run, Hughes has allowed only one home run on 70 fly balls. The average around the league is about one per every 10 fly balls. In seasons in which he has made at least 10 appearances, Hughes has never had a home-run-to-fly-ball ratio lower than eight percent. Right now, that sits at 5.2 percent. That'll go up, and with it, so will Hughes's ERA. This is the reason that his xFIP (3.58) is higher than his regular FIP as xFIP assumes a home-run-to-fly-ball ratio of about 10.0 percent.
Second, all of Hughes's last five starts have come at parks that aren't notorious for home runs. Of Target Field, Comerica Park and Petco Park, none has a home run park factor higher than 12th in the league. Although Hughes's next start is at home, the one scheduled after that is at Yankee Stadium, which has the second highest home run park factor in the league. If we're looking for a test of Hughes's progress, it'll come then.
I must admit that I never even anticipated writing anything like this this year. Hughes is far exceeding expectations, and the Twins have to be ecstatic about that. While the numbers point toward a regression, it's obvious either way that Hughes has made some serious improvements from last year.