Which Phil Hughes Will the Minnesota Twins Get in 2015?
Was that the real Phil Hughes we saw in 2014?
The 28-year-old earned himself a big payday this week thanks to his breakthrough campaign last year for the Twins, getting a three-year, $42 million extension with Minnesota. He was already under contract for the next two seasons and will get a raise in '15 and '16, from $8 million to $9.2 million each year. Then, his extension kicks in, earning him $13.2 million a season between 2017-2019.
On the open market, that's pretty much the going rate for a number-three starter. And it's not bad for a guy who came into last year with a career 4.53 ERA and only one season in which he compiled an ERA under 4.00.
His nERD last year was 1.95, which was 14th-best in the Majors and means that, over a 27-out game, Hughes would have allowed 1.95 runs a game fewer than a league-average pitcher. Particularly impressive was his 0.7 walks per nine innings, which was best in the American League, as was his 11.63 strikeout-to-walk ratio. In 209.2 innings, Hughes struck out 186 batters and walked only 16.
The Twins hope they're getting Hughes for his peak years because they're almost certainly getting him for at least a couple of his decline years on the back-end of the deal. And while it is a team-friendly deal on the front-end, it will only be team-friendly if he pitches like he did last year and not like he did in 2013.
Two years ago, Hughes wore out his welcome in New York, going 4-14 with a 5.19 ERA in 29 starts that season. That followed years in which he had ERAs of 4.19, 5.79, and 4.19, although he was an All-Star in 2010, going 18-8.
Still, what he did last year for Minnesota was a complete shock. His Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement (fWAR) of 6.1 was as good as Jon Lester and David Price, and better than Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, and Jordan Zimmermann. The only pitchers with a better fWAR last year than Hughes were Corey Kluber (7.3), Clayton Kershaw (7.2), and Felix Hernandez (6.2).
Before 2014, his highest fWAR was 2.5, in his All-Star season of 2010. Steamer projects his ERA will be 3.91 next year with an fWAR of 2.5, which would be closer to his career norms.
What is encouraging for Hughes is that he got markedly better by improving in the one area he can most control: walks. From 2010-2013, he walked 2.6 batters per nine but lowered that all the way to a miniscule 0.7, all while maintaining the same strikeout rate. He also wasn't the beneficiary of luck, with batters hitting .324 against him on balls in play (the league average was .295).
Hughes also increased his groundball rate, from 30.8% in '13 to 36.5% last year and reduced his flyball rate (46.5% to 40.2%), all while also bringing down his home runs per fly ball to 6.2%, down from 11.1% and 12.4% the two years previous.
Moving from Yankee Stadium to Target Field had to help his home run rate a bunch. But the reduction in walks, all while maintaining his historically high strikeout rate, gives Minnesota fans hope he can put together a few more years that are closer to what we saw in 2014, not 2013.
As for the Twins, they still have a long way to go. Hughes will front a rotation that recently added a new number-two starter in Ervin Santana (3.95 ERA in 31 starts) and likely brings back number-three man Kyle Gibson (4.47 ERA in 31 starts), their presumed number-four, Ricky Nolasco (5.38 ERA in 27 starts) and some combination of Mike Pelfrey, Trevor May, and/or Tommy Milone.
But every good rotation needs an ace. And if the Twins can get that out of Hughes for another couple of years, the deal both sides agreed to this week will have been a no-brainer.