Monday, April 6, 2015

Phil Hughes Looking Up In 2015

Minnesota Twins' Phil Hughes warms up with a teammate at the start of a morning workout at baseball spring training in Fort Myers Fla., Tuesday Feb. 24, 2015. (Associated Press)
Today the Minnesota Twins kick off their 2015 Major League Baseball schedule against the Detroit Tigers. Taking the mound for the Twins is Phil Hughes. After coming over from the New York Yankees a season ago, he went on to set a major league record for strikeout to walk ratio. As impressive as he was a year ago however, the ceiling should be even higher.

Last season, Hughes ended his season with a 3.52 ERA. While there were points in which he looked like a Cy Young candidate, there were also periods of uncertainty. It was not until his fourth start of the season that Hughes pitched six full innings, and that also marked the first time he gave up less than four earned runs (three). Hughes seemed to figure things out on an April 26 start against the Tigers. Going seven innings and giving up just one earned run, he recorded his best start as a member of the Twins.

Through May and into June, Hughes was virtually unhittable. His 1.74 ERA over six starts from May 4 through June 1 was incredibly impressive. From there however, the Twins say some unexpected regression. Six times through prior to the month of August, Hughes allowed more than five earned runs. While the Twins were capable of scoring, they found themselves out of it more often than not. Once August hit, Hughes turned around his season once again. A 2.38 ERA from August 5th through the end of the year capped 2014 on a positive note. At the end of 162 however, you couldn't help but wonder what could have been.

As 2015 kicks off, Hughes has some significant room for improvement. While the walks don't necessarily need to be as limited as they were a season ago, Hughes still has room to improve. His 8.0 K/9 was the highest mark since 2009, and was something the Twins definitely found benefit from. Whether that mark increases or not, Hughes biggest benefit needs to come through his defense. In 2014, the former Yankee pitcher owned a 2.65 FIP (fielding independent pitching). With his ERA nearly a full run higher, there's no doubt he was let down behind him. This season there has been plenty made about how bad the Twins outfield defense may be, but statistics may not show everything.

Last year, Josh Willingham and Oswaldo Arcia handled the corner outfield roles. This season, Arcia will be paired with Torii Hunter, as they utilize Jordan Schafer in center. While the metrics suggest the Twins could have one of the worst outfields in the majors, it would also seem that they have taken a step forward over last season. Arcia is not a good fielder by any stretch, but the removal of the distractions in right field should only benefit him. While Hunter isn't young anymore, he was winning Gold Gloves while being below average by defensive metrics as well. Schafer isn't an ideal centerfielder, but is serviceable by most standards. What it all adds up to should be enough to help Hughes help himself.

On top of a defensive boost, there's no doubt that Target Field also provides opportunity for Hughes. The success he saw a season ago was not unexpected, and made the signing one of the best from the get go. Getting away from Yankee Stadium's poor dimensions, Hughes should have only been expected to get better. What comes as a surprise however is that he was actually more dominant on the road. Despite Target Field being an asset to pitchers, Hughes struggled more in his home park. If he can maximize the opportunity at home this season, he should benefit there as well.

Kicking off the season with a tough test against David Price and a good Tigers lineup, Hughes will want to start things on a good note. No matter how today's outcome plays out however, understand that Hughes should be expected to be even better in 2015.

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