Friday, January 29, 2016

The Extended Phil Hughes

For the Minnesota Twins, pitching was absolutely an area of contention in recent years. As the team skidded towards 90 loss seasons for four years in a row, finding quality arms to fill out the starting rotation was a must, and a struggle. After emerging back into contention a season ago, the Twins took steps forward across the board. One man who wasn't a part of that equation was 2014 free agent signee, Phil Hughes.

As a 28 year-old in 2014, the Minnesota Twins inked Hughes as a free agent from the New York Yankees. The belief was that in abandoning the Cracker Jack box that was Yankee Stadium would lead to improved numbers for the former first round pick. That narrative couldn't have been more true.

In his first season with the Twins, Hughes set a Major League Baseball all time record in strikeouts per walk with an 11.63 K/BB rate. He offered free passes at just a 0.7 BB/9 rate, and turned his 3.52 ERA into a 7th place finish among Cy Young candidates. Had the defense behind him stepped up even further. his 2.65 FIP could've played even further, and his 8.0 K/9 would have held even more weight. By all measurable numbers, Phil Hughes' first season with the Twins was a smashing success.

Over the offseason, Minnesota extended Hughes who is now playing on a five-year, $58 million deal. He is signed with the Twins through 2019 and will be 33 years-old at that time. Following his extension, Hughes regressed. In 2015, the ace of the staff owned just a 4.40 ERA along with a 4.70 FIP. His K/9 numbers dipped to 5.4 although his walk rate stayed impressive at 0.9 per nine innings.

A season ago, the biggest detractor for Phil Hughes was the long ball. After allowing just 16 homers in his first season with the Twins, he gave up an American League leading 29 a season ago. It was the second worst mark of his career, and the worst since allowing 35 in 2012. In 27 starts a season ago, Hughes allowed home runs in 20 of them, surrendering at least one a month throughout the season. The damage could have been worse had 19 of those 29 not been solo shots. It's more than fair to say that limiting the long ball could have changed the season for Phil Hughes.

There were a couple of factors that no doubt aided the increase in home runs surrendered. Posting the worst mark in his career, Hughes saw 13.5% of the fly balls he allowed leave the yard. He gave up line drives over 24% of the time for the first time since 2008, and he gave up hard contact at a 31.2% rate, or a 4% jump from a season ago.

Pushing some of the change in effectiveness could be explained in Hughes experimenting with his arsenal. With new pitching coach Neil Allen in the fold, Hughes did some things different in comparison to 2014. Hughes threw just 59.2% of his pitches as fastballs, tying a career low set in 2011. He also threw more curveballs (15.7%) than he had since 2012 and had gone back to a changeup (4.8%) after all but abandoning the pitch in 2014 (0.2%). While not extremely drastic, the changes could have contributed to the issues the former Yankee experience.

Now heading into a second season with pitching coach Neil Allen, and a third with the Twins, we have probably seen both ends of the spectrum when it comes to Hughes. If he can fall somewhere in between the two extremes, the Twins will have to feel more than justified with their extension, and happy with a guy that can operate at the top of their rotation.

Steamer projections have him pegged for a 4.20 ERA along with a 4.25 FIP. The 6.05 K/9 mark would be a boost, but the system sees a decrease in walk rate now offering free passes at a 1.38 BB/9 clip. The most concerning number is that projections have Hughes pegged for the same 29 home runs surrendered, albeit while pitching a significantly higher load at 198.0 innings.

Projections aside, Hughes knows exactly what he has to work on. Giving up too many homers at Yankee Stadium was a problem, and it's not one that can be replicated in a pitcher's park like Target Field. Broken down to it's simplest terms, Hughes keeping the ball in the yard would have him looking like an extremely effective pitcher. A few tweaks and making that happen, should only bolster the Twins rotation further.

Void of top tier arms, it's the minor tweaks made throughout the year by Hughes and Ervin Santana, as well as the continued emergence of Kyle Gibson, that will make all of the difference.

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