Thursday, May 11, 2017

Phil Hughes Embracing New Style

Last season was anything but glorious for the Minnesota Twins' Phil Hughes. He broken a bone on a comebacker, and ultimately watched his season end after just 59.0 IP. While shelved, he had a rib removed (undergoing Thoracic Outlet surgery), and the 2016 campaign turned into a giant recovery stint. Fast forward a year and the Twins hurler is learning to embrace his new reality.

It's fair to suggest that Hughes has never been much of a burner. Even at his best with the Twins in 2014, he threw just an average of 92 mph on his fastball. What he always has been in Minnesota however, is a guy that issues very few free passes, and watches his strikeouts play off of that notion. After setting an all-time major league record in K/BB rate during the 2014 season, Hughes has watched his effectiveness slip. Regardless of whether or not the injuries mounted last year, it's fair to wonder if he wouldn't need to adapt.

This season though, it's been all about adaptation for Hughes. Working as the Twins number three starter out of the gate, he had some pressure lifted off of him with how good both Ervin Santana and Hector Santiago have been. Despite an ugly start against the Indians, it's hard to argue that Hughes has been anything but acceptable.

Through his first six turns in the rotation, Hughes owns a 4.32 ERA that's backed by a 4.35 FIP (his best mark since 2014). His 5.7 K/9 is also the best total since 2014, and he's issuing less free passes at just 1.6 BB/9. Home runs continue to be a bugaboo for him, but that's virtually always been the case, and something you almost have to live with at this point.

What is most interesting about Hughes this season, is how he is going about getting results. Both his changeup and knuckle curve have seen a slight dip in velocity, but he's actually utilizing them quite often. Thus far, Hughes has thrown fastballs only 22.5% of the time (per Fangraphs) while pushing knuckle curves across one-fifth of the time (20.6%) and using changeups 18.8% of the time.

In breaking down his offerings, it's the changeup number that jumps off the page. At 18.8% of the time, Hughes is relying on his changeup nearly 14% more often than his career average of 4.9%. Given the roughly 10 mph dip from his fastball, it keeps hitters out front and off of his pitches. It also shouldn't go unsaid that pitching coach Neil Allen, is a noted chanegup guru, and that has likely played a significant role here.

Hughes is allowing a higher hard hit rate (43.6% in 2017 up from 37.7% and 31.2% the past two years), but he's giving up less line drives and his 9.3% HR/FB ratio is actually the lowest it's been since bottoming out at 6.2% in 2014. He's forcing hitters to stay off of his fastball, and deal with the offspeed stuff, which in turn, has shifted thinking about what type of pitcher he is.

The level of confidence and trust in both the knuckle curve and changeup also flesh out very high in situations where he's ahead. When batters are facing 0-1,0-2, or 1-2 counts, they are seeing nearly a 50% mix of chanegups and knuckle curves. Conversely, when Hughes finds himself down in the count, he's going with that same mix, throwing changeups and knuckle curves 47.2% of the time.

Whether a by-product of the surgery, or a simple adjustment to style, Hughes has transformed himself from a two-seam/cutter guy, into a changeup/knuckle curve thrower. He's finessing players out, and feels ok about balls being hit in the air, as the Twins now employ one of the best outfield defenses in all of baseball.

It should be noted that Father Time is undefeated, and that regardless of the amount of procedures a body undergoes, a level of adaptation is required. When a veteran continues to roll towards the latter half of their career, there will be a point that a renaissance is needed. In changing your philosophy, or finding something else that works, a new level of effectiveness can be achieved. It appears Phil Hughes has embraced this head on, and right now, the results are rewarding him for it.