Once again, the Minnesota Twins have an awful pitching rotation. Through the first six weeks of the 2014 season, their staff has a meager 13 percent strikeout rate, and an ugly 134 ERA-. Ricky Nolasco, whom the Twins spent almost $50 million in acquiring this offseason, has a 5.64 ERA, and Mike Pelfrey has nearly twice as many walks as strikeouts. However, one member of the Twins rotation has thrown very well.
Phil Hughes had a largely unsuccesful run as a member of the Yankees rotation. From 2007-13, he threw over 700 innings with an FIP of 4.48, allowing 1.37 HR/9. Yankee Stadium, with it's short right field porch is not kind to right-handed flyball pitchers. Wiith a 33.5 percent groundball rate, few pitchers allowed more flyballs than Hughes. Accordingly, Hughes possessed some pretty significant home/road splits while a member of the Yankees.
Despite possessing strikeout and walk rates that were slightly better than the major league averages, Hughes had a bloated home ERA. The difference in his road ERA can be attributed almost entirely to the much lower HR/FB ratio.
Yankee Stadium has a park factor of 110 for home runs, which jumps to 114 for left-handed bats. Meanwhile, Target Field has a park factor of 93 for home runs, which dips even lower to 89 for left-handed hitters. In 2014, Hughes has allowed only four home runs, three of which have come on the road. His numbers over his first seven starts are significantly better than his career marks.
Clearly Hughes is benefiting from a lower HR/FB ratio, but there's more to his success. Hughes has split his career walk rate in half. He's always been a good first-pitch strike thrower, but since 2013, Hughes has thrown first-pitch strikes at a higher rate than any other pitcher in baseball. First-pitch strike rate has a -0.60 base correlation with walk rate.
Furthermore, Hughes has taken to pounding the strike zone. At 58.7 percent, only Bartolo Colon has a higher zone rate. That's an increase of five percentage points on his career zone rate. He's scrapped his slider and is throwing a cutter, which he has been able to locate in the strike zone more frequently.
In addition, Hughes appears to be benefiting from a move to the AL Central. So far, five of his seven starts have come against swing-happy teams. The Baltimore Orioles, Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals and Chicago White Sox are all currently in the top 11 in the major leagues in swing rate. That's a big difference from the AL East, where the Tampa Bay Rays, Toronto Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox consistently rank among the most patient teams. Hitters are swinging at 55 percent of Hughes' pitches, an increase of six percentage points. Also, they are swinging at 37 percent of his pitches outside of the strike zone, an increase of seven percentage points.
With the Yankees, Hughes never posted an FIP below 4.25 while working as a starter. The updated ZiPS projections have the big right-hander finishing with a 3.86 mark. The Twins rotation might be brutal, but give management some credit for latching onto Hughes' potential this offseason.
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Chris Moran is a former college baseball player and current law student at Washington University in St. Louis. He's also an assistant baseball coach at Wash U. In addition to Beyond The Box Score, he contributes at Prospect Insider and Gammons Daily. He went to his first baseball game at age two. Follow him on Twitter @hangingslurves