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A most intriguing Phil Hughes comparison

He's a talented righty who underwhelmed for several years before breaking out late; why does that sound so familiar?

Fans of the Twins better hope this comparison holds up.
Fans of the Twins better hope this comparison holds up.
Jamie Squire

Baseball has existed for a long time. Statistics date back to 1871, and unofficial games took place for decades prior. Because of this longevity, we generally don't see much new stuff. If a player has done, is doing, or is on pace to do something, someone has probably already done it. I created The Weekly Walk on this premise, as a way to determine how many people have done such things, throughout the history of baseball; but we analysts have another tool in our belt to look at new arrivals: the comparison.

Are they, in some cases, unscientific? Perhaps. Do their authors predicate them on infinitesimal sample sizes, or do they struggle to establish a connection between the two involved players? It's entirely possible. Should we, as people of statistics, lean on empirical over anecdotal evidence whenever possible? I suppose. Regardless, comparisons generally fare well among baseball fans of all intellects. They're fun, damnit — and, in some cases, they can provide hope for the future. For if someone has done something in the past, then someone else can, at least in theory, do it in the future.

Focus shift! Phil Hughes, in case you hadn't heard, has pitched quite well recently. Sure, he only has a 4.01 ERA, but the peripherals...oh, the peripherals. A 2.68 FIP. A 3.19 xFIP. A 3.26 SIERA. However you slice it, this guy has (or, at least, should have) torn the league apart. After several years of strife, he has finally fulfilled his potential, and Minnesota couldn't be happier.

As the lede might have betrayed, an eerily similar version of this tale has occurred in the not-too-distant past. It doesn't sync up on all facets, but it's still comparable in one key area. Let's study the statistics of Hughes statistics and of this other starter, whom we'll call "Mystery Pitcher" for the time being.

Both Hughes and his unidentified companion started from the bottom. Note the similarities in their starting pitching statistics pre-breakout:

Pitcher GS IP ERA- FIP- xFIP-
Phil Hughes 132 724 112 106 107
Mystery Pitcher 125 736 104 105 107

Results provide the only significant difference, and even that isn't much of anything. With nearly analogous FIP-s and xFIP-s, these two men seemed pretty similar — they weren't terrible, but they wouldn't blow anyone away.

Likewise, their advanced statistics in their breakout campaigns are nearly identical:

Pitcher ERA- FIP- xFIP-
Phil Hughes 103 70 83
Mystery Pitcher 82 67 82

Obviously, Hughes looks much worse by the fascist standards of runs allowed, but the atrocious Twins defense shoulders the blame for that. Defense-independent metrics — the only ones that matter — see the two pitchers as almost exactly alike.

Looking deeper, the means by which Hughes achieved his mediocrity bear a striking resemblance to those of the other hurler. Take a look at their K, BB, and FB rates, along with those relative to the rates of all starters, for their unimpressive years:

Pitcher K% K%+ BB% BB%+ FB% FB%+
Phil Hughes 18.8% 110 7.3% 95 46.2% 129
Mystery Pitcher 17.0% 108 8.0% 101 46.2% 128

They both did moderately well with strikeouts and walks, but allowing too many fly balls did them in. Again, we see outcomes that mirror each other quite closely.

On the flip side, they broke out in similar ways as well:

Pitcher K% K%+ BB% BB%+ FB% FB%+
Phil Hughes 21.4% 111 2.4% 33 38.5% 112
Mystery Pitcher 19.1% 115 3.8% 47 35.1% 98

While they each fanned similar amounts of batters as before, they also saw dramatic declines in free passes, coupled with less (albeit to differing extents) air balls.

Now, this is where Mystery Pitcher diverges from Hughes a bit. While the latter — being the tinkerer that he is — has altered his pitch usage in 2014, by relying more on his cutter while ditching the slider, the former's arsenal remained static when he came on strong. PITCHf/x doesn't cover most of Mystery Pitcher's pre-breakout years, so we can't do a direct comparison; if we could, it would probably paint two different pictures. Nonetheless, pitch mix might not make a big difference here, because what they've done with those pitches has.

During his tenure in the Bronx, Hughes worked in the strike zone a lot, with a Zone% of 52.8%. He also made batters swing when he didn't, with an O-Swing% of 30.1%. These marks ranked decently over that span, at 32nd and 56th, respectively, out of 222 qualified starters. Once he left for the Twin Cities, though, he took those to the next level. So far this year, Hughes owns a 59.8% Zone% (first in the majors) to go along with a 36.5% O-Swing% (fourth in the majors).

This combination of command and deception seems rather uncommon; in fact, only one other pitcher has come close to doing it to this extent. I'll let Dave Cameron reveal his identity:

When [Cliff] Lee made his big leap forward in 2008, he did it by pounding the strike zone and convincing hitters to chase when he threw pitches out of the zone. That year, Lee was #1 in MLB in Zone% (58%) and #8 in MLB in opponents O-Swing% (33%)...

Yes, Mystery Pitcher is former Cy Young winner, possible Hall of Famer, and generally awesome player Cliff Lee. Needless to say, Hughes most likely has no problem with this, especially considering that Lee maintained his late-career surge for several years.

Again, this — like most comparisons — isn't perfect. But their cases still line up in that one uncommon regard, and that might be enough. (Plus, for what it's worth, Lee changed his pitch usage too, following 2008 — like Hughes, he incorporated far more cutters from 2009 on out.) Hughes has been the lone bright spot in another dark year for the Twins; if this analogy has any validity, the same will be true of 2015 and beyond.

. . .

All data courtesy of FanGraphs, as of Saturday, August 9th, 2014.

Ryan Romano is a featured contributor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles on Birds Watcher and on Camden Chat that one time. Follow him on Twitter at @triple_r_ if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports.