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Explaining Phil Hughes' 2014 success

Phil Hughes was elite in 2014, and heading forward, more of the same can be expected.

The unsung ace
The unsung ace
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Phil Hughes had an incredible 2014 campaign, but since he plays for the small-market Twins, it went criminally underreported. He reached 200 innings for the first time in his career, produced an fWAR of 6.1 (good for 4th among all pitchers), and even set the all-time single season record for best strikeout-to-walk ratio (11.63). This season seemingly came out of nowhere, and as such raises critical questions. Most prominently, what changes were made in 2014, and can he sustain them?

What Didn’t Change

The usual suspects for the causes driving a drastic increase in a pitcher’s value are improved velocity and/or movement. But Hughes’ breakout season can’t be attributed to either of those variables.

As shown above, his primary pitch, the fourseam fastball, hardly changed in either the horizontal or vertical plane. His velocity was virtually unchanged, differing by only -0.3 MPH from the previous season. Instead of the more traditional ways to jump into the upper echelon of starting pitchers, Hughes tinkered with factors both obvious and subtle. His success in 2014 and beyond is tied largely to more controllable components of pitching, making his entry into elite status much more fascinating.

What Did Change

The most obvious change that Hughes made in 2014 was his location, specifically his home stadium. In 2013, he pitched at the launch pad that is Yankee Stadium II, which burdened Hughes with a HR park factor of 1.128. However, Target Field had a factor of only 1.022 in 2014, barely above average. For Hughes, who developed a HR problem in 2012 and 2013, surrendering a HR/FB ratio of 12.4% and 11.1% respectively, leaving New York for a pitcher’s park was a smart move by him, and clearly a change for the better.

However, the most impactful change Hughes made was his pitch selection. After seven seasons in MLB, most pitchers have a game plan and an identity to how they approach the majority of hitters. But through 2013, Hughes was still searching for his. While he’s always leaned heavily on his fourseam fastball, the rest of the time has been a mystery for Hughes. Just four years ago, his curve percentage was 21.1%, but in 2014 it sunk to just 2.3%. As his curve percentage dwindled, Hughes turned to a new pitch: the slider. Two seasons ago, he threw it 23.1% of the time, yet in 2014, he essentially abandoned the pitch. Hughes’ painful search for a pitch selection that works for him is laid out in great detail below in the dataviz.

In 2014, Hughes began to ditch his offspeed pitches entirely, focusing on variations of his fastball. While his fourseam usage has always been consistent, his two-seamer and cutter have come and gone. Last season, however, saw Hughes throw a career high 83.7% "hard" pitches, while turning to his former best friends the slider and curveball only a combined 3% of the time. Hughes had no doubt about who he was in 2014.

The increased use of his cutter and two-seamer produced yet another important change in Hughes’ overall game, as his groundball rate improved by 18% over 2013. While his overall rate of 36.5% is below the major league average of 44%, the increase is still notable. Regardless of how low his original GB% was, an increase of 18% in a single season is a major change and bodes well for the future.

Adding pitches that work is an important change for the better. While sliders, curves, and changeups can all be devastating weapons, each pitcher is his own animal, and what works for one isn’t necessarily going to work for the other. Not only were his pitch values not good (all had negative values in 2013), but too often were they out of the zone, leading to prolonged counts and longer at-bats. However, with his change in pitch selection and throwing mostly "hard" pitches, Hughes was able to lower his pitches per AB, increase his strike rate, and see more favorable counts.

BB/9 0-1% 0-2% Pitches Per AB
2007 3.59 54.9 25.5 4.04
2008 3.97 58.6 21.7 4.01
2009 2.93 61.9 29.8 4.14
2010 2.96 62.8 30.6 4.11
2011 3.25 67.7 27.2 3.87
2012 2.16 65.7 30.5 3.94
2013 2.59 71.3 34.7 3.95
2014 0.69 72.5 37.5 3.56

Hughes also reached career bests in fewest number of three-ball counts (4%) and two-ball counts (12%). While it’s unlikely that Hughes will be as effective in limiting walks as he was in 2014, both Steamer and ZiPS are optimistic that he’ll remain excellent in BB/9, projecting 2015 figures of 1.62 and 0.76 respectively.

Is His Success Sustainable?

2014 was undoubtedly a breakout season for Hughes, and it doesn’t appear to be an anomaly. While sometimes a better-than-expected season can be explained by a fluky BABIP, that can’t be said about Hughes. Last season, his BABIP was an above-average .324, tied for the highest of his MLB career. The primary reason to believe in his future success is because of what changed in 2014. Things like movement and speed can inexplicably disappear during the course of an offseason, but pitch selection and overall strategy are much more controllable and therefore sustainable.

In 2015, Steamer sees Hughes as a 2.5 win player, while ZiPS is much more confident, forecasting a 4.0 zWAR. As a former first round pick, Hughes has always had high expectations placed on him. However, not every pitcher matures at the projected rate, and in his case it took much longer to reach his prime. With the most successful season of his career under his belt, Hughes can look to build a future with still more upside. He can still make improvements by inducing more groundballs and tinkering with his new cutter.

Eleven years after getting drafted, Hughes seems to have finally figured out who he is as a pitcher. Like Michelangelo said, "Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it", and Hughes finally has.

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All statistics courtesy of FanGraphsBrooks Baseball, and Baseball-Reference.

Matt Goldman is a Contributor to Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @TheOriginalBull.