Remember when the Twins took a chance on starting pitcher Phil Hughes in the 2013-14 offseason? At the time, Hughes was coming off of three straight season with an ERA north of 4.20 and an FIP higher than 4.50 with the Yankees—not exactly the best numbers to post when you’re about to enter free agency. Nevertheless, the Twins felt confident enough the then-27-year-old righty would be able to turn it around, so they signed him to a three-year, $24 million deal.
In the first year of that contract, Hughes rewarded the Twins with the best season of his career with a strong 5.6 fWAR. The former first-rounder found a way to walk virtually nobody while having the highest strikeout rate of his career since 2009, when he was a primarily a reliever.
This resulted in the Twins amping up their game as they signed him to a three-year, $42 million extension for 2017 on, and also giving him a $1.2 million raise for 2015 and 2016--essentially a five-year, $58 million deal. However, Hughes has been unable to duplicate the strong 2014 performance.
It isn't a stretch to say that Hughes hasn't been as sharp this year. Following his outing Thursday against the Mariners, he has a less-than-impressive 4.11 ERA with a 4.58 FIP and 4.16 xFIP to back it up. Although the Twins are playing great baseball—they currently hold the second AL wild card spot—why isn't Phil Hughes? What is causing his struggles, and how might he fix them?
When thinking of what causes a pitcher to struggle, walks and/or missing the zone are top culprits. Pitchers who walk more hitters tend to allow more baserunners, which means more opportunities for a pitcher to give up a run. However, walking batters hasn't been Hughes' problem.
His forte is to pound the strike zone, which he has clearly been able to do in 2015. He's has only had to throw a pitch while behind in the count 17.7 percent—second only to Max Scherzer (min 1,000 pitches) this season. He's only gotten to a 3-0 count six times, and thrown 56 pitches (2.9 percent) when down two or more balls in a count (3-0, 3-1, 2-0)--the lowest such total this year.
This has helped Hughes nearly match his insanely low BB% total from 2014. Walking only 1.9 percent of the batters he faced last season, Hughes has been nearly as good this year, at only 2.1 percent. These low walk rates aren’t just good, they're two of the top six lowest walk rates among qualified pitchers in the live ball era. Hughes only has two starts this season in which he has walked more batters than he has given up home runs—the last one was June 3rd against the Red Sox, the first one was May 22nd against the Chicago White Sox.
One reason batters don't walk off Hughes is that he's induced a large number of swings this season. Batters swing at 52 percent of his pitches, and 68.2 percent of the pitches inside the strike zone—both rank among the league leaders. These high rates of swings at pitches in the strike zone can hurt, especially when 56.8 percent of his pitches are inside the strike zone.
If you don’t walk or strike out many hitters, you must be giving up a lot of contact. True to that logic, Hughes owns the highest contact percentage out of all qualified pitchers in the majors this season, actually the highest percentage of overall contact since Livan Hernandez’ 91.2 percent in 2008, and the highest percentage of contact outside the strike zone since this began to be measured in 2002. This high contact also leads to a diminished whiff/swing rate on all of his pitches as well:
Surprisingly, the increased contact percentage hasn’t resulted in an elevated BABIP. Hughes actually had a higher BABIP last season and in 2013 (.324 both years) than he does this season (.298), although he gave up less overall contact in the past two seasons.
When combining the high swing and contact rate, one of two things should be painfully obvious—hitters are either seeing the ball incredibly well off him, or he's leaving pitches in places they shouldn’t be. My guess would be the latter, which is odd. To think that Hughes, with that abysmal walk rate, would be mis-locating pitches and/or generally putting them in places where they are more likely to get hit is a direct contradiction that fewer walks means greater control. Is he leaving pitches where they shouldn’t be left?
One pitch in particular sticks out—his fastball, the pitch he uses more than any other (52.9 percent). It's also a pitch that hasn’t been very effective for him this year, since opposing teams are batting .332, slugging .596 with a .264 ISO.
Not only is he grooving more fastballs (pitches he leaves middle-middle), but hitters are batting a whopping .421 (24 for 57) on it and slugging .702--you might’ve just found yourself a reason for the above average 13.1 HR/FB percent, as 16 of the 25 homers he has given up (!!!) have been off of his fastball. But it isn’t like Hughes has just now begun grooving fastballs to hitters.
The difference is that he's now grooving fastballs to hitters—and throwing fastballs, in general—that are slower than in the past. Hughes has lost an average of 1.5 mph off of his fastball. This might not seem like a lot, but when combined with a drop of velocity on other pitches (2 mph on his sinker and around 1 mph dip on his cutter), it might point to something else—like a change in release point.
This could be the root of his problems in 2015. Other than just chalking it up to poor luck, a change in release point might be more to blame than anything, since a lower release point often results in lower velocity. It is this decrease in velocity that might be why hitters are hitting pitches this season that Hughes threw in the same spots last season—and seeing the pitches better. These pitches are being hit harder and more often—leading to the down year he's having.
Although it could just be coincidence that these events matched up, the 2015 version of Phil Hughes is one of the quirkiest pitchers in recent memory. It isn’t often a pitcher basically walks nobody and still posts the seemingly poor overall season that he has. Then again, it isn’t every day you see a pitcher who has given up more than double the number of homers as walks (26 to 12). However, it's those lack of walks, combined with high swing and contact rates, that have resulted in the Phil Hughes we have seen this year.
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Shawn Brody is a contributor for Beyond the Box Score as well as a sophomore pitcher at Howard Payne University majoring in Business Management. He has the current misfortune of being a Red Sox fan. If you would like to get a hold of him, please feel free to email him at Shawnbrody9@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @ShawnBrody.