Phil Hughes, Sudden Changeup Pitcher
By Mike Axisa
Changeup! (Jason Szenes/Getty Images)
A usable changeup has long been Phil Hughes‘ white whale, that reliable third pitch he’s been unable to develop to help take his game to the next level. Outside of his injury-plagued 2011 season, Phil’s fastball-curveball combination has been strong enough to allow him to survive as a league average starter in the AL East. The kind of guy you’ll take towards the back of the rotation but will leave you wanting more.
Hughes, not so young anymore at 26, has ridden his fastball and two curveballs to a 4.15 ERA and 4.70 FIP in 149.2 innings this year. He’s maddeningly homer prone, but outside of a disastrous April — how stupid does this look in retrospect? — he’s pitching to a 3.70 ERA and 4.46 FIP in his last 21 starts (133.2 IP). Last night’s outing against the White Sox was about as it good as it gets, seven innings of two-run ball against a club with the sixth-highest runs per game average in baseball. The Yankees lost, but not because of their starter.
Against the ChiSox, Phil threw that white whale changeup a total of 17 times out of 98 pitches according to PitchFX. A dozen of those 17 changeups were strikes, including a pair of swings and misses. The last batter he faced, former Yankee Dewayne Wise, saw nothing but changeups in a five-pitch at-bat. Five of those 17 changeups were thrown to right-handed batters, which is notable because Hughes threw a total of four changeups to right-handers in 12 starts from mid-June through mid-August according to Will Cohen.
This isn’t a one-start blip either. Against the Red Sox last week he threw a whopping 29 changeups (106 total pitches), the most he’s ever thrown in a single outing during the PitchFX era. Nineteen of those 29 were strikes and six were thrown to righties. As a result, Hughes threw just seven curveballs. Last night it was a much more normal 18 curveballs. Perhaps all these changeups is an adjustment he’s made after getting shellacked by the Tigers and Blue Jays in back-to-back starts two weeks ago, when just seven of his 182 total pitches were changeups.
Hughes doesn’t need a knockout changeup, just a serviceable third offering that will keep hitters off the fastball and curveball. I feel like I’ve been saying that for five years now. He has really emphasized the pitch these last two times out, and not just against left-handers either. Whether he continues to use the pitch this much in the future remains to be seen, but the fact that he’s been able to use it this heavily and remain effective against good offenses these last two times out is encouraging.