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Is Phil Hughes' Hot Start For Real?

Phil Hughes is off to the best start of his career. Can he keep it going?

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

I must admit, when the Minnesota Twins signed Phil Hughes to a three-year, $24 million deal this off-season, I snickered.

Sure, Hughes had won some games in his seven Major League seasons before 2014. He won 18 games with the Yankees in 2010 and made the All-Star team, and he won 16 games with them in 2012. Of course, his ERA those two seasons was 4.19 each of those years, and in 2013, Hughes went 4-14 with a 5.19 ERA, and a WHIP of 1.455.

A three-year commitment to a starting pitcher who came into the 2014 season with a career 4.53 ERA didn't exactly seem like too wise of an investment.

But so far in 2014, the Twins have reason to gloat.

Hughes has been among the best pitchers in baseball so far this year, 12th in pitchers' fWAR (1.9), and he's 5-1 with a 3.23 ERA in 10 starts for a Minnesota team that has surprisingly hung around .500 through the first two months of the season (26-28, 5.5 games behind Detroit in the AL Central).

No doubt, Hughes has shown flashes throughout his career and, at just 28 years old, should be just entering his prime. But is Hughes' start for real? And can it be sustained?

Avoiding the Walks

Take a look at Hughes' numbers coming into this year, and what he's done so far in '14:

K/9 BB/9 H/9 HR/9 K/BB
Before 2014 7.6 2.8 9.1 1.3 2.68
2014 7.3 0.9 9.8 0.6 8.33

The keys to Hughes' resurgence would seem to be his ability to avoid the free passes and home runs. Heading into this year he averaged 2.8 walks per nine innings (BB/9), 7.5 strikeouts per nine (K/9), 9.1 hits per nine (H/9), and a strikeout-to-walk ratio (K/BB) of 2.68.

What Hughes is doing much better so far this year is helping himself in the one area of his game that he can control the most; not giving out free passes. Until he walked Brian McCann on Sunday, Hughes had gone 178 straight batters without issuing a free pass.

He has drastically cut down on his walk-rate, with a league-leading 0.9 BB/9 so far this year. He's still striking out about the same number of hitters (7.3), giving him a K/BB ratio of 8.33 this year, a definite improvement over what were already some good career numbers there. He's giving up pretty much the same amount of hits (9.8) as he always has this year, but he's avoided the long ball better than at any point in his career, just 0.6 per nine compared to the 1.3 he put up heading into 2014.

Return of Velocity & Refining the Repertoire

What's interesting is that Hughes has been able to drastically cut down on his walk rate while ramping up his four-seam fastball. Brooks Baseball says that in 2010, his first year as a full-time starter, Hughes' fastball averaged between 93-94 mph. In 2011, Hughes encountered shoulder problems which sapped much of the velocity from his fastball. He made only 14 starts that year and averaged about 91 mph on his four-seamer. In 2012, it was up slightly, at around 92.5 mph. Last year, it was even better, averaging a shade over 93.

This year, it's all the way back, averaging 94 mph, with the ability to crank it up to 97 mph when he needs to.

The data also shows that Hughes has stopped throwing his slider and has instead returned to his cut fastball, which he is throwing more frequently than at any point in his career. He's thrown his cut fastball 24.7% of the time, the second highest percentage of his pitches outside of his fastball (63.5%). He's basically become a three-pitch pitcher, throwing his curveball 11.2% of the time (up slightly from last year but among the lowest percentage of his career), and has all but abandoned his change-up.

Is This Sustainable?

If Hughes keeps his walks down and continues to throw this hard, his early-season success would seem to be sustainable.

Even if his HR/FB rate returns to levels closer to his career norm, the damage will be minimized because he will be allowing fewer walks than at any point in his career. Pitchers will take solo home runs. It's the three-run shots that will kill ya.

His ERA is actually a little bit worse than his Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) of 2.63, although it is a bit better than his Skill Interactive ERA (3.55), which weighs strikeouts and walks but also factors in balls in play. Fangraphs lists a SIERRA of 3.55 as somewhere between "above average" and "great." And frankly, if you told the Twins they'd be getting a Phil Hughes with a SIERRA of 3.55 ERA this season, they'd have broken out the pinatas.

A healthy Phil Hughes has always had the talent to be a successful Major League pitcher. Now, he's finally healthy, throwing as hard as he did at the start of his career when he showed so much promise with New York.

And for the Twins, a questionable off-season signing has, so far, turned out to be a pretty shrewd move.