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The problem with Phil Hughes

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Phil Hughes had an incredible 2014 season, but he has been a disappointment to the Twins ever since and the culprit is rather easy to identify.

Minnesota Twins v Cleveland Indians Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Phil Hughes’ 2014 was one hell of a season. Not only did he set a major league record with his near-12 K/BB ratio, he also set career-bests as a full-time starter in innings pitched (209 2/3), strikeout rate (21.8%), walk rate (1.9%), home run rate (0.69 HR/9), ERA (3.52), plus he obliterated his career FIP (2.65), which was over a run and a half better than his career mark up to that point.

Unfortunately, the Twins were still convinced that Brad Radke was and always will be the best pitcher to ever don a Minnesota uniform. With his pitching style reincarnated in Hughes, the organization felt it was necessary to tear up the remaining two years of Hughes’ contract and reward him with a five-year, $58 million deal.

I’m sure the Twins recognized that Hughes was going to regress a bit but he made the new contract look horrendous immediately. In 2015, he had a 4.40 ERA (4.70 FIP) and his homer-prone ways reemerged as he allowed 29 in just over 155 innings. However, what was most concerning was his velocity and subsequently his strikeout rate. Always armed with some adequate velocity (around 92 MPH), Hughes lost 1.4 MPH from his 2014 fastball. That in turn led to hitters making contact with their swings over 89% of the time, which was five percentage points higher than 2014 and Hughes’ worst since he threw 34 innings way back in 2008. Hughes had a career-worst 5.45 K/9 and just barely missed setting a career worst by striking out just 14.4% of hitters faced.

But not to worry, because Hughes went ahead and set that record last season. Injuries were a factor in 2015 and they also surfaced in 2016 as Hughes’ fastball velocity stayed around 90 MPH and his strikeout rate fell again, this time to 13.1%. Though it was just 59 innings, last season was Hughes’ worst in virtually every facet and the Twins have to be deeply regretting that he still is signed for three more seasons.

Fastball velocity is a tricky thing to improve. No, don’t go suggesting that he gets Tommy John surgery just for the hell of it (the reported velocity bumps were often a myth and also more a factor of the rehab process than the surgery itself). I don’t know what kind of offseason work Hughes put in this winter, but I feel there’s enough evidence that him throwing 90 MPH is simply not sustainable for the rest of his career. The Twins were hoping that he would be a cornerstone for the rotation as they returned to contention, but now it feels that he might be dead weight occupying a rotation spot as young pitchers such as Tyler Duffey, Trevor May, and Jose Berrios all jockey for a chance. Something will have to change for Hughes, because otherwise he’ll likely be a player holding the Twins back from truly being competitive over the next couple of years.