Once upon a time, Phil Hughes threw relatively hard. Averaging 91-92 MPH with his fastball, velocity wasn’t really a problem. However, he was constantly plagued by allowing too many home runs and thus was never able to be more than a decent mid-rotation starter for the New York Yankees.
We all remember his excellent 2014 year where he set the record for a starter’s strikeout-to-walk ratio and had an impressive 2.65 FIP. Though he didn’t show much variety as nearly 80% of his pitches were either fastballs or cutters, he still found a way to keep the opposition of the basepaths.
Of note is that changeup percentage of 1.1%. I want you to know that it was actually even lower than that, because a look at his thrown pitches shows that some of those “changeups” were actually mislabeled cutters (the purple squares in the yellow triangles).
Last season Hughes was terrible and he was ultimately diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome in his shoulder. Before the surgery, Hughes spent 2015 and 2016 throwing a few more two-seam fastballs and he appeared willing to experiment with a changeup, but otherwise he was essentially the same pitcher. Well, except he was throwing softer as he lost 1 1⁄2 MPH off his fastball.
The treatment for thoracic outlet syndrome is surgery that involves removing the uppermost rib to relieve pressure on the nerve in the armpit, and often pitchers just aren’t the same when doctors are forced to toy around with the shoulder area. This season, Hughes still isn’t quite himself as he’s dropped another MPH off his fastball. Actually, there’s another reason Hughes isn’t quite himself.
Hughes, the guy that has thrown changeups less than 5% of the time in his career, is suddenly tossing them three times out of every 10 pitches. I’m not sure who initiated this new approach, as pitching coach Neil Allen is known for preaching the changeup as a weapon in a pitcher’s arsenal. However, I’m sure Hughes has to recognize as well that his velocity is cratering and his old tricks aren’t going to cut it in the major leagues anymore.
He was interviewed by Dick and Bert after his first start this season and refused to say that he is “reinventing” himself, but it’s clear that the Phil Hughes that we’re going to see from now on is not the same pitcher as we saw before. Unfortunately the early returns on him aren’t promising right now (5.40 ERA after allowing four runs in 3 1⁄3 innings last night) but I’m sure he’s also going to need some time to fully become comfortable with throwing the changeup. With his contract, Hughes won’t be going anywhere soon so he and the Twins might as well have him experiment a bit in an effort to salvage any value they can.