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I remember talking to Phil Hughes in the spring of 2006. He was 19 years old, walking into big league camp for the first time, dressing in the temporary middle stalls of the clubhouse usually reserved for guys who aren’t going to be in camp very long, not in the spacious Park Avenue digs he occupies now next to the other tenured arms.
I remember walking away from that conversation impressed with how determined Hughes was to add a change-up to his repertoire. I kept thinking how most 19-year olds would want to throw it as hard as they can, try to throw it through a brick wall if they could, and this kid was telling me that he wanted to work on taking something off.
Now it’s five years later, Hughes is an All-Star, a World Champion, an 18-game winner, still only 24, and still working on that darn change-up.
If this storyline sounds familiar, there’s a reason for it. Hughes spent all of last spring throwing change-ups at the insistence of Joe Girardi and then-pitching coach Dave Eiland, told that he needed to throw it to get better at it, and he would not be penalized if it led to bad results as he competed for a spot in the Yankee rotation.
Hughes threw many change-ups, was asked about it after every outing, and after winning the fifth starter spot he pretty much abandoned the change-up altogether. Hughes was working with his fastball, cutter, and his curve and ran that combination to 11-2, 3.65 ERA first half and a trip to the All-Star Game. But in the second half when things didn’t go as smoothly, as Hughes began to fatigue a bit in his first full big league season as a starter, he reached back for that change-up again and found that he didn’t have it. Hughes struggled a bit through the second half (7-6, 4.90 ERA) and came to realize what every pitcher usually does about the change-up—if you don’t use it, you will lose it.
The change-up is what pitchers call a “feel pitch,” one that requires constant use to get just the right action, movement, and deception needed to keep big league hitters off balance. Hughes has rededicated himself to the changeup again this spring. He spoke about the pitch and what it means to him (including an interesting comparison to Andy Pettitte) after Tuesday’s outing in Bradenton: