Yankees

Keefe To The City: What Is Phil Hughes?

A retro recap to find out what Phil Hughes is in his sixth year with the Yankees
(Credit: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

(Credit: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

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By Neil Keefe
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May 1, 2007: The day Phil Hughes should have no-hit the Texas Rangers. But he didn’t. Instead he left the Arlington mound after hearing his hamstring pop, leaving me devastated for our (yes “our”) supposed future ace and wondering if the Rangers would have gotten a hit off him that day the way I wonder what would have happened to Crisp if HBO didn’t pull the plug early on How To Make It In America. That wouldn’t be the last time I would wonder about what Phil Hughes could do.

It’s May 7, 2012 and I’m still wondering about Phil Hughes. It’s been five years and six days days since he looked like he might be the first real front-end starter developed during the Brian Cashman era, and I still don’t know who Phil Hughes is, or what he is, or where he belongs on the Yankees’ pitching staff.

Hughes’ career can be broken down into 12 defining moments.

1. Major League Debut
Entering 2007, Brian Cashman hinted that Hughes was probably a year away from starting in the majors. But what Cashman didn’t realize is that he went in 2007 with 40 percent of his rotation consisting of Carl Pavano (the Opening Day starter due to injuries!) and Kei Igawa. Injuries mounted in April and after giving Chase Wright an opportunity in the majors that I was forced to watch at Fenway Park, Cashman had no choice but to call up Hughes to start on April 26. Hughes lasted just 4 1/3 innings, giving up seven hits and four earned runs on 91 pitches.

2. Near No-Hitter
I still remember this game like it was yesterday. 6.1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 3 BB, 6 K. Hughes had struck out five and walked one his debut, and now he had 11 Ks in 10 2/3 innings of work.

3. Return from Hamstring
Hughes returned from the disabled list on Aug. 4. He made 11 more starts in 2007 going 4-2 with a 4.65 ERA after the near no-hitter.

4. Game 4 of the 2007 ALDS
George Steinbrenner told Ian O’Connor that Joe Torre’s job was in trouble with the Yankees trailing 2-0 in the ALDS to the Indians, and Roger Clemens couldn’t grind through his last major league start, leaving the Yankee Stadium mound trailing 3-1 in an elimination game. I sat in the right field bleachers sensing the season coming to an end thanks to Chien-Ming Wang in Game 1 and the midges in the Game 2 (the next night I could add Wang to the list again along with Paul Byrd). But Hughes came in and pitched 3 2/3 scoreless innings and Johnny Damon hit a three-run home run off Jake Westbrook in the fifth inning and the Yankees staved off elimination for 24 hours.

5. 2008 Injuries
Hughes was given a rotation spot in spring training along with Ian Kennedy and the two were a disaster. Here’s Hughes’ line from his five starts in April 2008: 0-4, 22 IP, 34 H, 23 R, 22 ER, 13 BB, 13 K, 2 HR, 9.00 ERA, 2.136 WHIP. Injuries knocked him out from April 29 until Sept. 17 and he made two starts in September allowing just three earned runs in 12 innings. (Hughes also changed his number from 65 to 34 before changing it back to 65. I attribute his struggles to the number change.)

6. 2009 Triple-A Callup
Hughes started 2009 in Triple-A and returned to the majors on April 28 to shut out the Tigers for six innings in Detroit. He went 3-2 with a 5.45 ERA in seven starts after getting called up.

7. Move to the Bullpen
On June 8 he came out of the bullpen for the first time against Tampa Bay and pitched a scoreless inning. Two nights later in Boston he relieved Chien-Ming Wang and gave up two earned runs in 3 2/3 innings. I was at that game and it was the last time Hughes would give up a run until July 30. Here’s Hughes’ line for the rest of 2009 after I saw him in relief at Fenway: 46.2 IP, 29 H, 7 R, 6 ER, 11 BB, 59 K, 1 HR, 1.16 ERA, 0.857 WHIP. Just wow.

8. First “Half” of 2010
Here is Hughes’ line in 13 starts from April 15 to June 19: 10-1, 82.1 IP, 68 H, 29 R, 29 ER, 25 BB, 78 K, 7 HR, 3.17 ERA, 1.130 WHIP.

9. Second “Half” of 2010
And here’s Hughes’ line in 16 starts from June 29 to Sept. 26: 7-7, 92 IP, 94 H, 54 R, 53 ER, 33 BB, 65 K, 18 HR, 5.18 ERA, 1.380 WHIP.

10. 2010 Postseason
Hughes erased his bad second “half” from 2010 with seven shutout innings against the Twins in Game 3 of the ALDS to clinch the series. But then in the ALCS, Hughes tried to duplicate Chien-Ming Wang’s 2007 ALDS. Here’s Hughes’ line from Game 2 and Game 6 starts in the ALCS against the Rangers: 8.2 IP, 14 H, 11 R, 11 ER, 7 BB, 6 K, 1 HR, 11.42 ERA, 2.422 WHIP.

11. Dead Arm
Hughes wanted to be even more like Wang by starting 2011 the way Wang started 2009. Here’s Hughes’ line after his first three starts to open 2011: 10.1 IP, 19 H, 16 R, 16 ER, 4 BB, 3 K, 4 HR, 13.94 ERA, 2.227 WHIP. His velocity had gone from mid-90s to mid-Freddy Garcia and after negative tests for circulatory and vascular issues he ended up on the disabled list with a “dead arm.”

12. Return from DL
Hughes returned from the disabled list on July 6, but finished the season with mixed results and was as inconsistent as ever. On July 22 he wasn’t able get through five innings for an easy win after the offense had given him a 14-2 lead. He was skipped over for a postseason start and the Yankees’ postseason rotation became CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova, Freddy Garcia and A.J. Burnett. (Somehow I physically made it through the 2011 ALDS with that rotation though emotionally I certainly didn’t.)

The last defining moment came on July 6, 2011 when Hughes returned from the disabled list because he has been the same pitcher since his return from the disabled list last summer.

It’s now Hughes’ six years with the Yankees, and with only two seasons not impacted by injuries (2009 and 2010) and those 12 defining moments of his career, we still don’t know what he is. With limited time to develop at the major league level in the Bronx because of the Yankees’ yearly championship aspirations, Hughes has been able to buy time thanks to glimpses of dominance and his first-round pick status. But after 126 games, 77 starts, 49 relief appearances and 472 innings in the majors, can anyone say for certain they know what Phil Hughes is?

I have been a Hughes supporter since Day 1 believing in what the Yankees have always told us about his abilities. He’s still just 25 and he should be given every chance to be a starter, but at what point does he run out of these never-ending chances? Everyone keeps asking, “Well, what if Hughes can be the guy he was in the first half of 2010?” But what if he can’t? Since coming up in 2007 and battling through injuries on and off, there’s way more evidence that he won’t be the guy the Yankees projected as a No. 1 or No. 2 starter than there is that he will be.

Sunday against the Royals was going to be a big start for Hughes in determining his future for five reasons.

1. Joe Girardi and Cashman already pulled the plug on the Freddy Garcia Experiment Part II showing that they aren’t ready to give away more games, and Hughes could be next.

2. David Phelps already started once and did a decent job though a high pitch count after transitioning from the bullpen to the rotation led to only four innings of work.

3. Andy Pettitte is ready to return to the Yankees, so someone has to go. Garcia is already gone, and that most likely means that Garcia’s spot (now Phelps’) will go to Pettitte, but not if Hughes continues to struggle.

4. The Michael Pineda season-ending injury bought Hughes more time and more starts to get it together. If Pineda has been healthy and ready to return, Hughes would be joining Garcia in the bullpen, or on his way to Triple-A.

5. The injury to Mariano Rivera opened a hole in the bullpen as the Yankees now have only two “A” relievers in David Robertson and Rafael Soriano. Hughes has already been a dominant reliever with the Yankees, and if he can’t get it done as a starter, there’s a setup role waiting for him.

Because of these five things, Sunday’s start for Hughes had a lot of implications not only on Hughes and the Yankees’ rotation for 2012, but on Hughes’ long-term plan with the Yankees, which would impact his future finances depending on if he’s a starter or reliever. So with Hughes trying to find consistency and the Yankees trying to find out whether he belongs in the bullpen or the rotation I decided to watch Hughes’ start and write down my thoughts during his innings of work for a retro recap. Here’s what happened.

First Inning
It’s Phil Hughes vs. Luke Hochevar in the Battle of First-Round Picks Still Being Given Chances Because They Were First-Round Picks. The difference is that Hughes has had success in the majors, just not at all this season or really last season either. Hochevar, on the other hand, has a 32-45 career record, 5.37 ERA and 1.410 WHIP in 613 2/3 innings. So maybe only one of these guys doesn’t still deserve the chance to “figure it out,” but then again, the Royals don’t really have any other options.

Here are the over/unders for Hughes this game: 20 pitches in the first inning, 100 pitches for the game and 5 1/3 innings pitched. I’m taking the over on first-inning pitches even though it’s -140 (the under is +120). I don’t know if there’s a safer bet in baseball other than Derek Jeter swinging at the first pitch of a game, which he did again today for a double.

A four-pitch strikeout of Jarrod Dyson is followed by a four-pitch walk to Alex Gordon, and so is the life of Phil Hughes as a starting pitcher.

Billy Butler smokes a 1-1 fastball to right field for a double and it’s 1-0 Royals just like that. 11 pitches in and Hughes has one out with the Royals already on the board. Maybe if the rain does start it will last long enough for Andy Pettitte to get a flight from Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to Kansas City and finish the game.

Hughes gets behind Eric Hosmer 3-1 before getting a swinging strike on a changeup before a two-strike foul with a full count. (I like to refer to a two-strike foul as a Phil Hughes.) Hosmer flies out to left and there are two down. 18 pitches to record two outs isn’t exactly what I was looking for in the first inning, but if Hughes can Mike Moustakas out on two pitches or less he will only throw 20 pitches in the first inning.

It’s a push! Hughes gets Moustakas to pop out to short to end the inning. A 20-pitch first inning. That’s actually an improvement as bad as that is. The problem is the Royals scored and right now every run the Yankees allow feels like three with the way the offense is going, so even though it’s only 1-0, it’s more like 3-0.

Second Inning
Mitch Maier flies out on a 2-0 pitch to center, and Chris Getz grounds out on an 0-1 pitch to first. Two outs on five pitches? Is this real life? Is there a chance we might see a 1-2-3 inning? The Yankees tied the game with a hit with a runner in scoring position and now they might follow it up with a shutdown inning from a starter? Yes, I will be buying a Powerball ticket after the game.

I spoke too soon. Irving Falu, making his Major League debut, triples on a 1-0 pitch into the corner in right. I knew things were too good to be true. I need someone to squeeze my cheeks like Adam Sandler does to that little fat kid in Billy Madison for saying he can’t wait to go to high school. Don’t you say Phil Hughes looks good until his start is over! Don’t you ever say that!

Hughes bounces back by striking out Humberto Quintero swinging.

A runner was just left on base, and he wasn’t left on base by the Yankees offense. Progress!

A 13-pitch inning and Hughes is at 33 pitches after two.

Third Inning
A six-run inning for the Yankees in the top of the third, and Hughes has a 7-1 lead to work with. If he can’t cruise through this one then he should be out of chances to prove he belongs in the rotation.

Hughes strikes out Dyson swinging after a 10-pitch battle that included four Phil Hughes (once again, two-strike fouls) before he was able to get him to swing through a fastball. It’s Hughes’ third strikeout of the day.

Alex Gordon pops up to third on a 3-1 pitch (if we’re going to call a two-strike foul a “Phil Hughes” then I think Gordon just hit a “Mark Teixeira”), and Billy Butler strikes out swinging after just one Phil Hughes. It’s a perfect inning for Hughes that includes retiring both Gordon and Butler, which the Yankees haven’t been able to do all weekend.

A 21-pitch inning and Hughes is at 54 pitches after three.

Fourth Inning
Whenever Hughes comes off a bad start (this has happened a lot since the first half of 2010) he always talks about needing to attack the zone and challenge hitters. My question is why does he ever get away from this game plan? Why would he ever not want to attack the strike zone and challenge hitters? I understand that some days he isn’t going to be able to locate his pitches and will have to grind through starts, but it doesn’t make sense to say he needs to attack the zone and challenge hitters since that is always the plan. The plan is never to nibble around the corners and get behind hitters and leave games in the fourth inning.

Hughes gets Hosmer to ground out on a curve, but Moustakas doubles to deep center to prevent the dreams of back-to-back perfect innings.

Hughes works out of the runner in scoring position with by striking out Maier and getting Getz to ground out to the mound.

The YES gun has Hughes at 94 and 95 to end the fourth.

Andy Pettitte’s link from Scranton/Wilkes-Barre is in: 5 IP, 8 H, 5 R, 3 ER, 2 BB, 5 K. Not exactly an impressive start at Triple-A, but then again it doesn’t really matter what Pettitte does in the minors as long as he’s healthy. (There are also reports that the defense behind Pettitte was shaky.) Pettitte seems ready and will most likely make his next start in the Bronx this week. If this is Hughes’ last chance to prove he should remain a starter then he picked the right time to have his best start of the year so far. (Yes, I just said this is Hughes’ best start of the year. Someone please Billy Madison my cheeks right now before the Royals hang a seven spot in the fifth inning. Don’t you ever say that!)

A 20-pitch inning and Hughes is at 74 pitches after four.

Fifth Inning
Falu singles on a 1-2 pitch and is now 2-for-2 in the majors. (Note to Falu: It’s not really this easy. It’s not every game that you get to face Phil Hughes and the Yankees’ unstable starting pitching.)

I remember in the first half of 2010 when Hughes was dominant that there was just an unbelievable stat about his success with two strikes on hitters. I wish I could remember the stat. Anyway, it longer seems to hold true.

Hughes gets ahead of Quintero 0-2 as well and gets him to pop up second and then Dyson pops up to short for the second out.

A wild pitch (or “lawn dart” as David Cone calls it) moves Falu to second and a 1-0 fastball to Gordon is lined to center and Falu scores. Does Alex Gordon ever get out? Or is this just another example of a guy who kills the Yankees and no other team.

Butler flies out on the first pitch he sees and only half of the Gordon-Butler Yankees Killer Combination strikes this time through the order.

A 15-pitch inning and Hughes is at 89 pitches after five.

Sixth Inning
I want David Cone to be the Yankees pitching coach.

An easy and uneventful 1-2-3 inning for Phil Hughes that he ends with a called third strike on Maier.

A 14-pitching inning and Hughes is at 103 pitches after six, and his 103rd pitch was clocked at 95 mph (if you believe the radar gun, which is hard to believe.)

Seventh Inning
Hughes is back out for the seventh, which is surprising since the inning and his pitch count are the perfect combination for Joe Girardi and the Yankees to not let their 25-year-old righty exceed the 100-pitch mark even more and let him leave with a good taste in his mouth and some confidence heading into his next start against the Mariners.

Boone Logan is warming up in the bullpen, so if Hughes can’t make it through this inning, we’ll be seeing the “lefty specialist.”

Hughes gets Getz to fly out on five pitches and gets Falu swinging on four pitches. The gun had Hughes at 94 mph his last fastball to Falu, which is promising and surprising.

Hughes gets ahead of Quintero on two fastballs clocked at 94 and 95, but a third fastball at 95 gets smoked for a solo home run for Quintero. And here comes Joe Girardi.

Hughes’ day is done after 115 pitches (75 strikes). His line: 6.2 IP, 6 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 7 K, 1 HR. He got 11 swings and misses and had 13 two-strike fouls.

It was easily Hughes’ best start of the season. He pitched into the seventh inning of a start for the first time since he went 7 2/3 innings against the Twins on Aug. 19, 2011. The last time he had done so before that was against the Mariners on July 9, 2010. So yes, this is a big deal for Hughes and Hughes supporters.

Hughes bought himself another start with his back against the wall the way he always seems to do, but the Yankees needed a win and some sort of length and Hughes gave it to them. What they really need is stable rotation and for their 25-year-old former No. 1 pick to reach his ceiling for potential and stay there. It’s about time he gave them that.

Follow Neil on Twitter @NeilKeefe