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Updated: February 21st, 2014 5:59pm
Phil Hughes seeks turnaround, which in turn could turn around Twins

Phil Hughes seeks turnaround, which in turn could turn around Twins

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by Derek Wetmore
1500ESPN.com

FORT MYERS, Fla. - Phil Hughes takes spring training seriously.

In his first camp since trading his pinstripes for Twinstripes, the former Yankees pitcher hopes to step out of the shadow cast last season by his 4-14 record and 5.19 ERA.

"You don't have any of that baggage from last year. It's a fresh start for both sides," Hughes said. "Being with a team that struggled last year and personally struggling last year, kind of coming in with that sense of optimism, I think it's a good thing for both sides."

The Twins showed belief, in the form of a three-year, $24 million contract, that Hughes can shed that excess baggage and return to the form that once made him one of New York's top prospects.  Success in Minnesota could be a kickstart for a career that began when Hughes was a No. 23 overall draft selection.

Hughes, in return, could kickstart Minnesota.

A Twins team that lost 291 games over the past three seasons and was starved for starting pitching. Minnesota conspicuously lacked strikeouts. Hughes, even in a bad overall season, struck out about 7 ½ batters per nine innings last year.

"I'm excited for the opportunity to come out and bounce back and I'm hoping for big things this year," Hughes said. But if he had his druthers, he wouldn't stand out on the pitching staff at all. He'd blend in.

He said his top priority is to stay healthy, especially in spring training. He wants to make 30 or more starts and have a quality start each time. Modest goals, perhaps, but all are easier said than done.

"As far as where that fits me in the rotation, hopefully I'm just one of five guys that's doing that. And if that's the case we'll have a lot of success."

'Unusually long' offseason

The Yankees - hit hard with injuries - failed to make the playoffs in 2013 after improbably competing with a roster of spare parts and a few stars. That meant more time off than Hughes had grown accustomed to.

He took a four-week breather before starting his offseason workout routine. This offseason, like others, he trained at Athletes' Performance (API, now known as EXOS) in Los Angeles, Calif. He worked with Yankees pitcher Hiroki Kuroda and six or seven other athletes on a program that includes stretching, throwing, lifting and conditioning.

"I wasn't going to let last year affect my offseason routine because I was good with everything I was doing [physically]," Hughes said. He said didn't want to blame his poor performance from 2013 on anything, including his offseason preparation.

Although he has a spot in the starting rotation locked up, he didn't come to Fort Myers expecting to use camp to get ready for the season.

"I've always been an intense spring guy. I never take anything for granted," Hughes said. "I've never fallen into that mode. When bullpens come up and everything, I like to go at it pretty hard.

"Whatever the scenario is, whether I have a spot guaranteed or not, I go about it as if I have to earn it. You try to prove that the faith they have in you is [valid]."

Scouting report

When Hughes is at his best, he's using his 92-94 mph four-seam fastball to hit in the inside and outside edges of the plate. He said can touch 95 with the fastball, and said it sometimes has late movement. When he commands that pitch, good things happen.

Then he uses his overhand curveball as a secondary offering. He said he has a slider, changeup and a cuter to go to when he needs it, although he used his cutter only a handful of times in 2013, according to FanGraphs.

Many of the problems that plagued Hughes in New York stemmed from his flyball tendencies, a problem exacerbated by Yankee Stadium's short right-field porch.

"Everybody's different with their style and their approach," Hughes said. "I've never been a two-seam/sinkerball guy. Would I like to get some more ground balls? Sure, I think that's always helpful. But I think if I can stay down in the zone I can achieve that.

"I try to pop the ball up in the zone every once in a while, try to get some swings and misses, some popups, things like that. I've sort of accepted the fact that I'll be a flyball tendency guy. But when I'm at my best, those aren't leaving the ballpark. They're popups or swings and misses."

Target Field plays much bigger than Yankee Stadium, which should work to Hughes' benefit. Hughes said the switch to a more pitcher-friendly Target Field was a factor in his decision to sign with Minnesota, but only one among a long list of considerations, such as the city, the manager, the pitching coach, etc.

With apologies to those who don't like to player the pitcher comparison game, let's try it here to make a point.

2013

Pitcher A

Pitcher B

ERA

6.32

3.88

Batters faced

353

289

Home runs

17

7

Home runs per 9 innings (HR/9)

1.95

0.94

Percentage of fly balls turned to home runs (HR/FB)

15%

6.7%

Strikeouts per 9 innings (K/9)

8.50

6.28

Walks and hits per innings pitched (WHIP)

1.54

1.35

Batting average on balls in play (BABIP)

.358

.286

Fielding-independent pitching (FIP)

4.82

4.12

Opponents' batting average

.311

.254

Opponents' on-base percentage

.355

.321

Opponents' slugging percentage

.554

.414

Opponents' weighted on-base average

.388

.318

--

Pitcher A was Phil Hughes in Yankee Stadium in 2013.

Pitcher B was Phil Hughes everywhere else in 2013.

Hughes was a demonstrably better pitcher on the road last season. He also might have had some more luck. In Yankee Stadium, Hughes turned the average hitter into Freddie Freeman. On the road, the average hitter was more like Brian Dozier.

The number that stands out is how many more fly balls turned into home runs at home. 

Hughes says he's not going to try to reinvent himself, he knows he's a flyball pitcher. Alone, a shift to a deeper fence at Target Field won't solve all his problems. But it could help rejuvenate his once-promising career.

And if he has success with the Twins on a three-year deal, he'll still hit free agency at age 30 and be in line for a healthy payday.

Derek Wetmore is the senior editor for 1500ESPN.com. His previous stops include MLB.com and the Minnesota Daily.
Email Derek | @DerekWetmore
In this story: Brian Dozier, Phil Hughes
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