Wetmore: Phil Hughes is pummeling strike zone, looking like a bargain
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Phil Hughes is the best pitcher on the Twins right now.
Yankees fans reading that sentence a year ago would have chuckled, assuming it was the punchline to a joke about the sad state of Minnesota's rotation. But it's true. On an improved starting staff, no pitcher has been better than the former Yankees top prospect, whom New York allowed leave. Actually, they probably showed him the door.
Depending on your view of Hughes, he has either outperformed expectations or drastically outperformed expectations.
What's his secret?
Well, as we have this conversation, let's remember we're dealing with just 54 1/3 innings pitched, but his last five starts have been sensational and warrant some attention.
For one, Hughes is pounding the strike zone. His 47 strikeouts against just 6 walks are pretty incredible. He's become allergic to walking batters, whether that's a conscious effort or not. Hughes has struck out 29 batters since he last issued a walk, back on April 20, a string of 147 batters without a walk.
In fact, no pitcher hits the strike zone at a higher rate than Hughes' 60 percent. The league average is 49 percent. Entering this season, Hughes sported a rate of 53 percent, and his increase in that department is the largest gain in the Majors this season, according to Fangraphs.
Increase in strike zone percentage, according to Fangraphs:
• Phil Hughes, +6.8 percentage points
• Wily Peralta, +5.5
• Zach McAllister, +5.5
• Clay Buchholz, +5.3
• Jeff Samardzija, +4.7
He ditched his slider in spring training and is relying recently on a fastball-cutter mix. He still throws a curveball, but he uses it more sporadically than he used to. After his most recent start at Target Field he said he threw just two curveballs.
He's getting ahead of batters with strike one, which is so important it has become one of the most loathed clichés in baseball jargon. Hughes is fifth among starters in first-strike percentage (69.8 percent, compared to the league average 60 percent).
Hughes induces more swings than any other pitcher by a fairly wide margin. Batters swing at 56.6 percent of Hughes' offerings, the next closest is John Lackey at 52.4 percent. The league average is 45.8 percent.
One of the hopes when Hughes agreed to a 3-year, $24 million contract as a free agent this winter was that a change of scenery would help Hughes. Out of the pressure of New York, the fly ball pitcher could see home runs (always an Achilles' heel) turn into outs in the more spacious Target Field.
That's been the case so far, but he's probably due for some regression in that area.
He's served up just four gopher balls in 54 1/3 innings this season (0.66 per 9 innings), compared to his career rate of 1.25 homers per 9 innings. Playing half his games in Target Field instead of Yankee Stadium should help him, but likely not to that significant of a degree.
Basically, Hughes is attacking hitters, they're offering and not hitting home runs. No home runs and no free passes is a good recipe, if he can continue.
It seems highly unlikely he'll keep going at this pace, because I'm still not convinced he has a bonafide 'out pitch.' That's how you wind up with a 14-pitch at bat, like the battle Hughes won against Xander Bogaerts recently.
His 7.79 strikeouts per 9 innings easily leads the Twins staff, and is slightly above average by MLB standards. And since he has walked fewer than a batter per 9 innings, his 7.83 strikeout-to-walk ratio is fourth in all of baseball among qualified starters.
It seems that throwing strikes and getting ahead in tons of counts and not giving up home runs or walking batters has been a successful recipe so far. It likely won't continue at this rate-he'll walk a batter eventually and surrender home runs here and there.
For the contract, though, Hughes is looking like a bargain right now.