Phil Hughes arrived to the big leagues at an early age with the New York Yankees. His career has been a journey with some ups and some downs. The past couple years have seen mostly downs for Hughes in Minnesota, and he’s got an injury to thank for that.
But now the central question to Hughes taking the mound for the Twins is a disheartening one: Is he ever going to get his best stuff back?
Based on the early results this spring and in 2 starts this season, it’s possible that he won’t — that this is the new normal for Hughes. Roughly 9 months ago he had a second surgery to address the problems caused by Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. On Friday against the lowly Reds, the Twins’ starting pitcher lasted just 3 2/3 innings and allowed 4 earned runs on 5 hits and 2 walks, with 3 strikeouts mixed in there.
Probably more concerning for the Twins and for Hughes, he doesn’t appear to have his good stuff back. In his own words, the command and ‘stuff’ Hughes had on Friday was “awful.”
It’s been quite a while since we’ve seen his best fastball in Minnesota, but the hope had to be that a second surgical procedure would improve his outlook.
That wasn’t the case Friday. Reds hitters were all over him.
“Lack of command and lack of stuff led to falling behind in too many counts and leaving too many balls over the plate,” Hughes said Friday. “It’s really frustrating. I pride myself on being a guy that attacks the zone and is able to throw lots of strikes. To be in so many bad counts is a position that I can’t afford to be in.”
Last summer, Hughes had the second surgery to get rid of more of the rib and some surrounding muscle mass. It’s clear Hughes is not back to his peak. Even falling just a little bit short of that can be a big problem in the Major Leagues, where the difference between effective and out of a job can be razor thin. Opposing hitters are merciless like that.
He pitched 59 innings in 2016 and 53 2/3 innings last year. He began this season on the disabled list with an oblique injury. He recently returned to make his first start of the season against his former team, the Yankees. That one didn’t go so well, either. In two starts, Hughes has allowed 6 earned runs in 7 innings. He’s allowed 10 hits, walked 4 batters and struck out 5. In the past, he relied on a fastball, cutter and spike curveball. He’s toyed with a changeup and added a slider. About 10 months after his second TOS surgery, it seems like his arsenal of pitches hasn’t come back.
It could be too early to get overly technical and use MLB’s pitch tracking technology to evaluate the movement of his pitches. But it also be safe to say that those reports of his fastball hitting 94 mph on rehab starts may have been overstated. If this is new Hughes, the margin for error has basically vanished.
Two years ago I wrote about Phil Hughes and his fastball velocity. There’s more to pitching than velocity, of course, but I think it’s a useful way into the conversation about ‘stuff’ declining. It doesn’t take advanced analysis to see a fastball that used to pop and now sits at 90-91 mph. Reds hitters were all over it Friday.
“It’s not how we hoped that it would begin,” manager Paul Molitor said of Hughes’ first two starts. “I’m sure he’d like to give a little bit more and we’d like to get a little bit more.
“The short starts have really backed us up and put us in a rough spot as far as how we get through games. … Phil’s going to have to figure some things out. You’re used to seeing a lot better strike-ball ratio. I don’t know if it’s a matter of trust throwing in the zone or if he’s just trying to trick people too much,” Molitor said.
I was struck by reading a quote from Hughes this week in the New York Post. Hughes was talking about Matt Harvey, the once-great Mets starter who has been moved to the bullpen and struggled badly after his own TOS trials and an operation.
“It’s one of those things, you look at guys that have had this procedure, there’s not an incredible track record of them coming back to be just as good,” Hughes told the Post. “I hope I can do it and Matt can, too. But you’re going in not knowing if you’re gonna have to be the first guy to get all his stuff back.”
Hughes also talked about the mental toll his injuries have taken. He knows better than anybody that he’s getting paid a lot of money to get outs in the big leagues. The past couple years he hasn’t exactly gotten that job done.
He continued to the Post: “I’m getting paid a lot of money right now and not living up to it. That wears on me more than anything. But I’m closer than I was last year.”
I asked Hughes after Friday’s start what it will take to get back on track. He said that he knows his reference points mechanically, and we’ll work in his side session between starts to get things cleaned up.
“I think he’s got to figure out how he can be a little more aggressive,” Molitor said. “Any time he gets a hitters count, they’re just getting really aggressive swings on him — too comfortable of at-bats. They’re in there and they’re sitting on pitches and they’re having a chance to square up a lot of balls.”