Will Phil Hughes’ fastball confidence stick as a starter?
In a FanHouse piece in which Frankie Piliere outlines a handful of former prospects with something to prove in 2010, Piliere cites the Yankees’ young starter/reliever, Phil Hughes. “Bullpen or no bullpen, we saw the real Hughes start to shine through in 2009,” writes the former Texas scout. Piliere attributes Hughes’ newfound success to him seeming “more aggressive and comfortable in every way” last season, as these traits allowed the 23-year old to look like a “different pitcher” on the mound when compared to the discernibly diffident version we saw in 2008. Much of this aggressiveness, notes Piliere, was derived from Hughes’ confidence in one pitch, in particular—his fastball.
In 2009, working primarily as Mariano Rivera’s setup man, Hughes’ fastball averaged 93.7 mph. In 2008, as a starter, Hughes’ velocity averaged nearly 3 mph less at 91.2 mph. The noticeable uptick in velocity can help to explain the changes in Hughes’ demeanor from 2008 to 2009 as he was simply working with more gas last year, in a relief role (he could let it “fly”), as opposed to two years ago. As stated by Piliere, Hughes had “more confidence in his fastball command,” and, obviously, it is a lot easier to believe in your fastball when you throw it harder since added velocity means not having to worry as much about your overall location or control. The numbers bare this out with regards to swing percentage. In 2008, while in the rotation, hitters only swung at 16.5% of the pitches Hughes threw outside of the zone – he throws his fastball the most, so many of those off-the-plate offerings were fastballs – whereas, in 2009, hitters swung at 25.7% of the pitches Hughes threw that were outside the strike zone. Also, hitters swung at more pitches in the zone a season ago – 69.0% compared to 64.4% in 2008 – while making less contact (82.5% in 2009 as a reliever versus 91.5% in 2008 as a starter). Thus, pitching out of the ‘pen coaxed an extra 3 mph (roughly) out of Hughes’ California-bred arm, which basically led to his now vaunted confidence and celebrated aggressiveness.
This big question, of course, is whether or not this confidence, which was so essential to the Yankees in 2009, will remain with Hughes if he is reinserted into the rotation, where he will lose the added velocity he gained last season.
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