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New York Yankees: As Phil Hughes Goes, the Yankees Go

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New York Yankees: As Phil Hughes Goes, the Yankees Go
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Phil Hughes has caught a lot of grief from fans this season over his lack of consistency, though there's much more fiction than fact in that assessment.

Phil Hughes and the New York Yankees have mirrored each other with striking consistency this season. In the month of April, the Yankees scuffled out of the gates the first few weeks, and so did the southern California native Hughes.

As the weather started to warm in May, the Yankees started rolling, and so did Phil Hughes. There’s no coincidence that the Yankees' homegrown product and the team’s success go hand-in-hand.

The Yankees struggled somewhat from mid-July until early August. Not surprisingly, Hughes battled through two of his worst outings of the season during that time span, both of which were losses for the men in pinstripes.

If the Yankees want to get that comfortable separation in the standings they just had a few weeks ago, they’ll need consistent outings from their starting pitchers, and that's what Phil Hughes hopes to provide.

Once CC Sabathia returns from the disabled list on Friday night, the Yankees should have two starters at the top of their rotation who are pretty close to sure things for efficient outings every time out. After that, there have been no guarantees.

However, from the beginning of the season until now, Hughes has been the Yankees’ third-best starting pitcher and deserves the opportunity to start either Game 3 or Game 4 of the AL division series—assuming the Yankees get there.

Hughes’ 2012 campaign got off to an atrocious start as his cut fastball was knocked all over big league ballparks in the month of April.  After a brutal start against the Angels in Anaheim in May, Hughes decided to eliminate the cut fastball from his pitching arsenal.

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In his very next start, he delivered the best outing of his major league career, throwing his first nine-inning complete game en route to the Yankees' 5-1 victory over the Detroit Tigers.

Hughes' four-hit, eight-strikeout gem was the cherry on top of a successful 6-3 road trip for the Yankees that—at the time—shot them right back into contention for first place in the American League East.

Pitchf/x data shows that Hughes has relied very heavily on his four-seam fastball in 2012, using the pitch two-thirds of the time. His 12-6 curveball, which he mixes with a slightly harder curve, is his second pitch, and very often one that he uses to get over for a strike early in the count.

Hughes is now 12-11 and has kept his ERA much closer to 4.00 since late June.  He has also pitched much deeper into games than he had earlier in the season or for most of his career. Fourteen of Hughes’ 25 starts this season have been six innings or more.

The Yankees played better baseball on their recent home stand, going 5-2 against Texas and Boston to keep pace with Baltimore and Tampa Bay. Now, a three-game sweep at the hand of the White Sox has the Yankees skeptics back out in full force.

The Yankees are always in search of better consistency from their starting rotation, and Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova have both been under the microscope of late. There have been cries from many Yankees fans and those in the media regarding Hughes’ inconsistencies.

Unfairly, Hughes’ 2012 season has been compared to fellow starter Ivan Nova’s largely because they're both Yankees farm-system products and are less than seven months apart in age. That's mostly where the similarities end.

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Nova has struggled much more than Hughes over the balance of the season, whereas Hughes left his worst days behind him in early spring. Accusing Hughes of being inconsistent begs for an examination and definition of that very word.  

If you define inconsistency as throwing back-to-back seven-inning quality starts in late August by allowing a combined two earned runs against two of the best offenses in baseball, perhaps you need to refer to your closest edition of Merriam-Webster.

The 26-year-old has produced 14 quality starts in 2012, good enough for second-best on the Bombers and tied for 14th-best in the American League. There’s no escaping the fact that Hughes has had several outings this season when he was really roughed up.

But they’ve been much fewer and farther between than most people realize.

Including two rough outings against Detroit and Toronto, Hughes’ August starts have still put the Yankees in position to win more than they’ve lost. His ERA for the month of August is 4.45. For the months of June and July respectively, it was 2.67 and 3.09.

Hughes has the 20th-best ERA among starting pitchers in the American League.

Felix Hernandez—he of the recent perfect game—is one of the best pitchers in baseball, and even he has had his share of clunkers mixed into an otherwise brilliant season. The point is, the same media and fans that crucified Hughes when he looked down and out would be remiss to not point out that he’s enjoyed a solid overall season.

The Yankees could do far worse than Hughes, and it would be a big mistake to not bring him back as a starter in 2013.

Leon Halip/Getty Images
Hughes has found greater success since abandoning the cut fastball.
He's become much more economical with his pitches, walking only 33 batters on the season, good enough to be tied for eighth-best among qualified starting pitchers (120 innings pitched minimum) in the American League.

Sixty-six percent of Hughes' pitches in his complete game masterpiece earlier this season in Detroit were strikes, and there was a noticeable difference in the cut and break on his pitches, as he stayed out of the middle of the strike zone and kept Detroit's hitters guessing.

Hughes showed his mettle last night in an incredibly tough duel with White Sox ace Chris Sale, a formidable matchup that the 26-year-old Hughes handled exceptionally well. Sale may go on to win the AL Cy Young, and Hughes hung with him nearly every step of the way.

Ultimately, Hughes received a tough-luck loss, giving up two earned runs in seven innings on five strikeouts. A particularly nice game in such a big hitter’s park.

In 2012, the Yankees have caused agita for their enthusiastic fanbase with their up-and-down play at various points in the season. The team's statistics are quite impressive in the aggregate, but the Yankees have befuddled everyone with their anemic hitting with runners in scoring position (RISP).

New York leads the majors in home runs and is seventh overall in batting average, yet the Yankees are a lousy 17th out of 30 teams batting with RISP. The Yankees' poor hitting in big spots has cost them dearly in several games this season.

Hughes' thoughts on the game are in sync with the Yankees', these days. If Hughes can be more similar to the guy in his last two starts than the guy earlier in the season, the Yankees should be in great shape.

Both have taken some lumps and had some failures along the way. But both have also rebounded nicely. Likewise, both are hoping to finish the season strong and to win another championship.

If you’re looking for Felix Hernandez to pop up in New York by the waiver deadline—or even by next season—keep dreaming. The Yankees will likely have four solid starting pitchers come this postseason, assuming Andy Pettitte returns healthy. Phil Hughes is one of those four.

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