Phil Hughes takes the mound tonight for the Yankees assigned with the difficult task of shutting down the Orioles powerful lineup and pitching the Yankees into the American League Championship Series. Yankee fans should be happy, yet the overwhelming feeling is that Hughes just isn't capable of success.
The prevailing thought among the fan base is that Hughes is far too inconsistent and that his lack of experience will come back to bite him tonight at the Stadium. Hughes had his ups and downs in 2012—what major league pitcher didn't?—but overall pitched a very respectable season and tied for the team lead in wins.
Hughes tied for 17th in the American League in quality starts in 2012, demonstrating he is more than capable of a fine outing. He was 16th in the AL in strikeouts and tied for 14th in WHIP, all while not missing a start all season long.
The fact is, Hughes is no longer the 20-year-old kid that came up to the Bombers in 2007 as a wide-eyed rookie with enormous expectations. Hughes hasn't fulfilled all of the "sky is the limit" forecasts that many baseball scouts and writers envisioned.
What he has done is serve as the nearly unhittable set-up man for the 2009 championship team, despite some struggles during that year's postseason. Hughes also pitched seven shutout innings against Minnesota in the 2010 ALDS at Yankee Stadium.
It would be fair to point out that he bombed in the ALCS against Texas in two outings in Arlington, but Hughes has learned from his highs and lows, and in 2012 he had his best overall season as a major leaguer.
The critics of his inconsistency would simply point to his final three starts of the regular season which were mediocre, with the exception of a solid start in Minnesota where Boone Logan blew away his lead and cost the Yankees the game.
This season, Hughes proved durable and efficient by using a refined control to stay around the strike zone and drastically cut down on walks. So what's the issue? Hughes' bugaboo is most certainly that he's prone to giving up the gopher ball.
Hughes allowed the second-most home runs of any pitcher in baseball this season, not a promising statistic when the team that hit the second-most home runs in baseball will be the opposition this evening. However, Hughes enjoyed mixed success against the Birds this season.
Hughes made four starts against Baltimore this season. Here are his lines:
|7-Sep||@ BAL||W 8-5||6||6||2||1||0||5|
|2-Sep||vs BAL||L 8-3||5||8||5||2||1||6|
|1-Aug||vs BAL||W 12-3||6||9||1||0||2||2|
|1-May||vs BAL||L 7-1||5.2||4||4||2||1||6|
Mediocre in early September at the Stadium, yet efficient just five days later at Camden Yards, Hughes showed an ability to strike batters out while still allowing some home runs. The key for Hughes tonight will be to avoid making mistakes with his secondary pitches over the plate.
Hiroki Kuroda was able to trust hit fastball, sinking "shuutu" pitch last night against the O's and was only victimized two times, both mistakes with his slider. Hughes has generally gotten beaten with his four-seam fastball when he's left it out in the middle part of the plate.
Thanks to Pitch F/X data, the statistics clearly show that Hughes relies overwhelmingly on his four-seam fastball and his secondary pitches are his curve and change-up. Hughes started out the 2012 season using his cut-fastball which got him into loads of trouble.
Hughes abandoned the pitch altogether in April, where he experienced most of his woes, and started to incorporate more sliders and change-ups into his arsenal. He began to trust his curveball more and realized that his four-seamer is a deadly pitch when it's on and biting through the strike zone.
Placement of the four-seam fastball and an ability to keep that pitch out of the middle of the strike zone is really what it comes down to tonight for Phil Hughes for success or failure. The margin for error is millimeters.
Hughes has been at his best in 2012 when he's mastered his four-seamer, sending batters whiffing and back to the dugout. He'll also need his curveball to be sharp and to get that over the plate for first-pitch strikes against the patient big bats of the Baltimore lineup.
It's certainly understandable that Yankee fans don't trust Hughes in this spot as much as they would Andy Pettitte or Kuroda. He doesn't have the body of work. But at this time of the year, teams need to rely on their fourth starters to help get them through the postseason gauntlet and to the World Series.
CC Sabathia should not be expected to pitch on short rest when the Yankees have a really good option as their fourth starter. Someone that can come through and shine brightly as long as he sticks to pitching coach Larry Rothschild's game plan tonight.
Phil Hughes showed us the good and the bad in this 2012 season but more often than not, during the summer, Hughes shined brightly and played a pivotal role in placing the Yankees in position to win the AL East crown.
To forget those performances and his successes during the season would be foolish. The man deserves the start tonight and in a season of sometimes baffling inconsistencies, maybe tonight is just the time that Phil unfurls one of the gems he pitched at several other times this season.
He's earned manager Joe Girardi's trust and rightfully so. Now is his time to show the 50,000-plus at Yankee Stadium tonight the successful pitcher that he's become.