Flashes of Greatness Are Offset by Inconsistency for Yankees' Phil Hughes

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Flashes of Greatness Are Offset by Inconsistency for Yankees' Phil Hughes
Rob Carr/Getty Images
Phil Hughes is capable of great starts but they're often offset with some lousy ones.

Phil Hughes' tenure with the New York Yankees can be summed up perfectly by taking a look at his game log from this season. It reads like the chart of a volatile, speculative bio-tech stock poised for that really big breakout.

There are good days—even great days— where it appears Hughes is one of the top pitchers in the American League, a future stalwart in the Bombers' rotation for years to come. And then come the dips— the really, really big dips— that are equally frustrating and puzzling.

How can someone with such natural ability and composure on the mound look so good at times and so awful at others? With Hughes, there doesn't seem to be a lot of middle ground. 

Phil Hughes is a Yankee lifer. As a first-round pick from Orange County, California with a live fastball and a solid repertoire of pitches, the expectations for Hughes were always sky-high. Even for pitchers like Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw, to attach comparisons to Roger Clemens is plain ridiculous.

Yet after his second start in the big leagues in 2007, when Hughes nearly fired a no-hitter in Texas, the Yankees fanbase was on cloud nine. But Hughes left that game with an injury and missed the next three months. 

After another injury-shortened season in 2008, Hughes found remarkable success out of the bullpen during the Yankees' championship season in 2009. Make no mistake: Hughes was a vital part of that season's excellent bullpen.

But Hughes was never billed to be a reliever. He was starter material all the way.

Hughes proved that in 2010 with an All-Star appearance after a superb first half of the season, which had him at 11-2 with a tidy 3.65 earned run average. Hughes had an average second half of the season, never quite able to match his excellence in the first half.

Then came another injury-plagued 2011 season, followed by a fully healthy 2012 season where he made 32 starts, 17 of which were quality starts. As usual, he confounded Yankee fans with his electric mix of pitches, yet lousy outings filled with long home runs. 

Al Bello/Getty Images
Hughes can be a strikeout machine or a batting practice pitcher at times.

Hughes finished 2012 tied for second among all MLB pitchers in home runs allowed.

Even in 2013, Hughes has six quality starts so far. For comparison purposes, Justin Verlander and Hiroki Kuroda have eight. Yet Hughes also has his fair share of duds, games in which he's given the Yankees virtually no chance to win.

Hughes is akin to the dazzling NBA scorer who is able to put up points with ease, but is often neutralized on the defensive side of the floor by allowing his opponent to nearly equal his scoring output.

Hughes throws four pitches in total: a four-seam fastball, slider, curve and change-up. But on most nights, Hughes only seems to throw two pitches—his four seamer and slider. And at times it seems Hughes only really throws his four-seamer, period.

According to Pitch FX data, Hughes has thrown his four-seam fastball nearly two thirds of the time this season, an overwhelmingly high amount. Hughes clearly has an excellent four-seam fastball. He surely wouldn't be pitching in the majors, for the Yankees no less, if he did not.

But when the hitters know what's coming two thirds of the time, they can eventually gear up for that pitch in a particular location. So why not more diversity with his pitches? Your guess is as good as mine, but it likely boils down to an ineffectiveness with his other pitches.

Hughes started this season with two lousy outings, followed by four straight excellent starts. Which he then followed with a very mediocre outing in Kansas City, and then perhaps the worst start of his career at home against Seattle.

Then he had two really good starts in a row, and of course last Saturday against Boston, a terrible outing.

Hughes can look completely dominant for most of the game, yet his propensity to give up home runs shows his vulnerability in a staggering way. Can you remember a pitcher whose mistakes always seem to be hit for home runs?

He makes very, very few mistakes. The problem is, when he does, he's leaving a straight, fat 92 mph fastball out over the plate, which then travels 450 feet in the opposite direction, often with men on base.

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Hughes is back on the mound Thursday night for the Yankees in a pitcher-friendly park on the West Coast, likely a destination where he must feel perfectly in his comfort zone. It seems like a foregone conclusion that Hughes will be gone after this year.

During a recent Yankees broadcast, David Cone went on to say what's been on a lot of fans' minds, suggesting the soon-to-be 27-year-old would be much more comfortable in one of the big West Coast parks that are a lot more friendly to fly ball pitchers.

The Yankees might trade him by the deadline. Of course, they can offer him arbitration after the season and then reap the draft pick if another team signs him. It's just hard to believe he'll be back at hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium. Either way, this is not the conclusion the Yankees ever dreamed of for Hughes.

Six quality starts this year (all six involved him allowing fewer than three runs). Four terrible, terrible duds. Yankee fans have always wanted to love Hughes. Just like they've loved Andy Pettitte like a brother. Just like some are starting to really appreciate David Phelps, who appears to have a bright future in the Bronx.

And many are desperately hoping for the same with Ivan Nova.

They're our guys, farm raised in the Yankee system. There haven't been too many successful starters to come through in recent years, which makes the desire to hold on to the hope that Hughes can finally find more consistency so strong.

So we continue to hope. But time is running out.

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