Phil Hughes was recently demoted from the New York Yankees' starting rotation to the bullpen, and that led to one talent evaluator telling Andy McCullough of The Star-Ledger that he's baffled by Hughes' fall from grace.
"You just wonder why he isn't better," the scout said.
Hughes is a former No. 4 overall prospect according to Baseball America and he has enjoyed flashes of brilliance in his seven-year major league career. Now, Hughes has been replaced by journeyman David Huff as the No. 5 starter.
The move is not unwarranted—not in the least. Hughes is 4-13 on the season with a 4.86 ERA in 137.0 innings. He's served up 23 home runs and has produced a WHIP of 1.409. Batters are hitting .278 against him, while their batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is .315. His FIP of 4.54 is considered "poor" by Baseball Prospectus.
Hughes hasn't been extremely effective since his 18-win season in 2010, and he hasn't been a dominant pitcher since his bullpen role in 2009. In 51.1 innings out of the bullpen that season, he produced a 1.40 ERA while racking up 65 strikeouts.
What happened to that pitcher? That's definitely the question that the talent evaluator questioned by McCullough was thinking.
To Hughes' credit, the Yankees' decision to move him from the bullpen to the starting rotation in 2010 was a questionable decision. He answered the call admirably with 18 wins, but jumping back and forth from the rotation to the bullpen has had an adverse effect on the careers of many pitchers. Just look at Joba Chamberlain, for instance.
Hughes' problems have been well-chronicled during his time with the Yankees. He's been the staple of inconsistency since the beginning of the 2011 season, and the Bombers have continued to given him ample opportunities to succeed.
Being an extreme fly-ball pitcher in the not-so-friendly pitching confines of Yankee Stadium doesn't help his cause and, as a free agent at the end of the season, he could look to find a much more pitcher-friendly ballpark on the West Coast.
His fastball is pin-straight and he often leaves his curveball up in the zone, so it's natural for major league hitters to crush his mistakes. He's always thrown pretty hard, but even a 95 mph fastball is hittable if it's right down the middle. This is why he's allowed 58 home runs combined over the last two seasons.
Hughes can be better if he learns to trust his pitches and leave them down in the zone. If he develops a sinker or two-seam fastball at this point in his career, then he should be able to learn how to keep balls down.
It's hard to pin such a lack of success on the ballpark of a pitcher, but a change of scenery could be best for Hughes. His confidence is drained and his time in New York is coming to a close, but that doesn't mean he can't resurrect his once-promising career.