Phil Hughes' Resurgence Proves How Much Easier It Is to Relieve
Before the 2008 season began, Brian Cashman resisted the urge to acquire ace Johan Santana, instead opting to stick with his young guns, Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy, to fill out the back end of the rotation.
Hughes went 0-4 with a 6.62 ERA in eight starts before heading to the DL, while Kennedy put together an 0-4 record with an 8.17 earned run average before being shipped back to the minor leagues.
Hughes returned to the rotation this year when Chien-Ming Wang went down with an injury and pitched to a 5.45 ERA in seven starts. He had improved but still wasn't where many had hoped he would be in his third season.
Then, in May, everything changed.
With Wang back, the right-hander was sent to the bullpen, and he instantly began to mow down opposing hitters. In 22.1 innings out of the pen, Hughes has surrendered just two runs on 12 hits and five walks, while striking out 28. That's an ERA of 0.81 compared to his lifetime 5.22 ERA as a starter.
Did the 23-year-old magically get better? No, he became a reliever.
Certainly, Hughes' progression as an overall pitcher is part of the reason he has improved, but the main cause is the fact that he now only has to pitch one or two innings a game, as opposed to five or six.
He can rear back and give it his all on every pitch because he isn't worried about running out of steam later in the game, and he only has to face hitters once as opposed to the three or four times when he was starting. In his career, batters hit just .207 in their first plate appearance against Hughes, but .304 in their second and .281 after that.
This is not the first time a starter has improved his performance by spending some time in the bullpen.
After 12 years as a starter, John Smoltz became a reliever in 2001. The following season, with just 31 career games coming out of the bullpen under his belt, the Atlanta Brave collected 55 saves, the second most ever at the time. In his career, Smoltz's ERA is 3.35 as a starter and 2.41 as a reliever.
In 2003, Eric Gagne of the Los Angeles Dodgers also tallied 55 saves. The year before that, he had 52, and the year before that, he went 5-6 with a 4.92 ERA as a starter. In fact, Gagne's career earned run average in the rotation is 4.68 and just 2.62 out of the bullpen.
Mariano Rivera, a man with just one pitch, had a 5.94 ERA in 10 starts in 1995, and we all know what he's done since.
Joba Chamberlain became the guy many wanted to succeed Mo after he gave up just one earned run in 24 innings pitched out of the pen in 2007. They even use his 3.52 ERA as a starter and 1.53 ERA as a reliever as a reason why Joba should return to the pen.
So what happens when the Yankees attempt to return Hughes to the rotation next year? Will his success as a reliever translate over to starting?
You know there's going to be another uproar from many fans who will say no one will be able to dominate the eighth inning like Hughes does—just like they said when Joba left the pen.
That was, until Hughes came along.
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