Imagining Phil Hughes as Cliff Lee

Do you understand how preposterous that title would have sounded last offseason? Ridiculous. You might still think it sounds ridiculous. But before you begin drawing conclusions, let me just present you with a few facts about each player and then some tables to support those facts.

Cliff Lee

  • You might have forgotten, but Cliff Lee used to be really bad
  • Like, for a while
  • One year, he decided to stop walking people
  • He also stopped giving up home runs
  • As a result, he became very good
  • Then, over the course of several seasons, he also started striking people out
  • As a result, he went from “very good” to “most dominant pitcher in baseball

Phil Hughes

  • You probably haven’t forgotten, but Phil Hughes used to be really bad
  • Like, for a while
  • One year, he decided to stop walking people
  • He also stopped giving up home runs
  • As a result, he became very good


You’ll notice that Hughes has two fewer bullet points than Lee. Those are two pretty important bullet points, and we’ll get to that. But for now you can at least see how this idea was born. Cliff Lee was really bad through his age-28 season, or about his first four full seasons worth of playing time. Phil Hughes was really bad through his age-27 season, or about his first four full seasons worth of playing time. Not only were these guys both bad, they were bad in the exact same way.

Behold:

Inn ERA(-) FIP(-) xFIP(-) K% BB% HR/9 FB%
Cliff Lee, thru age 28 741.2 4.64 (104) 4.59 (105) 4.78 (107) 17.1 7.9 1.27 46.2
Phil Hughes, thru age 27 780.2 4.54 (107) 4.31 (101) 4.31 (104) 19.7 7.4 1.29 46.0

Cliff Lee and Phil Hughes were basically the same pitcher through their first four years worth of work. Both guys were extreme fly ball pitchers with extreme home run problems. Those home run problems were exacerbated by the fact that they walked too many guys and weren’t elite strikeout pitchers. None of those traits are good traits, and so neither of those pitchers were good pitchers.

But in Lee’s age-29 season, something clicked, and he won a Cy Young Award. This year, in Hughes’ age-28 season, something clicked. He didn’t win a Cy Young Award, but again, the parallels are easy to draw. The number in green represents the change from their previous career totals:

ERA FIP xFIP K% BB% HR/9 FB%
Lee, age 29 2.54 (-2.10) 2.83 (-1.76) 3.52 (-1.26) 19.1 (+2.0) 3.8 (-4.1) 0.48 (-.79) 35.1 (-11.1)
Hughes, age 28 3.52 (-1.02) 2.65 (-1.66) 3.18 (-1.13) 21.8 (+2.1) 1.9 (-5.5) 0.69 (-.60) 40.2 (-5.8)

Those very similar bad pitchers from above now look like very similar good pitchers!

Both guys started getting more strikeouts, and they did it by getting guys to chase more. Lee’s O-Swing% through his age-28 season was 21%. At age 29, that jumped nine percentage points to 30%. Hughes’ O-Swing% through his age-27 season was 29%. At age 28, that jumped nine percentage points to 38%.

Both guys stopped walking people, entirely. Lee started getting ahead of batters more often. Hughes simply started pounding the strike zone. Fun fact: Phil Hughes set the all-time MLB record for single-season K/BB ratio this year. In third place sits Cliff Lee, from 2010.

Both guys stopped giving up home runs, because they stopped giving up so many fly balls. In Lee’s age-29 season, he started throwing a sinker that helped him get more grounders. In Hughes’ age-28 season, he started throwing a sinker that helped him get more grounders.

Couple differences here, of course. The most obvious being that they are entirely different human beings and one throws left-handed while the other throws right-handed. Lee cut his ERA by two full runs while Hughes only cut his by one, but that’s largely due to a pretty nasty BABIP of which Hughes was a victim. Hughes also pitched his age-28 season in a new home ballpark that is much friendlier to fly ball pitchers than his previous home ballpark, whereas Lee pitched his age-29 season with the same home ballpark he’d always had. Lee’s drop in fly balls was also far more significant than Hughes’. Almost overnight, Lee completely changed his profile as a pitcher. Looking at his yearly GB/FB numbers is almost laughable:

  • GB%: 33, 35, 33, 35 | 46, 41, 42, 46, 45, 44, 48
  • FB%: 45, 44, 48, 50 | 35, 36, 40, 32, 37, 33, 30

One year, Lee basically decided to swap his fly balls for ground balls and never looked back. Not only was Lee’s drop in fly balls nearly twice as drastic as Hughes’, but he replaced them almost exclusively with grounders. Hughes got 3% more grounders than his career average this year, but he mostly replaced his fly balls with line drives.

Now, we all know what Cliff Lee went on to become. We don’t know what Phil Hughes will go on to become. But let’s imagine a world where he goes on to mirror Lee’s career path. What would he have to do?

Well, first, let’s go back to that last point. He’ll have to start getting some more grounders. The 6% drop in fly balls for Hughes is promising, as is the move away from Yankee Stadium and the AL East. But home run suppression is much more believable when you get the kind of grounders Lee started getting. As long as Hughes is still getting well under 40% grounders, I have a hard time buying into his elite home run suppression.

The other thing Hughes will have to do to become Cliff Lee is become an elite strikeout pitcher. Easier said than done. They both made similar jumps in their breakout season, boosting their strikeout rate by two percentage points. But Lee kept going. The next year, it stayed the same. But the year after that, it went up four more percentage points. Then another four, and all of the sudden it was at 26%, right alongside prime Justin Verlander.

The bad news here for Hughes is that he’s probably never going to strike out 1/4 of the batters he faces. Cliff Lee is the exception, not the rule, and what he did with his career is extraordinarily rare. The good news for Hughes is that Lee didn’t strike guys out because he had overpowering stuff. He’s never had overpowering stuff. He started striking guys out because he developed an uncanny understanding of how to pitch and how to command his pitches. The ability to command pitches is something Hughes certainly demonstrated this year. He posted the second-best walk rate since 1940. The three highest single-season zone rates in the history of the PITCHf/x era? 2010 Lee, 2014 Hughes, 2011 Lee. Whether or not this turns into strikeouts like it did for Lee is anyone’s guess, but the pieces could be there.

This isn’t meant to be taken as my prediction that Phil Hughes will turn into Cliff Lee. But if you’re looking for an example of a guy who turned their career around in a way like Hughes did this year – and sustained it – look no further than Cliff Lee. It’s very unlikely that Hughes follows Lee’s career path, because Lee has had one of the more unique career paths in recent history. But so far, Hughes has followed it to a T, right down to the individual adjustments made. It probably wasn’t a conscious decision, but as far as role models go, Phil Hughes picked a winner.

We hoped you liked reading Imagining Phil Hughes as Cliff Lee by August Fagerstrom!

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August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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Hurtlockertwo
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Hurtlockertwo

Giving up 16 HR’s and only 16 walks in over 200 innings is a incredible stat.