When Phil Hughes takes the mound against the Red Sox tonight, the New York Yankees right-hander will throw fastballs, curveballs and changeups. It is the three-pitch mix he has featured this year while going 9-8, 4.09 — his FIP is 4.59 — in 19 starts. Unlike past seasons, he will not utilize a cutter or a slider.
Hughes, who began his professional career in 2004, discussed the evolution of his repertoire during a recent visit to Fenway Park.
Phil Hughes: “When I first signed, I was fastball-slider, with a very occasional changeup — very occasional in that I never threw a changeup in high school. I started pitching when I was 15 years old and by the time I was drafted at 17, I had two years to figure out a breaking ball. A slider is what I learned and it’s what I had when I was drafted and signed.
“When I got to the big leagues, I threw a fastball, a curveball and a changeup. I didn’t throw a slider at all. When I got into pro ball, our pitching coordinator, Nardi Contreras, sort of looked at what stuff I had and figured that a curveball played more into the type of pitcher that I was. He felt that it played into my repertoire better, so I started the process of learning a curveball. It was at the end of rookie ball and on into instructional league when that process started. The peak of my curveball was probably my year in Double-A. It was a really good pitch for me and I threw it all the time.
“I’ve gone through a lot of mechanical changes, especially stemming from the hamstring injury I had my first year in the big leagues. My stride, and things like that, have never quite been the same. There have been adjustments I’ve had to make, but I’m feeling better with my breaking ball now. I wouldn’t say it’s as good now as it was then, but I’m trying to get it there.
“The keys to throwing a good curveball are staying behind it, keeping good arm speed and having a grip that you feel comfortable with. I still throw the same curveball. I’ve always had the same grip.
“I added a cutter at the end of 2008. It was something I was messing around with in rehab and figured could be a good equalizing pitch in fastball counts. It was basically a way to get some cheap outs. It was also a pitch that was easier for me to control than a slider. It’s just a fastball grip with a little alteration, so it was easier for me to throw strikes with it. That was kind of the purpose to adding it in.
“I started messing around with a slider again last year, but those were miniscule. I wanted to firm up my breaking ball and have something that I could throw in the low 80s. With my curveball, I could never quite get that speed with my arm speed, so I threw a few more sliders just to see where I was at with that. I even messed around with not spiking my curveball any more, to see if I could firm it up that way. Basically, I fell back to having a spike-curveball grip, because I felt more comfortable with it and felt that it was more of an arm speed and aggression-type of issue. I went back to spiking it and have had some decent success with it since then.
“I’m not throwing a cutter or a slider any more. I’m just fastball-curveball-change now. I felt that with a better curveball — and being able to throw strikes with it, and having a strike breaking ball and a harder breaking ball — I drop my arm angle a little bit just to get a little more sweeping action on the back foot to a lefty. I just felt that I could do the same thing with the same pitch. I basically threw those other pitches out.
“I am throwing a few more changeups. I feel more comfortable with it and feel I can throw it for strikes more than I did before. It’s become a good pitch to left-handers. The grip is a four-seam with my middle and ring fingers split a little bit. I throw exclusively four-seam fastballs, so I didn’t want a changeup that was coming out with a two-seam grip.
“The one thing I’ve stayed consistent with has been my fastball. It’s a little unusual the way I hold my four-seamer. I hold it with the horseshoe on my index-finger side. Most guys have the horseshoe on the other end of it. Other than that, it’s pretty standard.
“With any change I make, it’s basically just dialogue between myself and the pitching coach. It’s basically a matter of evaluating results, seeing how I feel in the bullpen and trying out some different things in the bullpen.
“I can absolutely see myself continuing to evolve. This is a constant game of adjustments. I’m 26 years old now and feel that as long as I want to stay in this game, I’m going to have to continue to make adjustments. Hopefully I can find a mix where things are going great for awhile, but as this game usually shows — with hitters as well as pitchers — you have to make adjustments if you want to stay here.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.