Twins Reward the Phil Hughes Breakthrough

It was an exciting thing that Phil Hughes pulled off — just last season, he finished with the best-ever ratio of strikeouts to walks. It sounds good. It is good. Strikeouts are good! Walks are bad. (For pitchers.) You want to have a lot of the former and few of the latter. There’s no taking away Hughes’ accomplishment, now that the season’s complete. But then, we have come to understand that strikeouts minus walks is more meaningful than strikeouts over walks. Ratios can go crazy with little denominators. By K-BB%, Hughes didn’t set any records. He did, though, finish in between Madison Bumgarner and Jon Lester. And he established a career-best for himself.

The story, really, isn’t that Hughes became one of the best pitchers ever. It’s just that he became a much better pitcher, which is plenty. Down the stretch, it came to public attention that Hughes finished one out shy of triggering a contract bonus. There was thought that the Twins should pay Hughes the bonus anyway, since he did enough to earn it. Turns out Hughes declined an opportunity to pitch out of the bullpen to make his extra money. And now it doesn’t even matter, because the Twins have given Hughes an extension. He’s getting an extra three years and $42 million, including an extra $1.2 million in each of the next two years. In a sense, the Twins just signed Hughes to a five-year, $58-million contract.

That’s not quite true. The next two seasons have been reworked, but the spirit of the existing contract has stayed in place. This is like a three-year, $39.6-million extension, with a $2.4-million signing bonus. The Twins are giving Hughes Melky Cabrera money. The big difference being, Cabrera’s three-year contract starts in spring 2015. Hughes’ starts in spring 2017. Hughes being a pitcher, there exists uncertainty, making this maybe read like a better bargain than it is.

Given what Hughes just did, the terms of the extension seem light. He was, by one measure, a six-win pitcher. He was, by another, just about a four-win pitcher. He’s 28 years old, and he hasn’t suffered any catastrophic injuries lately, so he seems deserving of greater terms than, say, Francisco Liriano received from the Pirates. Before last season, the Twins gave Hughes three years and $24 million.

But you have to remember the new money’s really multiple seasons away. The Twins are taking on substantial risk, here, so while the upside is obvious — Hughes has recently established a higher ceiling than, say, Ervin Santana or Ricky Nolasco — the risk is what makes the contract look like a discount. If we take current prices and try to project into the future, then the Twins are paying Hughes as if they expect him to contribute roughly five wins of value over the three new years. Over three healthy years, that shouldn’t be too hard, but one injury gums up the works, and by then Hughes will be in his 30s. Could be, Hughes will keep pitching like an ace. The Twins need arms like his, so there’s wisdom in committing to a breakout. But sometimes pitchers disappear just as quickly as they emerge. It’s a difference between Phil Hughes and a Jose Bautista.

That’s all the less fun stuff. I’d now prefer to spend time with the more fun stuff, even though you probably already know it. The key to Hughes’ big season? Well that depends where you look and who you ask. Some would suggest that Hughes just needed to get away from Yankee Stadium. Without question, yeah, that helped. Hughes himself has talked about improving his curveball and more or less mastering his cutter. And if you look at Hughes’ player page, he basically just pounded the strike zone. He was already a strike-thrower, but he took that to the extreme in Minnesota, and he didn’t even have the help of a talented pitch-framer.

Hughes improved his zone rate by about eight percentage points. Out of 773 player-season pairs since 2008, that’s the third-biggest improvement we see, so it ranks well within the top one percent.

Hughes also improved his strike rate by about six percentage points. Out of 1,413 player-season pairs since 2002, that’s the sixth-biggest improvement we see, so it also ranks well within the top one percent. Obviously, zone rate and strike rate in large part go together.

But here’s an interesting thing. Hughes didn’t actually spend more time pitching out of two-strike counts.

Season %2Strikes %3Balls %2Balls
2008 28% 9% 17%
2009 33% 8% 17%
2010 34% 8% 17%
2011 33% 7% 16%
2012 33% 8% 15%
2013 34% 6% 16%
2014 33% 4% 12%

Hughes has long been good about getting to two strikes. He’s had more difficulty putting guys away. You see improvement in the other columns, here — Hughes pitched less often in three-ball counts. He pitched less often in two-ball counts. Not all two-strike counts are created the same, and Hughes last season made sure to put hitters more on the defensive.

Take 2013. That year, Hughes generated strikeouts with 14.2% of his two-strike pitches. That ranked 115th, out of 128. His rate placed in between Kyle Kendrick and Barry Zito. Now take 2014. Last year, Hughes generated strikeouts with 18.6% of his two-strike pitches. That ranked 57th, out of 135. It’s still nothing extraordinary, but it’s much better, and Hughes’ rate placed in between Hyun-Jin Ryu and Tim Lincecum. Hughes has always been good at reaching two strikes. Last season, he got better at taking advantage of two strikes.

Improvements also show up elsewhere. Between 2012 – 2013, Hughes generated 62 called strikeouts. Last year, he had 65. Over his career through 2013, Hughes allowed a .982 OPS in counts with the batter ahead. Last year that dropped to .726. Hughes pitched well when ahead, and he pitched better when behind, and a lot of this owed to a cutter he was able to back-door against lefties and front-door against righties. Even though Hughes spent a lot of time pitching right over the middle of the plate, he changed his looks with a four-seamer and a cutter, and a better curveball kept hitters from sitting on a certain specific velocity range. Hughes attacked the plate because he could attack the plate. He finished with the lowest home-run rate of his career.

He also did finish with a high BABIP. It needs to be noted that Hughes has a career 104 ERA-, and a career 95 FIP-. Maybe in this way he’s a little like Nolasco and Edwin Jackson. But honestly, it’s hard to tell; last season Hughes dramatically changed his approach, and he also pitched in front of what was, statistically, a bad Twins team defense. It’s not like he was giving up a bunch of dingers. Hughes’ line-drive rate was a little up, but he’s also managed to generate pop-ups. You want to believe in Phil Hughes’ peripherals, and last season they were better than ever. The only thing he did wrong is he couldn’t pitch more.

Phil Hughes, in 2014, pitched like a slightly more extreme Scott Baker. The Twins liked Scott Baker; he was good for them. If Hughes keeps pitching like an extreme Scott Baker, he’ll look like a wonderful investment. If Hughes regresses to pitching like regular peak Scott Baker, he’ll still look like a good investment. Baker’s given up 55 runs over 95.2 innings since 2012. Scott Baker is a reason why the Twins like Phil Hughes. Scott Baker is also why this isn’t a massive team-friendly bargain. But at least for the time being, the Twins have a strike-thrower who also punches guys out. Recent editions haven’t had nearly enough of these.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Max G
9 years ago

Here are the lucky few that managed to walk against Hughes in 2014:

Jordan Danks
Josh Reddick
Everth Cabrera
Omar Infante
Logan Forsythe
Ichiro Suzuki
Adrian Beltre (intentionally)
Tyler Flowers
Brian McCann (twice in same game)
Alcides Escobar
Adam Lind
Sam Ful, Jed Lowrie, Eric Sogard (all in same game)
Adam Eaton

What is remarkable is that outside of Beltre and Eaton, all of the above players are fellows with fairly low 2014 on-base percentages. It appears that in the lineups Hughes faced, some of the least likeliest players to earn a free pass from him are somehow the ones that wound up drawing a walk.

This is of course probably meaningless, but I like intriguing bits of data that help tell a story.

9 years ago
Reply to  Max G

Perhaps foul ball skills have something to do with it?

Max G
9 years ago
Reply to  LHPSU

I’m not sure. I’ve been trying to figure this out, but can’t make sense of the data, because of the small number of walks Hughes administered, there isn’t much of a sample to go on. It does get interesting when looking at the lineups he faced, though. There were many players that walk far more frequently that he did not walk, than the ones he did walk. It is puzzling, but again, could be meaningless.