The theory goes that some players can turn it on in the final years of their existing contracts on their way to free agency. The data say otherwise, as both writers and teams, have discovered. In 2013, we witnessed two contrasting examples of walk years from Ubaldo Jimenez and Phil Hughes. Jimenez seemingly flipped a switch in June, pitched like his old self and exercised an out clause in his deal with Cleveland to jump feet-first into a cash-rich free-agent crop. Then there was Hughes, a pitcher who statistically regressed in his walk year. As Buster Olney tweeted yesterday:
Refrain of numerous evaluators this winter about Phil Hughes: Given everything he had at stake in his free agent year, why did he struggle?
— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) November 25, 2013
If you talk to informed fans and analysts, everyone has a theory on what went wrong with Hughes. Mike Axisa, of River Ave Blues, reviewed Hughes’ issues last week. Axisa highlighted problems with home runs, with pitch-count efficiency and with Hughes’ inability to work deep into games. The latter issue was a byproduct of the fact Hughes is primarily a two-pitch pitcher who lacks a put-away pitch.
Mitchel Licthman recently published work on the penalty two-pitch pitchers paid each time through the batting order. His work discovered pitchers who relied primarily on two pitches saw their opponents’ wOBA increase by 24 points from the first to the third time through a batting order. Hughes, at least for 2013, was quite the outlier as his wOBA was relatively consistent, but only because it was consistently high.
|Year||1st PA||2nd PA||3rd PA|
Throwing strikes and working while ahead was not a problem for Hughes, either. Hughes threw strikes 67% of the time this past season, which was one of the 10 best rates in baseball. He also was tops in baseball in throwing first-pitch strikes. In fact, just 15% of the pitches he threw in 2013 came in hitter-favorable counts. However, his .472 wOBA in those situations was nearly 50 points above the league average; his .382 wOBA when he was even in the count didn’t help matters, either.
Pitching in Yankee Stadium was also certainly an issue for him, as 17 of his 24 home runs came at home. HitTrackerOnline shows that Hughes led the Yankee staff in “just enough” home runs last year with six. Clearly, he could benefit from pitching his home games in a more spacious park, like, for example, Kauffman Stadium. The data show that Hughes would have potentially allowed eight fewer home runs had he pitched his home games there, rather than in Yankee Stadium. Historically, his home/road wOBA splits have been more alternating at home while remaining rather steady on the road.
Two factors that didn’t help when Hughes pitched at home was his hit rate and his home-run-to-fly-ball rate. Hughes had a .288 BABIP during his 2013 road starts but a .360 BABIP when he pitched at home. His HR/FB rate was just 6.6% on the road but more than doubled to 14.5% at home.
Perhaps like Ed Whitson, Javier Vazquez and A.J. Burnett before him, Hughes’ pitching in a physical — as well as a mental — situation that did not suit his game wore on him. Yankee Stadium is a challenging place to pitch, especially for an extreme fly-ball pitcher. His process, while far from flawless, has played out well on the road but has had inconsistent results in The Bronx.
It would seem likely he would find more success in a better run environment, and his success could be furthered by improving his third pitch. A team looking for a back-end starting pitcher who pitches in a suppressing run-environment may find themselves a bargain for the near future.