One great thing about the beginning of the season is a fresh start, a clean slate, and we get a lot of players trying new things. For players like Vernon Wells, these changes show immediate success, but for others, like Albert Pujols or Mark Teixeira in 2012, the changes were counterproductive. The Yankees already have a few changes of their own, and yesterday I covered Ivan Nova's new sinking fastball. Today, I'd like to take a look at Phil Hughes. Over the last few years, the ever-tinkering right-hander has blossomed from a four-seam, cutter, curveball pitcher into a much more balanced four-seam, slider, changeup, curveball starter. Some of these new pitches required new mechanics, and last year we saw him start to lower his arm angle. The dropoff in his arm slot created more depth to his curveball, moving it from a 12-6 to an 11-5. This approach also added some horizontal movement to his fastball.
One aspect of Hughes, and other homegrown Yankee pitchers, is that many of them don't throw sinkers. Hughes' fastball is a strong four-seam with a ton of rising action, something that was important in his early strikeout success. Nowadays, his fastball is most notable for it's heavy fly ball tendencies, and that's something that hasn't matched up well with the small dimensions of Yankee Stadium.
While that high horizontal, or rising action, has contributed to strong whiff rates on his fastball, it's the primary factor in his high fly ball and home run rates. But as Hughes showed us over the last few months of the 2012 season, lowering his arm slot has decreased horizontal movement and increased vertical movement. For a better understanding of how this happens, I highly recommend you read this primer, which will show you the type of movement different arm slots can achieve.
Coming up through the farm system, the Yankees told Hughes to dump his slider in favor of a curveball in order to protect his elbow from the more intensive breaking pitch. Hughes seems to have thus spent the first few years of career in a very high 3/4 arm slot to best achieve the sinking action from the curveball, and the rising action from the four-seam fastball. Now in a lower 3/4 arm slot, his curveball isn't dropping as much, but it's also breaking in towards left-handed batters more. His four-seam fastball has also decreased it's vertical movement in favor of horizontal movement in towards right-handed batters. In Saturday's start against the Tigers, his fastball had as much horizontal movement as I've ever seen it have, and below are two movement charts to compare from his first start of 2012 and 2013.
Here we have 2012, where his four-seam is sitting between 0 through -5 inches on the horizontal plane, and 9 through 13 inches on the vertical.
Here is Saturday's start, where his fastball has about 2 inches less rising action in favor of more 5 more inches of horizontal action. One of Hughes' best traits, and one that helped his original four-seam gain so many whiffs, is his ability to spin the ball. He can create a tremendous amount of movement with his pitches, and we're now seeing undoubtedly the most movement out of his fastball. This isn't necessarily a good or bad thing, but what Hughes is showing so much movement that his four-seam now sports the rising action of a strong four-seam and the horizontal movement of a sinker.
In comparison, here are two of his fastballs, both from the first start of the 2012 and 2013 season. Notice how straight his pitch to Jose Molina is in 2012, while the pitch in 2013 starts outside of the plate and breaks in to the strike zone.
In theory, this new movement should lower the whiff rate on his four-seam fastball, but it'll also begin to lower the fly balls hit. While he'll be nowhere near a ground ball pitcher, Hughes' home run rates should theoretically decrease in favor of some ground ball singles. It should also help him pitch to right-handed hitters. The horizontal movement of sinkers are usually an effective tool against same-side hitters, since the hard breaking action on the inside of the plate can tie them up. Hughes sported a reverse platoon split last year, a .394 wOBA against right-handers in 2012, compared to a .270 wOBA to lefties. Having this dramatic fastball movement should help limit the damage from righties.
Of course, more or different movement doesn't necessarily mean he'll be more successful. It's a needed change of pace, that should theoretically work. As much as these changes can bring success in one situation, there will always be a negative. If this pitch helps against right-handers, it could mean that it is weaker against left-handers. Overall, I like the adjustments, but we'll see how Hughes responds over a longer sample size.