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Phil Hughes: Lockdown Reliever

The Yankees career of Phil Hughes is marred with unfulfilled potential. The 23rd overall selection in the first round of the 2004 Major League Baseball Draft, Hughes never reached the ceiling that the front office was hoping for when he was ranked the number one prospect in their system in 2007. There were stretches where he looked like he might become that reliable starter the Yankees needed during his tenure but the consistency in his performance never arrived. However, all this is not to say that Phil Hughes didn’t contribute. In fact, his move to the bullpen in the summer of 2009 was integral to bridging the gap to Mariano Rivera and helping propel the Yankees back to the top of the mountain.

A rough start(s)

Phil Hughes didn’t start the season in the majors after spring training in 2009, but an early season injury to  Chien-Ming Wang gave him the opportunity to step up. The results were mixed.

Date Opponent IP H ER BB SO HR Pitches Game Score
28-Apr DET 6 2 0 2 6 0 99 72
4-May BOS 4 7 3 4 2 1 94 32
9-May BAL 1.2 8 8 2 0 1 53 5
15-May MIN 5 6 3 4 2 2 93 41
20-May BAL 5 6 3 1 9 2 89 51
25-May TEX 8 3 0 1 6 0 101 81
31-May CLE 5 5 4 1 6 0 95 46

His first start was pretty good. Six shutout innings with a combined four hits and walks against Detroit. Then it all went downhill. In each of his next four starts he allowed at least three earned runs and didn’t pitch past the fifth inning in any of them. His next start against Texas was his best where he pitched eight shutout innings but then he followed that up with another subpar start against Cleveland (five innings pitched and four earned runs).

Once Wang was ready to return from the disabled list, the decision was made to put Hughes into the bullpen instead of sending him down to the minors to keep him stretched out. This move was made, in part, due to injuries in the bullpen that had plagued the Yankees earlier in the season. Brian Cashman maintained that Phil Hughes’ future was in the rotation, but the performance Hughes would give out of the pen for the rest of the season would definitely turn some heads.

Bridging the gap to Mo

From June 8 through the rest of the season, Hughes was a bullpen Ace. Look at these statistics:

5 1 3 44 51.1 0.86 11.40 2.28 0.35 0.257 85.00% 1.40 1.83 2.10

Those are premium bullpen numbers, folks. If you exclude the strikeout rate, those look like the numbers Dellin Betances put up his first three years from 2014 through 2016. Hughes was money getting the ball from the starters to Mariano Rivera. Keep in mind this is years before the idea of “super bullpens” was a thing. Having a reliever like this in your pen was a luxury for sure.

Hughes’ emergence as a lockdown reliever provided more than two wins above replacement alone. For reference, Mariano Rivera provided 3.6 WAR in 2009 while only pitching fifteen more innings than Hughes did as a reliever. Simplified further, Hughes averaged .041 WAR as reliever to Mo’s .054 WAR. Pretty good comparison right there. So how did Hughes go from a below replacement starter to reliever of the year candidate? Here’s a clue:

57.00% 92.3 20.30% 87.7 21.40% 76.5 0.013 83.5
67.10% 94.7 13.00% 89.2 20.00% 77.5 N/A N/A

Every one of the pitches in Phil Hughes’s repertoire saw an increase in velocity once he made the switch from the rotation to the bullpen. His fastball received the most benefit from the move, increasing from an average velocity of 92.3 MPH to 94.7 MPH. That doesn’t seem major, especially considering it’s only 94 MPH, but we have to analyze this number through the lenses of 2009 reliever velocity and not 2020 reliever velocity. The average velocity on fastballs league wide in 2009 was 91.2 MPH. It’s safe to say that Hughes was sitting comfortably above average with his fastball velocity as a reliever. So what did he do with that fastball? He upped his usage.

As a starter, he was mixing in his cutter and curveball equally to compliment his fastball that he threw 57% percent of the time. In the bullpen, he dropped the cutter usage from 20.3% to 13% and went with more of straight fastball/curveball approach. This allowed Hughes to constantly blow hitters away with his fastball and get whiffs with an outstanding curveball. As a result, Hughes strikeout numbers went up (8.05 K/9 to 11.4 K/9), his walk rate went down (3.89 BB/9 to 2.28 BB/9), his homerun rate went down (1.56 HR/9 to .35 HR/9), and his batting average against went down (.268 to .172). There may have been some luck that played a role as Hughes line drive percentage against rose significantly (18.7% to 24.6%) but he still rolled out with a .257 BABIP as a reliever. That means a couple of those hard hit balls found their way into gloves but the end results still speak for themselves. Hughes was money.

He didn’t perform the same way in the playoffs in 2009, but the Yankees still ended the season raising the trophy. The next few seasons, the Yankees would have a string of relievers fill that 8th inning role from Kerry Wood (half a season in 2010) to David Robertson to Dellin Betances. But it all started with a failed starter moving to pen in the middle of the 2009. No matter how we remember Phil Hughes in pinstripes, we should all try to cherish the stretch of games where he was as close to automatic as you can get.