It marks the end to a 12-year career for one of the most hyped pitching prospects the Yankees have ever developed. The best way I can describe Phil Hughes’ career is the same way I would describe riding a roller coaster. There were a lot of ups and downs but when the ride was over, everyone generally had a good feeling about the experience. In honor of Phil Hughes hanging them up, let’s do a career retrospective.
Phil Hughes was drafted right out of high school as the number 23 overall pick of the 2004 Major League Baseball Draft. The scouting report on Hughes was promising due to his decent velocity, above average command, and potentially great secondary pitches. All these characteristics were even more noteworthy given that he was just a high school pitcher. Once he reached the minors, Hughes excelled at an amazing pace. He spent just three full years in the minors, with the highest level being Double-A, before he got the call to debut in The Show.
That call came in on April 26, 2007 when he made his first start against the Toronto Blue Jays, allowing four runs in 4.3 innings earning the loss. Not great but it was his first start so nobody was really upset. His next start was much more impressive, albeit with an unfortunate conclusion.
Hughes second start against the Texas Rangers on May 1, 2007 looked to be a preview of his potential. He carried a no-hitter into the 7th before being forced to come out of the game due to a pulled hamstring. The Yankee’s bullpen lost the no-hitter but still managed to lockdown a victory giving Hughes his first major league win.
Hughes would spend most of the summer on the injured list before making his return in early August providing the Yankees with several more starts to finish out 2007. All told, Hughes’ rookie year was ok for a 20-year old. He finished 2007 with a 5-3 win/loss record and a 4.46 ERA in 72.2 innings pitched. He even managed to make the postseason roster as a reliever, and replaced an injured Roger Clemens in an elimination game in the ALDS against the Indians. He actually got the win in that game as well.
The future was looking pretty bright for Mr. Hughes. As a result, he earned a starting job in the rotation coming out of camp in 2008 but it didn’t go as planned. He made only six starts managing a 9.00 ERA before being placed on the injured list at the end of April. He would spend most of the rest of 2008 in the minors before being recalled on Sept. 17, 2008.
Hughes would make two more starts in 2008 before being sent to the Arizona Fall League to make up the work he missed due to injuries. The hope was that Hughes would come back strong and compete with another pitching prospect, Joba Chamberlin, for a spot in the rotation for 2009.
2009 didn’t start out well for Hughes as he failed to make the big league roster coming out of spring training. He didn’t have to wait long, though, as he was called up in mid-April to replace an injured Chien-Ming Wang.
Hughes made seven starts while Wang was injured but carried an ERA over 5.00 during that time. The call was made to bring Wang back into the rotation and move Hughes to bullpen. That decision would prove to be a fortunate one for the Yankees. The team was having trouble finding a bridge from the rotation to future Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera. Enter Phil Hughes. Here are his stats for the rest of 2009 after moving to the bullpen:
Cashman remained steadfast in saying that Hughes was a starter long-term and if he could have translated that stat line into a starting role, the Yankees would have had a homegrown ace to go along with the ace they signed in the previous offseason, CC Sabathia. It wasn’t meant to be however, and over the next few years Hughes was having many more ups and downs.
Coming off a championship season, the Yankees named Hughes as the number five starter in 2010. After the first two months of the season, it looked like Hughes was on his way to solidifying his spot in the rotation. He won six of seven starts during that time and posted ERAs of 2.00 and 3.03 in March/April and May respectively. From there, it was all downhill. Hughes still managed to win 12 games the rest of 2010, but never posted an ERA below 4.22 in any given month. He would finish 2010 with 18 wins and a 4.19 ERA over 176.1 innings. He did have a masterful start to close out the 2010 ALDS against the Minnesota Twins.
Up until the 2011 season, Phil Hughes was riding the roller coaster up the hill. He began his career as mid-season call up and even won his first postseason game in 2007. Moved to the bullpen in 2009, went gangbusters as a reliever and helped the team win their 27th title. Then he became a permanent fixture in the rotation and won 18 games his first season doing so. The next step was consistency for Phil Hughes and it would be put to the test in 2011. He didn’t have to win a job coming out of camp like previous seasons so the pressure was somewhat off his back. However, he would begin the season throwing his fastball around 90 MPH instead of his customary 95 MPH.
After just a few starts Hughes was placed on the injured list with “dead arm”. It would be months before Hughes would return to the rotation and would stay there until a back injury forced the Yankees to move him back into the bullpen for the last few weeks in September. Hughes’ 2011 line looked like this: 5 wins in 14 starts, a 5.79 ERA, and only 74.2 innings pitched. The “dead arm” injury made a lot of people think that Hughes was never going to be what many thought he would be as a prospect. It wasn’t the end of the Phil Hughes story for Yankees fans, but the shine was definitely wearing off.
2012 was somewhat a return to normalcy for Hughes. Again he started the season in the rotation and actually spent most of time healthy. He made 32 starts, won 16 games and finished with a 4.19 ERA. It looked very similar to his 2010 season and while it wasn’t an Ace’s season by any stretch of the imagination, it looked a lot better than the previous season’s totals. He also pitched pretty well in the ALDS for the second time in three postseasons. In the extra innings loss of Game 4 against the Baltimore Orioles, Hughes pitched 6.2 innings allowing one run. He would make one more start in the 2012 ALCS against the Detroit Tigers but the injury bug would bite him again as he was removed from that start after 3 innings due to back stiffness. 2012 ended on a sour note and once again nobody knew what to expect from Phil Hughes the next season.
2013 was the make or break year for Hughes and his Yankee career. He was due to be a free agent at season’s end and there wasn’t a lot of support from the fan base to keep him on the team moving forward. The way his 2013 started didn’t help things either. He began the year on the injured list due to a back injury. Once he was healthy, the Phil Hughes of 2011 came back and showed he was incapable of having back to back good (or even decent) seasons. Hughes would throw 145.2 innings with a 5.19 ERA and 14 losses compared to just 4 wins. His stat line in the confines of Yankee Stadium was just atrocious. He had a win/loss record of 1-10 and an ERA of 6.32. This was the final straw for the fan base and there was no support for bringing Hughes back for another season.
Following the end of his Yankee career, Phil Hughes would sign a three-year, $24 million deal with the Minnesota Twins. Hughes would go on to have his best season in the first year of that deal. He won 16 games in 2014 with an ERA of 3.52 over 209.2 innings, marking the first time in his career that Hughes surpassed 200 innings pitched. He would finish 7th in Cy Young Award voting that season and looked like a player that just needed a change of scenery in order to succeed.
This was not the case though. Hughes would spend the next few seasons putting up ERAs in the 4s and 5s. He would never surpass 200 innings pitched again and would struggle to stay healthy, dealing with multiple injuries. In May of 2018, he was traded to the San Diego Padres but was later designated for assignment in August of that year.
Phil Hughes retires with 88 wins in 290 starts with an ERA of 4.52 and 17.7 WAR. It’s hard to imagine Phil Hughes was a successful player given the hype surrounding him when he originally came up to start for the Yankees. However, he did help the team win a World Series, he had one season as the Ace of a team even if it wasn’t the Yankees. He also had a handful of big moments during a career that lasted over a decade.
There aren’t a lot of people that can claim a career like that, and given all the obstacles he faced during that time, it’s amazing he ended up retiring with the numbers he has. My hat is off to Phil Hughes and I wish him luck in his future endeavors. He’s got a pretty cool gig in the card trading business so check that out if you get the chance.