What's Wrong With Phil Hughes? (Now We Know)

When the Yankees chose to open the 2008 season with Phil Hughes, 21, and Ian Kennedy, 23, in the starting rotation, some growing pains were expected. But while Kennedy had less of a track record to count on, there was ample reason to think Hughes, who got the call Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium against the Detroit Tigers, would be ready to log at least league-average innings.

But Hughes hasn’t merely been mixing good starts with bad thus far—he’s been almost uniformly awful. The reason isn’t a lack of talent, but a unfortunate penchant for throwing assorted pitches across the plate, rather than up and down. When his pitches move horizontally in the strike zone, they are pounded. And then he stops throwing strikes.

He began his last start displaying that reticence, walking Curtis Granderson to lead off the game. His very first pitch was a fastball that sailed across on him, missing badly outside. The seventh pitch of the at-bat did the same, but sailed in on Granderson.

Placido Polanco followed with a single on a fastball in—well-placed, but Polanco hit it into left field.

With two men on, Hughes showed in rapid succession why the Yankees are excited about his future, and why his talent has not translated into results so far. Against Gary Sheffield, Hughes painted the outside corner with a terrific fastball at 92 miles per hour. He followed with a curve that badly fooled Sheffield at 72 miles per hour. His fastball just missed down at 93, but the subsequent curveball tied Sheffield up in knots. A rightful Hall of Famer was dispatched in four pitches.

Facing the next hitter, Hughes fell behind, 2-0. He muscled up on a fastball—it traveled at 94 mph, his fastest of the night, but it bounced into the dirt and skipped past catcher Chris Stewart, allowing the runners to move up. The next fastball moved across the plate, and Magglio Ordonez lined a single to center field, where Johnny Damon’s weak arm meant an automatic two runs.

The Hughes Grade-A fastball returned in time to get Miguel Cabrera, Detroit’s best hitter, to hit into a inning-ending double play.

The second inning was clearly Hughes’ best, and what the Yankees are looking for from him. He succeeded by throwing the fastball, curve and changeup that allowed him to do so well in the minors. Against Carlos Guillen, Hughes ran the count to 2-2 on four good fastballs. He missed up with a curve to run the count full; he then threw a put-away fastball that Guillen fouled off, followed by a put-away curve that Guillen weakly grounded to second base for the first out.

Edgar Renteria followed by flying out to right field on a terrific fastball on the inside corner. Hughes then got ahead of Ivan Rodriguez on two fastballs and one of his best curves of the night. Rodriguez fought off one good fastball in, then lined a second into right field. Sometimes, good pitches get hit.

Jacque Jones was subjected to the full Hughes treatment. First, a fastball away for strike one. Then, after a curve missed, a changeup on the outside corner for strike two. Finally, that sharp curve struck Jones out looking.

Then: The good Hughes simply disappeared. Against Granderson, he threw a fastball across the plate for strike one. He missed with a curve high, then came back with another flat fastball, which Granderson launched beyond the center-field fence. Next, against Polanco, he left a pair of curveballs up, one strike, one ball. Two fastballs followed, both sliding across the plate—Polanco hit the second into left for a ground-rule double.

Then Gary Sheffield, who Hughes had mastered so completely in his first at-bat, came up. Hughes missed high with a curveball, then threw a fastball on the inside corner to draw even. But rather than challenge Sheffield again, he threw three progressively weaker curves. The third one Sheffield found to be just right, and deposited it in the left-field stands.

Magglio Ordonez followed, and got ahead 1-0, then just missed a fastball that simply stayed across the hitting zone. Ordonez flied out to center field. Against Miguel Cabrera, an attempt at a slider didn’t go well—it simply sailed well off the plate. Finally, one of his rare good pitches, a strong curve, allowed him to get the second out of the inning with a groundout.

The inning continued. Against Guillen, following a curve for a strike, a fastball sailed wide, the change did the same, another fastball sailed wide, then Hughes muscled up on a fastball—and missed down. Edgar Renteria finally rescued Hughes on a 2-2 hanging curve that he lined right at Bobby Abreu for the third out.

Good Hughes returned to get the first two outs in the fourth. A good fastball in and a pair of strong curves led to a weak groundout by Ivan Rodriguez. His first pitch to Jones sailed away, but the next fastball hit the inside corner, and two solid curves led to a groundout to third.

But Hughes appeared to lose command in the middle of Granderson’s at-bat. Up 1-2, Hughes threw a changeup that sailed across and out of the strike zone, then left a curveball up that Granderson lined past Hideki Matsui for a double.

Polanco followed by letting an identical curve go for ball one, then lined a fastball that moved across the strike zone for a single to plate Granderson.

Hughes’ third battle with Sheffield, his last batter of the night, was a surrender. He missed up with a fastball he tried to overthrow. Next was a fastball right down the middle that Sheffield just missed, fouling it back. His fastball missed down. His curveball missed up. His fastball missed down. Hughes wasn’t hitting his spots—it wasn’t even clear what spots he was trying to hit.

Manager Joe Girardi came for Hughes, and the pitcher New York refused to trade for Johan Santana exited to boos.

Clearly, the pitches that allowed Hughes to succeed as recently as recently as last season are still within his repertoire. Even in his difficult starts, he is able to make hitters look foolish with three different pitches.

But while the occasional hanging curveball is the price nearly any pitcher pays for throwing so many of them, the horizontal fastball and changeup simply won’t allow Hughes to succeed—he doesn’t throw hard enough for that pitch to be anything other than batting practice.

Hughes was placed on the disabled list around 9 Wednesday evening, after manager Joe Girardi insisted he was healthy when asked by reporters prior to Wednesday’s game.

UPDATE: Hughes is expected to miss two months, according to GM
Brian Cashman, who told the Associated Press on Thursday, “His fastball command has been uncommonly off. Now we get an idea why.”

What's Wrong With Phil Hughes? (Now We Know)