New home park, pitching mix doing wonders for veteran hurler
By Alex M. Smith
MINNEAPOLIS -- Nearly a year ago, Phil Hughes sat in the visitors' clubhouse at Target Field.
The Yankees were in town to face the Twins, and Hughes was mired in a season full of career lows. Four years removed from being an integral part of a World Series-winning rotation, he had a 3-7 record to go along with a 4.82 ERA.
Nevertheless, Hughes took the mound on July 2 and turned in one of his best performances of the season -- a six-hit, one-run effort through six innings that pushed New York five games above .500.
But that was one the few remaining happy days for Hughes with the Yankees. He would not pick up a single win in his final 13 starts of the season, and he finished with unsightly numbers (4-14, 5.19 ERA).
Making 'em earn it
Largest improvement in ERA from 2013-14
(Min. 100 innings in '13, 50 innings in '14) *
When the offseason hit, Hughes signed a three-year, $24 million contract with the Twins that has already developed into a great bargain for Minnesota. He's cut his ERA by 1.79 this season, the sixth-best improvement of anyone in the Majors.
Fangraphs.com lists Hughes' current value at $14.5 million this year, which means the Twins got a $6.5 million discount on one of the American League's best starting pitchers last December.
But why is Hughes so valuable this season? A few reasons:
He no longer calls Yankee Stadium home
Being a fly-ball pitcher in the Bronx is a nightmare. The short porches swallow popups that would be harmlessly fielded in most stadiums. When athletes don't do well in New York, the easy answer is that they were unable to deal with the pressure of playing in pinstripes.
"Certain guys with certain personalities, it's best to get away from the pressure that can sometimes weigh heavily on you in a place like New York," Hughes said. "When things are going good, it's easy. You just roll and everybody's happy. But when you hit those tough times, they can tend to snowball on you a little bit. More heavily there than any other place."
But in Hughes' case, the numbers speak louder than conjectures about a player's psychological makeup. His home-away splits were massive last year -- he managed a 3.88 ERA on the road (13 starts), but that ballooned to 6.32 when he pitched at Yankee Stadium (16 starts).
New York manager Joe Girardi watched Hughes' home ERA climb as high as 7.83 in 2011.
"This is a tough ballpark to be a fly-ball pitcher," Girardi said. "But the game is not something to where -- like in other professions -- you can choose to go whatever ballpark you want, and if that were the case, I think a lot of guys would go to huge ballparks if you were a pitcher and there wouldn't be any pitchers wanting to come to certain ballparks."
But that's basically what Hughes did. He said he's always been comfortable at Target Field, and despite a couple poor recent performances in Minneapolis, he maintains a career 3.96 ERA over 11 starts at the Twins' home field.
With its relatively low homer rate (27th in MLB last year according to ESPN, 14th this year), Target Field was a near-perfect choice for Hughes.
He almost never walks batters
When Hughes issued a free pass to White Sox catcher Tyler Flowers on Sunday afternoon, it was his first walk in 106 batters. That's impressive, but not nearly as impressive as the streak of 178 batters Hughes had snapped at -- of all places -- Yankee Stadium on June 1.
Hughes has walked only nine batters in 95 1/3 innings this year. Fewer walks mean fewer baserunners, and he has been limiting chances with ease. According to Fangraphs, Hughes leads the Majors with a 2.3 percent walk rate, and he's hitting the strike zone at a career-high 56.3 percent rate.
But keeping the ball in the zone is easy at the Major League level. To be successful, hitters either need to be fooled by a pitcher's stuff, or simply overpowered. Which brings us to the next reason for Hughes' success.
He's made drastic changes to his arsenal
Hughes' go-to pitch has always been his four-seam fastball, which is averaging 91.9 mph this season.
That part of Hughes' game isn't much different (65.4 percent of his pitches are four-seamers, compared to 62.1 on his career), but he's also added a two-seamer (3.7 percent) to ward off right-handed hitters and marked up his cutter percentage from 0.3 percent in 2013 to 15.3 this season.
"I still have a tendency to be a little bit one-dimensional in the way that I attack guys with the fastball," Hughes said. "But now I feel like I have confidence in my two-seam fastball. My cutter has kind of been a resurgent pitch for me. Those have been a pretty key factor for me."
Then there's the addition of a knuckle-curve (6.6 percent), which has taken a big chunk out of Hughes' career regular curve percentage (down to 5.1 percent from 16.1 percent).
"Especially in the Minor Leagues, my curveball was one of my better pitches," he said. "Throughout the course of time, you have things that don't work out. Then you find it again. It's a constant evolution."
Hughes has been the de facto ace of the Twins' rotation in 2014, but his numbers are tailing a little bit as of late.
Hughes struggled through a five-inning, five-run outing against the White Sox on Sunday, despite picking up his eighth win of the season. A poor performance on June 6 against the Astros (six innings, five earned runs) was also cause for concern, but he followed that with two of his best starts of the year in Toronto and Boston.
As the season creeps into July, and the Twins inch closer to .500, Minnesota will need Hughes to continue doing what he's been doing all year: win.
Almost a year removed since picking up his final victory of the 2013 season, Hughes summed up how his decision to sign with the Twins has worked out.
"I guess I can say that I'm benefiting from it," he said.
Alex M. Smith is an associate reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @asmiff. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.