Where were you when the Twins became a completely different franchise? In the last 72 hours or so, the Twins have doled out $73 million in long-term contracts, surpassing their previous off-season record by nearly $300 billion dollars (if you believe some fans). On Wednesday, the Twins signed Ricky Nolasco to a four-year deal, and tonight, they added former Yankee Phil Hughes to an increasingly (and suddenly) talented starting rotation. Hughes will earn $8 million for the next three seasons, earning a longer contract than many experts had predicted.
The Twins have to bank on a change of scenery transforming Hughes into a completely different pitcher. Over the course of his career, Hughes has been an extreme fly ball pitcher in a park that is probably smaller than the park in your neighborhood. As such, he has been very home run-prone, averaging 1.29 home runs per nine innings in his career. The move to Target Field could help suppress those home runs.
Park Factor stats compare the rate of stats at home vs. the rate of stats on the road. For home runs in 2013, Yankee Stadium had a 9th-best HR Park Factor of 1.128, greatly favoring hitters. The HR Park Factor at Target Field in 2013 was 0.802, 27th in the league. The great thing about this normalized stat is that it takes out the types of players each team has, so the fact that the Twins don't hit a lot of home runs as a team is factored in. This seems to indicate that Hughes' biggest bug-a-boo could be neutralized to some extent. Although, extreme fly ball pitchers will always be somewhat more home run-prone, by definition.
Hughes might be classified incorrectly as a strikeout pitcher. His career rate of 19.7% is slightly above average, but also just slightly higher than Scott Baker's 19.1% rate. That said, Hughes does throw hard. He consistently sits 92-93 with his fastball and can touch 95. He has a low-80s slider that he has developed over the years and uses as an out pitch. He had a 31.3% strikeout rate with that pitch in 2013. His fastball was crushed for a .917 OPS last season, but the home ballpark change and crazy high fastball BABIP of .337 would point toward improvement with that pitch in coming years.
His split stats are encouraging as well. He doesn't really have a noticeable platoon split, as his career OPS against lefties is .760 and his career OPS against righties is .743. His walk rate and strikeout rate are better against righties, although his rates against lefties are not bad either. He actually allows home runs at a higher rate against right-handed batters, which you might not have guessed. Moving to Target Field won't help that final rate much, but the rest of the stats are encouraging.
His home/road splits really catch the eye. His career ERA at home is 4.96 and his career ERA on the road is 4.10. At home versus lefties, he surrenders a .831 OPS, basically equivalent to facing Hunter Pence in every at-bat. In contrast, lefties had an OPS of just .681 on the road, or an entire lineup of Brandon Crawfords. Against righties, Hughes gave up an OPS of .781 at home and an OPS of .700 on the road. All of these splits were even worse last year, and he still had an xFIP of 4.35. Target Field won't fix everything, but New Yankee Stadium was not doing Hughes any favors.
Hughes will always give up his share of home runs. All fly ball pitchers do. However, with his good strikeout rate, better-than-good walk rate, and good raw stuff, it is conceivable that Hughes could greatly improve his performance with the Twins. Add in the fact that he'll be just 30 when this very reasonable contract ends, and you get a shark move from a GM who has never been described as any sort of vicious predator animal.
In my free agent starting pitcher preview, I wrote the following:
Who will the Twins actually sign? I have no clue. I hope they are shockingly active. I'd love to see Garza, Johnson and Arroyo on this team next year. How wild would that be? Terry Ryan shows up at Spring Training with an earring. He starts calling everyone "playa." Constant Finger Guns. It would be amazing. Make it happen, TR.
I had the wrong names, but the level of activity matches. I hope the Twins beat writers can get used to being called "playa." Blow the smoke off those finger guns, TR. In fact, why not reload those babies and sign a catcher next? Why stop there? Bronson Arroyo is still available. Scott Kazmir isn't going to get a larger deal than Hughes and the Twins still have money to spend. If that happens, you can expect to see Terry Ryan in a leather jacket all summer long, no matter how hot it gets. Ray-Bans too.
Personally, I'm basking in the glow of a Twins team that is actually committed to getting better. I'm getting excited to an uncontrollable point. You can analyze the talent of Nolasco and Hughes until sundown. In fact, both guys might completely flame out next year. What you can't say any longer is that the Twins won't spend money to win baseball games. They just sunk $73 million into the rotation and greatly improved the team in the process. I'm starting to think this team could win 75-80 games next year. I need to sit down. Wait, I am sitting down. I need to lie down. It's all just too exciting.