Wednesday, February 5, 2014

14 Minnesota Twins to Watch in '14: Phil Hughes

The Twins went shopping for pitching this off-season.  They spent more money on free agents than they had ever spent before.  In just a matter of a few weeks, they upgraded their rotation from "crudburger" to "smashburger."  How you feel about this upgrade depends a lot on how you feel about Smashburger, but you can't argue that the Twins aren't trying.  They didn't land any high-end talent, but they picked up a couple of interesting players.  One guy is a former top prospect who still might have some upside left in his right arm. 

The 10th most important Twins player in 2014 is Phil Hughes.

Who is he? 

The Twins signed Hughes to a three-year contract in December.  He had spent his entire career with the Yankees and had recently become a bit of a New Yankee Stadium victim.  Hughes is an extreme fly ball pitcher.  Hughes is a right-handed pitcher.  New Yankee Stadium's right-field fence is 45 feet from home plate.  When you add it all up, it's clear that Hughes was a bad fit for that stupidly-shaped park and his numbers suffered as a result.  Many think that a change to a new ballpark, perhaps a bigger park that suppresses left-handed hitters' homers, will fix Hughes' problems. 

If nothing else, Hughes has had impressive success as a reliever.  He was outstanding in 2009 and one of the more important members of that Yankees' World Series winning team.  Hughes is far more valuable when starting 25-30 games than pitching in the 8th inning 50-60 times.  However, it is nice to know that if the ballpark change doesn't fix all of his problems, he could move to the bullpen and become a great asset. 

Why is he important?

Hughes throws hard, sitting 91-93 and touching 95.  He has a good slider and a decent change/curve.  Note - since this was written, Hughes has scrapped his slider.  The Twins don't typically employ pitchers who throw hard.  Those who do often still do not generate strikeouts.  Hughes has a career strikeout rate that is just a smidge below league-average.  He also boasts a better-than-average walk rate.  Hughes has good stuff and he executes well, but he doesn't always get good results.  Why doesn't this add up?  Let's look at a chart with his home/road splits from the last four seasons:

ERA
xFIP
BABIP
FB%
HR/FB%
LOB%
K%
BB%
Home 2010
4.66
4.43
0.262
49.20%
12.70%
74.60%
18.70%
8.80%
Away 2010
3.47
3.66
0.292
44.60%
5.60%
73.60%
22.00%
6.60%
Home 2011
7.83
4.32
0.351
41.00%
12.50%
57.60%
16.00%
5.80%
Away 2011
4.14
5.36
0.263
48.10%
4.70%
72.50%
12.40%
10.10%
Home 2012
3.74
4.61
0.251
52.70%
14.10%
79.80%
20.60%
6.30%
Away 2012
4.76
4.08
0.319
42.60%
10.30%
68.90%
19.90%
5.00%
Home 2013
6.32
3.97
0.358
44.70%
15.00%
69.20%
21.00%
5.10%
Away 2013
3.88
4.88
0.286
48.60%
6.70%
68.10%
16.30%
8.30%
2013 Lg Avg
3.87
3.87
0.294
34.30%
10.50%
73.50%
19.90%
7.90%

Hughes was just bad in 2011, no matter how you look at things.  In 2013, he had a rough season, but his road numbers weren't terrible.  If you look at his strikeout and walk rates at home in 2013, you can make the case that he was actually a better pitcher, but got terrible results due to an unlucky home run to fly ball ratio and an unlucky BABIP.  In fact, his home run to fly ball ratios are very encouraging, as he didn't even approach league-average in 2010, 2012 or 2013 on the road, but was consistently 2-4 points higher than league-average at home. 

In his two "good" seasons as a starter with the Yankees (2010 and 2012), he actually pitched reasonably well at home.  In his bad seasons, he didn't pitch all that differently at home (as far as strikeouts and walks go).  A much higher percentage of fly balls left that tiny Yankee Stadium though.  Will Target Field equalize everything for Hughes?  It won't take long to find out.  Those home run to fly ball splits are interesting, no doubt.  Obviously, an effective Hughes helps the Twins rotation immensely. 

Paul the Positive Puma's Take:

I have never gotten upset about the "pitch to contact" philosophy that the Twins seem to favor with their starters.  That philosophy led to a lot of success in the 2000s because the Twins played good defense behind those starters.  That said, I love a good strikeout just as much as anyone.  Hughes might not be a dominant strikeout pitcher, but I think it's reasonable to expect him to lead this staff in 2014.  Hughes also throws hard, dispelling the myth that the Twins only like soft-tossers. 

More important than breaking down narrative barriers, the Twins could have a reliable starter for just $8 million per season.  $8 million for a starter is a great deal.  In addition, Hughes is only 27 and will be just 30 when his contract ends.  The Twins may have just signed a guy who will peak over the next three seasons and not only because he received a major upgrade in ballpark.  If you believe in human psychology, you might think that getting out of the New York market will help too.  It's certainly possible and I'm optimistic as always. 

Peter the Pessimistic Puma's Take:

If some bloggers and writers (and silly pumas) are to be believed, moving Hughes from Yankee Stadium to Target Field will cure all of his ills and he'll be better than ever.  If that's true, then why hasn't he dominated on the road in his career?  His career ERA at home is an awful 4.96, but his career ERA on the road is simply a mediocre 4.10.  Is that worth getting excited about?  Kevin Correia had a 4.18 ERA last year.  Big deal.  Hughes has also struck out fewer batters and walked more batters on the road in his career.  I'm not sure that has a thing to do with Yankee Stadium. 

Odds are, he's somewhere between his home and road stats, leaving the Twins with three years of a 4.50 ERA pitcher who has never thrown 200 innings in a season.  Don't like ERA?  His career xFIP is 4.31.  He has only managed to keep his ERA below his xFIP once (2012), so I'm not so sure this perceived upside actually exists.  Sure, you can always move him to the bullpen, but now the Twins are paying $8 million to a set-up man and have another hole in the rotation.  This move was way too risky for me.  I'd have preferred a more reliable starter even if it cost a greater price.

What to look for in '14:

Home runs.  It's really quite simple.  Batters are going to hit fly balls against Hughes.  They always have.  How many of those fly balls will leave the park?  If Hughes can limit home runs at a league-average rate, it's possible that the Twins will have found a bargain.  The numbers seem to indicate that Hughes will give up fewer home runs because Target Field suppresses power to right field much better than Yankee Stadium does.  Throughout his career, Hughes has consistently surrendered home runs at a lower rate on the road. 

Yankee Stadium has a park factor for home runs that is 9th in the Majors.  Target Field is 27th.  However, if you look at park factors for overall runs, Yankee Stadium is 7th but Target Field isn't far behind at 12.  If the majority of Hughes' woes are home run-related, then this ballpark change could make a huge difference.  That said, the current Twins' outfield is not the most defense-friendly.  Even if some extra fly balls stay in the park, they could simply become extra doubles due to bad routes, poor range and bonked heads in the outfield.  By 2015, the Twins outfield could be defense-excellent, and that might be when Hughes has his real "breakout."

If Hughes can keep his ERA in the low 4s for 2014, then he'll get a chance to have that breakout in 2015.  If not, he might become an expensive (albeit valuable) bullpen arm.  I'm not sure that any player on the roster has a greater ceiling/floor disparity but it's his ceiling that makes him important in 2014. 

I'll be back next week with the 9th most important Twins player in 2014.  Have a nice day, everyone!

If you haven't been paying close attention, I'm counting down the 14 most important Twins players for the 2014 season.  This was just one part in a 14-part series.  If you missed any of the previous installments, just click here as I have put them all in one nice, tidy location for you.  I'm the best.

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