(Photos taken from The Hardball Times)
Over and over again, the question returns to Phil's velocity, or lack thereof. "Where'd his plus fastball go?" or "Why's his curveball look so flat?"
I don't pretend to have the outright solution to Phil's struggles, and nobody else does either. But here are the facts: 1) Hughes made his major league debut at age 20 after just three starts at AAA-Scranton; 2) After the butterflies of his first big league start subsided, Hughes pursued history, with only a hamstring tear sidetracking what seemed like a no-hit night; 3) Hughes is now 21 years old. Aside from any difference in his stuff, every starting pitcher takes some lumps before easing into the professional athlete he will become.
The pitcher I saw in the minor leagues was more aggressive and athletic. Check out the video from Phil's appearance in the 2006 Future's Game. I spoke to Carlos Gomez, a former big leaguer whose exemplary work can be found at The Hardball Times, including his first and second articles discussing Mr. Hughes. Though I believe a great deal of Phil's woes stem from his serious hamstring and ankle injuries, Carlos makes several strong points. Points that I totally agree with, and have sensed since Phil's "comeback."
One of the major points Gomez makes with his analysis revolves around the noticeably different arm-slot which Hughes uses now in comparison to 2006. During the previously mentioned Futures Game, Hughes used a release much closer to "three-quarters" delivery, whereas 2007 has seen him come much more "over the top." This adjustment alone zaps some of the velocity from his fastball, although it contributes to a truer 12-to-6 curve. Phil's delivery in 2006 also shows off his athleticism, producing a more aggressive, tight motion toward homeplate.
Because I completely agree with this difference in arm-slot, I asked Gomez if a return to Phil's 2006 mechanics would be a major undertaking:
One thing I've noticed on Phil is that he can change arm slots seemingly at will. If you look at his start vs Tampa, his arm slot that day was the lowest I've seen from him in the majors. However, while I prefer his '06 arm slot because of movement purposes and his head not moving out of the way, it seems like he has been more successsful with a more over-the-top delivery. I'd want him to throw harder if he's going to stick with a higher release point, since it minimizes lateral movement and sink.Essentially, Phil has the capability of adjusting his armslot with ease. The fact that Phil is so robotic in repeating his delivery helps him in that regard. Another solid point from Carlos revolves around the lack of movement which comes from his present over-the-top slot. If his curveball benefits from this delivery, the lateral movement on his fastball suffers. Therefore, the 2-3 mph currently missing from his fastball are all the more important. On the topic of lost velocity, Gomez had this to say:
Look at the first article I wrote on [Hughes]. The first clip. Do you notice the difference in "drive" between the one on the left and the one on the right? He's more "drop and drive" on the left, more "tall and fall" on the right, in my opinion. More than anything, I think that this whole idea of "not drifting" through the "balance point" is what has cost him the extra velocity.If you visit the article Carlos mentions, the first pair of photos (pictured above) completely support his claim. The first one, from the 2006 Futures Game, shows Hughes with the drop-and-drive mentality. Think of Daisuke Matsuzaka and how his lower half, particularly his backside, seems to drop and sit, while his legs drift toward home. This is where many power pitches generate their velocity. In 2006, Hughes had more of that power and drive directed toward the batter, but this season has seen him become a "tall-and-fall" pitcher.
This type of delivery sees Hughes almost "stay put" after his legkick reaches its highest point. As his landing leg makes its way back down, his lower half stays pretty still, lacking the drift I mentioned earlier. The result is a much less athletic, powerful movement. Whether or not this alteration is purely mental - meaning Phil's never regained enough confidence to again trust the hamstring he injured - is a possibility. Recovering from such an injury may well cause for Phil's lack of drive, but there is also a chance that the Yankees pitching hierarchy intentionally pursue such mechanics. Frightened by the thought, I asked Gomez:
I have a feeling, however, that the pitching gurus for the Yankee organization like "the new" Phil Hughes mechanics, but I sure don't. I'm slightly joking here, but it makes Phil look like a 33 year old pitcher instead of the athletic, aggressive gunslinger I think he should be.His reply:
Well said.... This would be my fear as well.Frightening indeed. After all the discussion, the real hope here is that Yankees pitching "gurus" like Nardi Contreras or Billy Connors are perceptive enough to realize how much better off Phil would be, now and in the future, if he returned to his 2006 style. Driving toward home, instead of waiting for his landing leg to drop. Gliding over the rubber as opposed to falling downward. Jim Callis could also be correct in asserting that Hughes will not again be "right" until next season when his body returns to 100% health.
We'll have to wait and see, though it appears that Phil's already begun to put more cheddar on his fastball. During Phil's last start against Toronto, MLB Gameday calculated his fastballs as follows:
89 mph 3 times- Much thanks to Carlos Gomez for his insights and accessibility.
90 mph 6 times
91 mph 22 times
92 mph 31 times
93 mph 8 times
94 mph 2 times