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April 07, 2008

Pags: Hughes Loses Velocity Because Of Mechanics

Last week, I reached out to Jim Callis, Kevin Goldstein, and Deric McKamey on the topic of Phil Hughes' fastball, its current velocity, and how it impacts Hughes' status as a prospect. Their feedback suggested that Hughes' heater is what it's always been - and that there was nothing wrong with it and therefore his status was just fine.

At the same time, I reached out to Mike Pagliarulo with the same question. Last night, Mike posted his response at Dugout Central. With the permission of Adam White (the CEO of Dugout Central/Baseline Group) here's what Mike Pagliarulo wrote...

...via Dugout Central:

Great question from Steve L. over at www.waswatching.com:

Mike - Last season, the Yankees Phil Hughes’ fastballs were averaging 89 to 92 miles an hour. However, reports said that Phil usually threw around 92 to 95 MPH. Even Yankees GM Brian Cashman was curious about this last August. At that time, Hughes’ fastballs were averaging 88 to 91 miles an hour, according to Cashman, when they should have been 91 to 93. Here’s what Cashman had to say about Hughes drop in velocity: “I don’t know why. It’s our job to continue to look and see if there’s anything mechanically. He could still be just building arm strength from being down for so long.” Phil Hughes, this spring, said that he never really trusted his leg (after his hamstring injury) and that did not allow him to let loose with his pitches. But, Hughes maintained that he was sound now and it was no longer an issue. However, in his start last night, Hughes was, once again, consistently at 91 MPH with his fastball. In your opinion, how does this development impact Phil Hughes in terms of his status of being a pitching prospect?

A big difference between good organizations and bad organizations is their ability to develop their own prospects. Scouting and the ability to make sound player acquisition decisions are the other two big ones, but we’ll leave those for another day.

The reason Phil Hughes isn’t throwing his fastball faster than 91 MPH is mechanics – and nothing else. Why doesn’t Brian Cashman know this? Because he’s an expert at managing groups, people and processes; he’s NOT a baseball expert in terms of scouting, of understanding pitching mechanics, or understanding hitting mechanics, etc. That’s in no way an insult to Brian. Jack Welch, formerly CEO of General Electric, is one of the most respected business leaders of our time, and he couldn’t build a jet engine or a refrigerator himself. But he could manage the people who could.

So, it’s unfair to ask Cashman the Hughes question since it’s not his area of expertise. It’s like asking Joe Girardi about brain surgery.

What to do about Hughes? He needs to change his delivery, just as Roger Clemens did when he went from Boston to Toronto. Hughes’ mechanics are the weakest during pitching stages three and four, the time in which he takes the ball out of glove to when the ball leaves his hand. Two issues: First, he’s not getting full arm extension after taking the ball out of his glove – and this creates an inconsistent release point and, therefore, an inconsistent pitcher. Second, he’s leading with his head instead of staying back and throwing “around” his head – something that young, aggressive hitters can be guilty of.

The effects of these issues:

+ Reduced velocity on his fastball, because he isn’t able to fully leverage his lower half.

+ His changeup is ending up off the plate to Hughes’ arm-side of home plate.

+ His curve (normally a 70/75 grade pitch on a 20-80 scale) is being left up in the zone.

You’ll notice that Hughes has been throwing his slider more often, despite the fact it’s just his fourth best pitch. Because of his mechanics, Hughes’ arm slot is lower than ideal and, thus, his slider is the only breaking pitch that he can command effectively. It’s the same reason you don’t see three quarter or side arm pitchers with good curveballs. It’s also why if you’re looking at Hughes behind home plate his curve ball is breaking at a 10 to 4 angle as opposed to its typical 12 to 6.

The good news is that Hughes’ mechanics are fixable. Whether he is coachable – a trait needed for a player to improve – is another thing. I’m not saying he isn’t coachable; I just don’t know the guy, so I can’t say.

My guess is that if Yankees pitching coach Dave Eiland is allowed to really work with him, Hughes will be on track by 2009 or 2010. Let’s not forget this kid should still be in AA Trenton.

But this is the risk the Yankee front office is taking. And it’s a big risk, given that it deviates from previously successful methods of developing prospects for championship teams in the minors, not the majors. Looking at the last generation of Yankees stars, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Bernie Williams, Mo Rivera and Jorge Posada were all much more advanced in their development prior to their call-up than Hughes. Jeter (21), Pettitte (23) and Williams (22) were close to the same age as Hughes when they started contributing to the major league club, but development is about being ready to produce, not just age.

This is interesting stuff. And, it somewhat ties into what Carlos Gomez had to say about Hughes last season - that's it's an arm slot and/or angle of release, related to throwing the curve, that's impacted Hughes' fastball.

It seems, based on the reports from Pags and Gomez, that Hughes is not helping himself by throwing a 1-7, 2-8, or 10-4 curve in addition to trying to throw one with a 12-6 break. Maybe Phil should stick with one type of curve - or just ditch it and go back to the slider? Personally, when I hear all this talk about monkeying around with the curve and a (perhaps) slower fastball, I start to get Barry Zito images in my head. And, while Zito was great from ages 22 to 28, we all saw what happened to him last season (and this one, so far).

In any event, my thanks to Mike Pagliarulo for taking the time to write about this matter - and to Dugout Central for allowing me to share it here.

Posted by Steve Lombardi at April 7, 2008 08:30 AM

Comments

Old habits die hard, eh, Steve?

It's hard for me to believe that, with Dave Eiland and Nardi Contreras around, not to mention a slew of other people who watch Hughes like hawks, that Pags is the *only* guy who sees this.

It is also interesting to note that, after getting positive feedback from all those other guys you reached out to, you once again choose to concentrate on the *one* negative.

Posted by: YankeeMonkey [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 7, 2008 09:25 AM

Hopefully, Eiland can fix this problem. He knows Hughes, Joba, and IPK like the back of his hand. I think he'll straighten out Hughes shortly. If Hughes continues to win with his current mechanics, I wonder if Eiland and Contreras will notice the problem.

Posted by: E-ROC [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 7, 2008 09:39 AM

My one issue with his post is, if you followed his last spring start on MLB gameday, he sat at 93-94 in the warm Miami weather, and he was consistently hitting 94 in the spring. I think the weather may have had a lot to do with his poor velocity the other night, because I doubt he changed his mechanics for no reason between starts.

Posted by: Moshe Mandel [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 7, 2008 10:23 AM

Cool stuff. Now this is interesting debate as well as good baseball talk.

Keep getting the good content Steve.

Posted by: Greek [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 7, 2008 11:00 AM

I was absurdly happy when you said you would stop harping about Hughes' velocity. "Finally," I thought, "we can move on..." And now this.

Pags seems both self-centered and bitter when talking all things Yankee. And in this case I think he's managed to blow smoke up his own ass (which might be a first). Hughes' mechanics are universally praised. As you mentioned in the last Hughes post, he's all about repeatable delivery on all his pitches. The idea that his mechanics need to be "fixed" is just someone stroking themselves, saying, "See, I'm smarter than everyone else." As YankeeMonkey said, I'll take the word of Dave Eiland and Nardi Contreras over Pags any day.

Your original conclusion was the correct one: Hughes never sat at 95 mph. Eiland himself said when Hughes was coming up that he threw 90-94. So for the most part you'll be seeing Hughes throwing 91-93, with the occasional 94 or 95 thrown in, and when he pitches on these hopped-up guns (like the one that had John Maine hitting 97 on Fox) he'll be in full, fake mid-90s glory.

And at the end of the day it comes back to the same thing: who effin' CARES? It's all about results. Worrying about velocity is like worrying about who's bench-pressing the most weight. How the hitter reacts to it is what matters. Farnsworth registers in those release-point readings at 95-100, but he doesn't get the reactions that Hughes does registering 91. And that's because there's a lot more to a fastball than its radar-gun reading. And if you can't understand that, then you don't understand pitching.

Posted by: baileywalk [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 7, 2008 01:43 PM

This is what I don't get:

"But this is the risk the Yankee front office is taking. And it’s a big risk, given that it deviates from previously successful methods of developing prospects for championship teams in the minors, not the majors. Looking at the last generation of Yankees stars, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Bernie Williams, Mo Rivera and Jorge Posada were all much more advanced in their development prior to their call-up than Hughes. Jeter (21), Pettitte (23) and Williams (22) were close to the same age as Hughes when they started contributing to the major league club, but development is about being ready to produce, not just age."

On what basis does Paglarulo conclude that Hughes is not ready to produce in the majors? Does he mean that Hughes is not ready to dominate from day 1 in the majors as he has at EVERY minor league level? Well, that's just silly. Many great starters were not ready to produce from day 1, including Maddux, Johnson, Smoltz, Glavine, Lefty Grove, Sabathia, Santana, Carpenter, Colon, Guidry and Halladay. And there were many that did: Seaver, Martinez, Marichal, Johnson, Hubbell, Clemens, Cone, Oswalt, Gooden, Saberhagen and Valenzuela.

He pitched creditably last year in the rotation, getting better in September than he had been the rest of the year, and pitching well in the playoffs to boot.

Also, it what sense were Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada "further along" in their development when they got to the majors?

Bernie was still very raw when the Yanks called him up, and far from mature physically. In addition, he was extremely shy, and almost hounded from the majors by Mel Hall's clubhouse crapola. It took nearly two full seasons for him to become a starter for a team that was in the process of finishing last his first two years on the team. In what sense was he "further along" than Hughes is now?

Mariano was still a struggling starter when the Yanks called him up on an emergency basis to fill a hole in the rotation. He had had a mediocre year in the minors in 1994, and was promoted to the big on 7 AAA starts in which he had pitched very well, but had averaged just over 4 innings a start. It was only by accident that he stuck around long enough for Buck Showalter to turn him into a reliever. He didn't even has his trademark cutter yet. In his 1st 8 appearances (starts) he was 3-2 with 3 no decisions, an ERA of 5.40, and 50 hits and 14 BB allowed in 40 IP with 6 HR. In what sense was Mariano "ready to produce" when he got to the majors?

Jorge Posada backed up Joe Girardi his 1st real season in the bigs, and was not really given the keys to the car and the ability to drive by himself until after the 1999 season, when he had been up for parts of 5 major league seasons already. In what sense was Jorge "ready to produce" in 1997, when he made the roster to stay?

Jeter and Pettitte, yeah, they were pretty much ready from day 1. But the other three? Come on, already, doesn't anybody ever think through what they say anymore?

Many prospects are not "ready to produce" from the moment they're called up, especially pitchers. A lot of them make it anyway, with or without Pagliarulo's permission.

Posted by: Evan3457 [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 8, 2008 01:29 AM

You’ll notice that Hughes has been throwing his slider more often, despite the fact it’s just his fourth best pitch.

It's only two starts, but according to fangraphs, Hughes has thrown a slightly lower percentage of sliders in 2008 than he threw in 2007. I'm suspicious of analysis based on "noticing" something that hasn't actually happened.

Posted by: mac_1103 [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 9, 2008 12:05 PM