Joba Rules, But Remember A Guy Phil?

Eli Manning may not have been the only New York sports figure to have found himself in the post-season of 2007. In a less dramatic and certainly less impactful way, it’s just possible that Yankee pitcher Philip Hughes did so as well.

I’ve found it interesting to see the change in the view of Hughes since Joba Chamberlain hit the scene. Hughes was once regarded by some as the top pitching prospect in all of baseball. He didn’t make the immediate impact Chamberlain did, and now it’s Chamberlain who is the next big thing.

That may not be such a bad thing. In Spring Training last year, Hughes seemed to be feeling the pressure and pitched poorly. This resulted in his starting the year back in the minors. When he was called up in late April, he pitched two games before getting hurt and staying out until August. In his second May start, he pitched 6 1/3 innings of no-hit ball, striking out six and walking three before leaving with a hamstring injury.

When Hughes returned it took a while for him to find his legs again. But in September, he appeared to right the ship and made it on to the Yankees’ post-season roster. It was here that we finally saw again what we had seen in that second start, as he looked every bit as advertised against Cleveland. In two relief appearances in the ALDS, Hughes tossed 5 2/3 innings, surrendering one run on a solo homer, striking out six and not walking a batter. If this was his arrival, we’ll know it soon enough of course.

I think I’m higher on Hughes than most. But what strikes me is how many of those writing in sports media and the blogosphere have revised their view of Hughes.

One who didn’t do that was Keith Law of ESPN and Scouts, Inc. Law always liked Hughes, but was also more tempered than most, seeing Hughes’ ceiling as more a #2 starter than a #1. I have the utmost respect for Law, who has the rare ability to combine smart and modern analysis with the true scouting acumen that so many pretend they have. But, as I’m sure he’d the first to admit, that doesn’t mean he’s right about every player. No one is.

As an aside, I’ll say here that I don’t pretend to have any kind of scouting ability. I’ve watched thousands of hours of baseball, live and on TV and I’ve coached kids. I’ve seen every level of the game, from Little League, to adult amateurs to MLB. And I’ve studied as carefully as I could. But I am not a scout. Those people are absolutely amazing in their ability see what a player has in potential, diagnose the mechanics of a pitching motion or a swing on the spot, and recognize when a bad performance is just a bad day and when it is indicative of a bigger problem. I’m amazed by scouts, and the fact that every baseball fan and baseball writer thinks they can be one is insulting, frankly, to these incredibly skilled professionals. It is in that context that I offer this opinion.

Law has always said when asked that Hughes has very good stuff, just not #1 starter stuff. That’s hardly a knock—that means he sees Hughes as an excellent prospect, just not quite as good as Joba or Clay Buchholz. That’s a fair assessment, and Law was saying it when Hughes was the next big thing, unlike the many writers who have wavered in their view of Hughes. I have no problem with changing an assessment as more data becomes available. But it seems like it’s only Chamberlain’s emergence that has really changed the view of Hughes for so many. That’s why I respect Law’s opinion on this.

Nonetheless, I differ with it. True, Hughes’ stuff is very good, not quite great. He has two fastballs: a four seamer that is routinely in the mid-90s and can hit 97 or even 98 on occasion, and a two seamer that has nice downward motion and sits comfortably in the 92-94 range. His curveball can be devastating when he’s ahead in the count, breaking sharply down and away from right-handed batters.

Hughes had trouble last year against lefties, who hit him at a .264/.358/.488 clip. He needs to either improve his changeup or develop his slider (a pitch he’s largely abandoned) to bring those numbers down.

So what is it I like so much about Hughes? What I’m particularly fond of is the excellent command he shows for one so young. It might surprise some people that Hughes is actually a few months younger than Chamberlain. He’s both the veteran and the baby of the young Yankee hurlers. While he doesn’t have Chamberlain’s explosiveness on his fastball, he locates it a lot better. I think I’m more of a sucker for good command than most scouts are.

Command and control are not the same thing, so Hughes’ walk rate last year of 3.59 per 9 innings doesn’t reflect the command I’m talking about. But it’s perhaps too easy to forget what this young man did in the minor leagues.

Hughes pitched 275 innings in the minors. In those innings, he was nigh untouchable, surrendering only 171 hits, only 6 (!) of which were homeruns. He walked 66 (2.16 per 9) and struck out 311 (10.18 per 9) in those innings and posted an ERA of 2.09. He did that while being relatively young for his league at every level.
Chamberlain, by comparison, tossed 88 1/3 minor league innings, having been drafted at 21, compared to Hughes having been 18. Joba ruled, to be sure, but he had nothing on Hughes. In those 88.1 innings, he gave up 62 hits, including four homers, walked 27 (2.75 per 9) and whiffed 135 (13.75 per 9). The strikeout numbers are what really pop the eyes, but Hughes did better with the walks and homers and gave up fewer hits.

None of this is meant to knock Joba, of course. But he had some real advantages when it comes to capturing the imagination.

One, Chamberlain is clearly a starting pitcher who was put in the bullpen. Particularly given the way that he was used, Joba was able to put everything he had into every pitch. He throws harder than Hughes to begin with, and being unleashed in this way only magnified, all the more so since Hughes had no such luxury. Even in the ALDS, Hughes was brought in for long relief and still had to conserve his strength to some extent.

Two, Chamberlain is a character. He’s very animated on the mound, pumping his fists and shouting. Hughes is more a quiet worker. Joba fires up the crowd and gives the writers a little more ink. Hughes just goes about his business.

Those two add up to three, that Chamberlain had a lot more early success than Hughes. Thus, much greater excitement.

I don’t know who is going to be the better of these two. It’s a nice question to be able to ask. I do, though, have some personal preferences.

I’m not terribly keen on guys who hop around the mound like Joba. Pitching, and hitting for that matter, do not require the flow of adrenaline that a linebacker needs, but rather the focus and concentration that a surgeon requires. When things don’t go right, these excitable types have a tendency to implode. That is, of course, what Joba did against Cleveland, although those circumstances were such that many a seasoned veteran might have a hard time maintaining his focus (Joe Torre really should have insisted the game be stopped until the gnats could be dispersed).

More to the point, Chamberlain’s rear back and throw style won’t work as a starter. He’ll have to go back to pitching in a more sustainable manner, as he did in the minors. And here is where I think Hughes has the advantage. Chamberlain throws harder, but he doesn’t have Hughes’ command (not that his is bad either, and it may yet improve, but it’s not at Hughes’ level yet). And should Chamberlain remain in the pen, it’s well to note that flame-throwers like him do not tend to have very long careers in relief. They tend instead to burn out after a few years at most.

Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA forecasts project a 3.39 ERA for Chamberlain and a 4.42 for Hughes. Some of that discrepancy is based on the projection that Joba will spend significant time in the bullpen, which lowers the ERA (a pitcher will generally have an ERA considerably lower as a reliever than as a starter). I’m not going to say that I’d bet that Hughes will be better than Joba, even only as a starter.

But since this is the season for bold statements and predictions, I’ll go on record now saying that I do think Hughes, if healthy, will beat that PECOTA projection handily, and will come in with an ERA under 4. Unfortunately for Hughes, the off-season rumors that had him going to Minnesota in a trade for Johan Santana will raise some expectations of him. Obviously, anyone who holds any pitcher to the standard of Santana is a numbskull. But the media works in mysterious ways.

So, I’m officially on the bandwagon, the one so many jumped off of when Joba saved the Yankee bullpen from the bleak desert that is Kyle Farnsworth. I remain firmly in the Phil Hughes fan club. It’s a good club, and I think it will get more fun as Hughes gets more experience. I’ll trade a few mph off a fastball for greater command and superior pitchability. And I think Hughes has those qualities. It’s a bright future.

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