FORT MYERS, FLA. – The story line on Phil Hughes last spring was that he had taken the Twins’ advice after a poor 2015, lost substantial weight and now had a chance to regain the excellence of the 2014 season, his first in Minnesota.
Then, the new, slimmer Hughes started pitching in exhibitions, and his fastball was not reaching 90 miles per hour. It’s difficult to be a fastball pitcher without your fastball.
Ripping Hughes became a popular pastime, particularly when the pitcher was working on a shutout at Detroit on May 17 and made manager Paul Molitor aware at midgame that he had a sense of fatigue with his right arm.
Hughes left with one out in the seventh, when a first run was charged, and the sneers aimed at him over the “fatigue” comment even reached the traditionally homerific FSN telecasts.
He was sent to the bullpen after a lousy start June 2. A week later, he made his first relief appearance vs. Miami, was smoked with a line drive by J.T. Realmuto and suffered a fracture of his left femur at knee level.
Early in his recovery from the broken leg, Hughes underwent tests on his right shoulder and it was discovered there was an impingement between his collarbone and first rib — aka, thoracic outlet syndrome.
This can cause many problems, including not being able to throw a fastball 90 miles per hour. The small, top rib was removed, and Hughes was done pitching for 2016.
Asked this week if he felt as if he was “ever” healthy last season, Hughes said: “I don’t think so, but the problem is, when you’ve been in pro ball for a dozen years and after all those innings …
“It’s hard to tell the difference between being hurt and the normal wear. When you’re 28, 29, now 30, you realize that your arm never is going to feel again like it did when you were a kid.
“You just keep pitching, unless it’s an obvious injury.”
Hughes had a shoulder problem that limited his season for the Yankees in 2011. Even with that, he had 220 appearances, 168 starts and 1,039 innings in the big leagues from 2009 to 2015.
That might not be Jack Morris, Bert Blyleven or Felix Hernandez, but it’s enough work to let a pitcher know that he’s not likely to again occasionally reach 95, 96 miles per hour that was there for him in 2014.
That’s why Hughes was feeling optimistic after his five-inning start vs. the Orioles on Sunday. There were several fastball readings of 92, a velocity he could not reach in the lost season of 2016.
“I’ll get three more starts in Florida and should find a little more velocity,” Hughes said. “In that start Sunday, it was easy to throw a good fastball. That wasn’t the case last spring.”
Hughes has his weight roughly where it was last season, and his shoulder feels as strong as it is going to be for a 30-year-old. So, the story line has changed in 2017:
Phil Hughes is working to add a changeup to go with his fastball, cutter and curve.
Yeah. That one again.
When was the Hughes/changeup story first written in spring training with the Yankees?
“Probably 2010,” he said.
Then, he smiled and added: “I still get texts from a couple of New York baseball writers after an exhibition start saying, ‘How many changeups did you throw?’
“They wrote that story a few times.”
Yes, but this time, Hughes really means it. He claims to be giving the changeup a full shot, knowing he needs it to combat hitters who have been too often correct when sitting on a fastball.
“[Pitching coach] Neil Allen is pushing me harder than I’ve ever been pushed to throw the changeup, to stick with it,” Hughes said. “I’m doing that — mixed results so far, but I’m optimistic.”
Against Baltimore, Hughes gave up three home runs, and two were off changeups that stayed up and were screaming “hit me.” There was also a changeup down for a strikeout and another for a ground ball double play.
“I’m throwing it with a split-fingered grip, but not a real wide split,” Hughes said. “Sometimes, I speed up the motion and that’s when it’s been high in the zone. Everyone says, ‘You have to have the same arm motion for a great change,’ but I might slow the arm a little to make sure the pitch is down.
“After 10 years, no hitter is going to go up there expecting to see a changeup from me anyway.”
Hughes paused and said: “I’m in. I’m going to throw the changeup this year.”
The writers from New York should get a few texts out of that.