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RandBall: Phil Hughes and the art of making adjustments

  • Blog Post by: Michael Rand
  • May 28, 2014 - 11:00 AM

We wrote last week after Phil Hughes' most recent dominant start (at the time) about how successful he had been throwing mostly fastballs (mostly four-seamers), which had helped him work quickly, stay ahead in the count and keep a ridiculous string of walk-free innings together.

PitchFX data had him throwing, for the season, 70 percent four-seam fastballs

Our one caveat came at the end of that post: wondering if teams would start getting more aggressive with him early in the count, forcing him to adjust.

The answer came Tuesday in Hughes' next start ... and he answered brilliantly.

Texas knocked him around for two runs on four hits in the first two innings at Target Field. One hit came on a first-pitch fastball. Another came on a second-pitch fastball. Donnie Murphy's sacrifice fly, which would have been a three-run homer if not for a great play by Aaron Hicks, came on a first-pitch cutter.

In all, Hughes threw 31 pitches in the first two innings: 26 four-seam fastballs, four cutters and one two-seam fastball. All but one pitch was at least 90 miles per hour.

Hard, hard, hard. It had been working for Hughes, but he didn't quite have the same command Tuesday and he was getting smacked around.

So he and Kurt Suzuki clearly shifted the game plan. Here are the pitch breakdowns, per MLB.com, for the next five innings:

Third inning: 9 pitches – 3 cutters, 3 two-seamers, 2 curves and a 4-seamer

Fourth inning:   14 pitches -- 7 cutters, 2 curves, 4 4-seamers, 1 2-seamer

Fifth inning: 10 pitches -- 5 cutters, 3 4-seamers, 2 curves

Sixth inning: 18 pitches --  11 cutters, 6 4-seamers, 1 curve

Seventh inning: 16 pitches -- 7 4-seamers, 5 curves, 4 cutters

Totals for final 5 innings -- 67 pitches: 30 cutters, 21 4-seamers, 12 curves, 4 2-seamers.

PitchFX had him at 12 percent cutters for the season, with another 11 percent some sort of curve.

Those curves last night -- which Hughes throws a la Mike Mussina's knuckle-curve -- all floated in between 72 and 76 mph, keeping hitters off his hard stuff just enough. He threw them 18 percent of the time in those last five innings, higher than his season rate. Combined with a much different mix of hard stuff (only 31 percent of his pitches in the final five innings were four-seam fastballs, with 45 percent cutters and the handful of two-seam fastballs), it added up to just one run given up on four hits in innings 3-7 (and that run was a gift after Chris Parmelee and Eduardo Escobar botched a leadoff pop-up in the sixth).

And for the record, he still didn't walk anyone -- meaning he will not give up a walk in the entire month of May since his next start will be in June.

Hughes' ability to adjust on the fly was not only encouraging long-term, but also kept the Twins in a game that could have turned into a blowout and a fifth consecutive loss. Instead, he kept them close, they rallied in the ninth to win, and the outlook is much sunnier today than it otherwise would have been.

© 2014 Star Tribune