The eye test says Phil Hughes is pitching brilliantly right now, and statistics certainly back that up. He's been fun to watch during these last six games -- the first Twins pitcher in a long time, even in this short term, to make us search out the future pitching probables to make sure we don't miss watching him.
Hughes previously had two successful seasons in the majors in 2010 and 2012 with the Yankees, posting 34 combined wins in those years with an ERA just over 4. But the big question everyone is likely asking right now is how does a guy who went 4-14 with a 5+ ERA just a season ago suddenly look dominant?
Here is a look inside a few numbers as we attempt to try to explain it:
*Walk rate: Hughes hasn't walked a batter in more than a month, which when combined with above-average "stuff" is always going to play well. His strikeout rate of 7.79 per nine innings is almost perfectly aligned with his career mark, but his overall walk rate of 0.99 per nine innings is almost three times better than his 2.71 career mark. The number figures to go up as the season goes along -- he will walk a batter again at some point -- but for now it appears he has exceptional command and is seeing great results from attacking hitters: getting early swings for outs while also getting into favorable strikeout counts.
*Fastballs: Hughes is making a living off of mostly four-seamers and cutters -- way more than in previous seasons. When a pitcher can do that and have command, the walk rate goes down and the confidence presumably goes up.
*Ballpark factor: During his last five games, Hughes has pitched three times at Target Field, once in Detroit and once in San Diego. When it comes to home runs, those parks are at least neutral and generally somewhat favorable to pitchers, at least when we look at 2013 numbers. Hughes is giving up about the same number of fly balls as he always has, but way fewer are leaving the park for home runs so far. Part of that could be because of the first factor we mentioned -- working ahead in the count will produce fewer hard-hit balls in general -- but part of it could be not pitching in the home-run friendly Yankee Stadium for half his starts.
The thing to watch going forward: Will teams start to get more aggressive with Hughes, knowing he's pounding the strike zone mostly with fastballs? The Padres' only mini-rally last night started with two singles on the first three pitches of an inning. If hitters can change their approach and find success, he might have to change his game a little bit. The nice thing is his raw "stuff" is good enough that when he induces contact, it's less frequently on the barrel than back in the pitch-to-contact days of Nick Blackburn and company. Whether he can continue to work with a lower walk rate and lower home run rate than his career marks remains to be seen.
An encouraging sign, though, is that batters are hitting .329 when they put the ball in play against Hughes -- higher than his career mark. Some of that could be because he is throwing more strikes. But it could be implied that Hughes has even been a bit unlucky despite being so good early on.
Whatever the case -- and it is early -- Hughes is having a very Carl Pavano in 2010 type season so far: glad to escape New York, comfortable in his new ballpark, pounding the strike zone and giving the Twins a top-of-the-rotation guy they desperately need.