Over his career, Phil Hughes has seemingly been one solid secondary pitch away from taking over the world.
Since his prospect days, his curveball was considered this dangerous weapon. For Hughes, unfortunately, the pitch never manifested into that killer pitch as projected. Eventually, the pitch was unceremoniously dropped from his arsenal in 2012.
When asked why the deuce took the backseat to other pitches in his repertoire, Hughes cited his inability to execute as one of the main reasons.
“It was one of those things where basically it became a first-pitch strike pitch and that’s all I was using it for, and that’s not what I want it to be,” Hughes said in the clubhouse this spring. “But it was out of necessity because I was kind of looping it up there. It wasn’t a good thing.”
In his final year with the Yankees, Hughes certainly favored the pitch to start an at-bat off. While he threw the pitch just 11% of the time overall, he spun it up to the plate a nearly quarter of the time on the first pitch to a hitter. Opponents, trained to seek-and-destroy fastballs on the opening pitch, often allowed the big bend to sail past only to find themselves down in the count no balls and one strike.
As the at-bat would progress, Hughes had the tendency to then lean on his impressive fastball. Much like former Twin Scott Baker, Hughes would target the top of the zone with a 92+ heater and would register a high amount of swing-and-misses with an equally insane amount of foul balls.
With two strikes, and fear that the looping curve would be tipped out of his hand, Hughes stuck to the fastball and slider -- demonstrating a near fifty-fifty split in usage between the two. The results left something to be desired as his .253 opponent batting average against in two-strike situations, the second highest in the game last year, suggested that the current plan was not working. On top of that, his 44% foul ball rate with two-strikes meant he handed out a lot of souvenirs to the ticket holders in the gated community areas of the stadium but also that his pitch count increased quickly. This translated to premature clubhouse showers.
So with all that in mind, but without all the numbers to back it up and just ball guy-type intuitive stuff, Hughes focused on redeveloping the curve to be a legitimate weapon in those types of circumstances.
“Coming into spring it was a conscience effort to make sure I finishing that pitch and keep my hand out in front so you don’t pick up any spin or have it pop out of my hand,” Hughes explained.
Camouflaging your secondary pitches is one of the biggest keys in pitching and, to Hughes’ concern of keeping the curve from “popping” out of his hand, is a big one from that particular pitch. The looping curve, as he described it, is one that has the tendency to come out of the pitcher’s hand a bit higher than a fastball.
“A lot of times with curveballs, more than any other pitch, it will go above the fastball plane,” major league pitching instructor Tom House told the Washington Post in 2012. “And if it goes above the fastball plane, then the hitter knows it’s not a fastball.”
Which means they sit and let it pass. Or they swing out of their cleats at it. Either way, it becomes a less effective pitch.
Through three starts in 2014, it is hard to tell if the tinkering has worked. He has thrown more curveballs throughout each plate appearance but the amount of times hitters have swung at it has decreased. Plus, no one is chasing after the pitch out of the zone, which means it is not getting buried for strike three. While his strikeout rate has climbed so far this season and may not be directly due to his curveball (12 of his 17 K’s have come on fastballs) it is possible that just occasionally flashing the curve keeps hitters off of his fastball.
“It’s altering sequences,” Hughes said this spring, “I’ve gotten into some predictable sequences for the most part, so once I get my changeup and cutter going I can kind of alter those a little bit, you know, flipping a few first-pitch curveballs, always keeping it different, that will be good.”
In terms of his curve -- his large, looping pitch thrown around 74.1 mph on average -- hitters will see it mainly early in the count (16 of the 44 were thrown on first-pitch) or occasionally with two-strikes (another 18 were thrown in two-strike situations). In both instances, hitters refrained from swinging. Of the 44 thrown, just 14 (31.8%) have been offered at. That’s quite a low total for a curveball overall.
Does predictable sequencing explain why Hughes’ curveball has been roundly ignored by opponents? Or is the big loop helping hitters differentiate his curve from other pitches? Some attribute the modern hitters’ ability to lay off these slower breaking pitches to improved analytics and scouting reports.
In Boston, a Providence Journal article noted that the Red Sox staff was tightening up their pitch types, moving to cutters and splitters instead of sliders and curves, because the late break of the former would confuse hitters better than the looping curve or long tilt of the slider.
“There’s more knowledge in a game now of bat paths and technologies and studies and charts and hot zones, so you can get a picture of somebody’s bat path and where they like to hit the ball,” Red Sox catcher David Ross told the Providence Journal’s Brian Macpherson. “Guys try to stay off that as much as they can off the fastball with a cut or a sink or sharp breaking stuff. The big breaking ball is pretty much obsolete.”
While Ross may consider the big breaking ball obsolete, Hughes still breaks his out, just not at the same rate as he did a few years ago while coming up with the Yankees when it was considered a plus-pitch for him. It was last year when Hughes started to feel that hitters were not reacting to the pitch the same and shelved it in favor of the late-break cutter. This season, while he’s thrown his curve more frequently than last year, it is still the cutter that is thrown in greater abundance. Unlike his curve, the cutter is (1) swung at, (2) swung at out of the zone and (3) missed at a higher rate.
So maybe the curveball is the savior of a pitch for Phil Hughes that it was made out to be in spring training. He still is doing many things right at this juncture, such as leading the staff in strikeouts and avoiding home runs. If, however, he can find some help in reducing his unsightly batting average on balls in play or the amount of foul balls that has blown up his pitch count so frequently, he might be able to stay on the mound beyond the typical five innings of work.