If you are a traditionalist -- someone who focuses on wins, losses and ERA to measure a pitcher’s performance -- you might judge Phil Hughes’ first seven starts harshly. If you are someone who looks at peripheral stats and FIP to better gauge his output, you might say he’s underperforming.
What has characterized Hughes’ second season in a Twins uniform is his inability to locate his fastballs as well as he did the previous season. He has not been wild, he’s simply failed to get the pitch to the intended target, like in last Saturday’s start against the Indians. Catcher Kurt Suzuki calls for a fastball down and in on David Murphy but the pitch stays middle-middle and Murphy is able to get everything behind it. This isn’t the first time he’s struggled to hit that particular spot.
Here’s the thing: Hughes’ bread-and-butter is fastballs up in the zone. Opponents are hitting ,229/.243/.356 over the last two years when he locates in the upper third of the zone. Meanwhile they are hitting .335/.342/.518 in the lower portions. If he wants to get hitters out, he should be attacking up but that’s counter to what he is actually doing this year.
According to Pitch F/X, Hughes has increased the number of two-seam fastballs this season. Last year he threw it approximately 159 times total but has thrown around 171 two-seamers this season. This explains why his fastball locations have been middle of the plate instead of in the upper-third as they are frequently when he throws his four-seamer. Along the same lines, opponents have figured out how to hit his cutter. After batting just .218/.248/.326 off of it in 2014, they are posting a healthy .300/.317/.575 line so far this year.
Hughes will get the ball in tonight’s start against the Rays.
Brian Duensing hit the disabled list in mid-April with an intercostal strain and since his return, it has been an uphill battle. In now 3.1 innings of work, he has surrendered nine hits. (Add in another four walks and the lefty reliever has been littering the bases with runners.) The nine hits also includes that towering bomb by Miguel Cabrera on Thursday afternoon.
To Duensing’s credit, despite all the hits allowed, the Cabrera home run was just the first he had allowed this season. What’s more is that the slider’s location wasn’t bad. Not too many people are able to launch a pitch that is out of the strike zone for a home run. Unfortunately, Cabrera is one of the few hitters who can do it: Since 2011 Cabrera has socked nine home runs on pitches in that location, the most in baseball.
Speaking of home runs, since the beginning of May, Torii Hunter has hit five home runs. Outside of the freakish Bryce Harper (7), Marlon Byrd (6...wait, what) and Joc Pederson (6), Hunter is tied with Nelson Cruz, Logan Morrison, Stephen Vogt, Anthony Rizzo and Todd Frazier.
Now with six on the year -- all pulled -- Hunter has shown he is locked in on pitches down-and-in. Not to mention, since moving to the second spot in the order on April 15, he is hitting .316/.370/.571 - a Top 25 OPS in that span.
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If you thought Ricky Nolasco threw filth flarn filth in his most recent start against the Tigers, you would be correct. Nolasco relied on his slider/curveball combination to strike out a season-high seven Detroit hitters, including Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Ian Kinsler.
Nolasco burned through pitches early by running the counts deep, walking three and ultimately exiting without completing his sixth inning of work. Still, the outing showed that the right-handed can make hitters look foolish with his secondary offerings. Opposing teams are hitting .366/.451/.488 off Nolasco’s fastball this year so a higher distribution of non-fastballs -- similar to Wednesday night’s outing at Comerica -- seems to be in order.
There is a good reason this pitch was driven hard the other way: Trevor Plouffe was mentally well ahead of Detroit’s Kyle Lobstein. As discussed here last week, Plouffe has matured to the point where he knows that pitchers are trying to do. He said that he has found that pitchers will try to throw him hard inside then soft away. On cue, Lobstein tried to throw a soft slider down-and-away which Plouffe drove to the right center gap for a triple.
After a really rough start to begin the season, reliever Blaine Boyer has strung together a series of nice outings. In fact, Boyer is one of just three relievers to not allow a run in their last ten innings or more.
Boyer said in spring that he owed his time in Japan for helping him hone his command as he was forced to throw to a strike zone the size of a tennis ball. He has mid-90s heat which he claims is his two-seam fastball. While this seems to go against the science of pitching, Boyer swears that when he is hitting 94-95, it is the sinker that Cardinals’ pitching coach Dave Duncan taught him years ago.
Without missing bats, Boyer’s success is likely limited but, for now, he has been able to help bridge the starters to Glen Perkins.
For Twins news, check out these stories at TwinsDaily.com:
The Twins begin a series with the Tampa Bay Rays tonight that should prove to be quite the test. Check out the pitching matchups from Nick Nelson.
Be sure to listen to this week's No Juice Podcast.