This season. Phil Hughes has been a revelation for the Twins. There was some suggestion that Hughes would be better in Minnesota than he would be in New York in a park that is better suited to his abilities. Despite this, I don’t think anyone expected Hughes to be THIS good in his time with the Twins. He’s 7-2 with a 3.17 ERA to this point in the season, which puts him firmly in the discussion of whether or not he is an organizational ace. That’s not why we came, however. I want to find out how much of what Hughes is doing is year over year personal improvement, and how much of it is the Twins organization finding something that was already there and exploiting it?
There are a couple of numbers, deeper into the statsheet that really stand out to me. First, his strikeout rate is up a bit over last year, which is nice, but not totally insane compared to his previous history, but his walk rate is nearly two full walks/9 below what it was last year, and below his career rate. He’s allowing less than one walk a game, and frankly, that’s not ballpark dependent. His ability to control the strike zone is allowing Hughes to pitch deeper into games and prevent baserunners from reaching or advancing without testing the defense. This is a tangible improvement in his game, whereas his previous strikeout rate and ground ball rate, a couple of the more explanatory statistics regarding player ability, haven’t changed significantly versus his previous career rate.
While Hughes’ ability to avoid the free pass is a credit to him, there is an element of good scouting and statistical gamesmanship. Hughes has cut his HR/9 rate nearly in half, which is great, especially when you consider that there are just as many fly balls as there ever used to be. Some people may look at his 6.1% HR/FB rate and suggest that Hughes is due for a regression, because that is a significant drop in a number that isn’t usually variable over the course of a career. While there certainly is room for a bit of regression on Hughes’ end, I don’t think there is much. Looking solely at Hughes’ “Away” splits, they fall fairly closely in line with what he is doing for the Twins this year. His HR/FB stats on the road were 6.7% on last year’s terrible season with the Yankees, and 6.9% for a career. His HR/9 rate has been .84 for his career, and is .77 this year.
There is something to be said for Hughes’ improvement in mastering the strike zone, but he has always been able to suppress home runs away from Yankee Stadium. Maybe his slight improvement over his batted ball career rates can even be attributed his better control, but I think the important takeaway is that Phil Hughes’ season to date is a credit to Hughes’ personal improvement as well some solid research by the Twins’ front office.