Phil Hughes looks different on the mound this season, different in a positive way. He acts more assertive and more fearless. He has the demeanor of a pitcher who is anxious to throw the ball because he doesn’t expect batters to do any damage. He looks that cool for the Yankees.
Watch how Hughes performs when he faces the Red Sox Monday night. He rarely strays from the rubber because he doesn’t want to waste time between pitches. He shows little emotion because he is focused on the next pitch. While Hughes’ friends have told him that they have noticed a difference in his presence, he believes the most crucial difference is what has transpired above his neck.
When Hughes thinks about what has allowed him to rumble to a 5-0 record with a 1.38 earned run average, he centers on “confidence and aggressiveness.” Yes, Hughes has used his cut fastball more often and will toss it in any count. Yes, his curveball is better and he has added a changeup. But Hughes feels the mental adjustments have been more important to his ascension than any physical changes.
“I think if you look at my raw stuff to when I was starting games this season to last season, there’s probably not that much difference,” Hughes said. “I’m maybe a little bigger and stronger. But I feel what has really changed is my confidence out there and my ability to attack the strike zone. Those have been the two biggest things.”
The Yankees always felt Hughes, who was a first-round draft pick in 2004, could be a No. 1 or a No. 2 starter in their rotation. Technically, Hughes is the No. 5 starter, but he has been the Yankees’ best starter in 2010. Better than CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte and a lot better than Javier Vazquez. It is silly to discuss the postseason in May, but let’s be silly for a sentence. If the postseason started today, Hughes would be a superb choice to start Game 2.
The biggest change that Hughes has made in his repertoire has been the increased employment of his cut fastball. After throwing the cutter 16.4 percent of the time in 2009, Hughes has uncorked it 28 percent in his first six starts this season. Even though Hughes said his 88-mile per hour cutter is easier to hit than his fastball, which is about five or six miles faster, it isn’t easier to hit if hitters are expecting the fastball.
Every pitcher, no matter how effective, is going to experience some bad counts in games. When those 2-0, 2-1 and 3-1 counts arise, Hughes’s cutter helps him neutralize aggressive hitters. The hitters that are waiting to pulverize a fastball are stifled when they get a cutter that dives at the last second.
“I throw my cutter often and I’m not afraid to throw it behind in counts or ahead in counts,” Hughes said. “Even when I’m behind in the count, I throw every ball with conviction. I’m not afraid to miss spots. I think that’s taken me a long way.”
As valuable as Hughes’s cutter has been, he must be wary of not always throwing it when he is behind in the count. Hitters aren’t idiots. If Hughes throws his cutter every time he is behind, hitters will make adjustments and simply wait for it. So Hughes said he must be conscious of mixing in his fastball in those bad counts, too. As much as Hughes relies on the cutter, he must maintain the surprise element of the pitch.
“It’s definitely more difficult to hit,” Hughes said, “when they’re not looking for it.”
The Yankees haven’t publicized how many innings Hughes will be allowed to pitch during the season, but it will probably be about 170. Hughes pitched 111 2/3 innings (including the postseason) with the Yankees and at Triple-A as a starter and a reliever in 2009. But Hughes also threw 146 Minor League innings in 2006 so the Yankees might extend him a bit more than they did with Joba Chamberlain last season. Hughes hasn’t been given an innings limit and said he isn’t dwelling on it.
Since the Yankees finish the first half in Seattle on July 11, Hughes plans to travel home to Santa Ana, Calif., for the All-Star break. Less than 10 miles from Hughes’s home, the All-Star Game will be played at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on July 13. About two months before the marquee game, it is premature to speculate about whether Hughes will make the team. Still, because the game will be played in Hughes’ backyard, I asked if he had thought about pitching in it. He laughed the laugh of someone who hadn’t considered it.
“I was just going to go home,” Hughes said. “That’s my plan. I’ll be in Anaheim. But I wasn’t really making plans for that.”
If Hughes continues pitching like this, he might need to make new plans.
Follow Jack all season long on Twitter @JackCurryYES.