Friday, December 29, 2006

Prospect Profile: Phil Hughes (#1)

Age: 20
Height: 6'5"
Weight: 220 lbs
Drafted: 1st Round in 2004 out of High School
Position: Starting Pitcher
Throws: Right

Fastball: Hughes would be an effective pitcher with a 90 mph fastball. That said, Phil Hughes is going to be more than an effective pitcher. He is capable of throwing 96-97 mph, but prefers to sit comfortably at 93-94 or 94-95 on a good day in order to command it better. That said, he is capable of reaching back and throwing a located fastball at 97 if the situation commands it. He locates his fastball with the best of them. Think Curt Schilling as a comparison for the fastball.

Curveball: Two years ago, Hughes did not throw a curveball. Maybe he knew how to toss one on the side in the backyard, but he couldn't throw it in a game. What happened? Nardi Contreras told him to shelf his slider and use a curveball instead. What did Phil Hughes do? He almost immediately began to throw one of the best if not the best curveball in the minor leagues. It is a deadly strikeout weapon that lands on it's spot every time, with a solid 1-7 break.

Changeup: When Hughes made the decision to not throw his plus slider and instead focus all of his breaking effort on the curveball, it quickly became clear that he would need a 3rd pitch. Enter the changeup. He throws a 78-79 mph changeup fairly well, although it is not as developed as his other pitches. That will change. The Yankees put him on a constant diet of changeups throughout the 2006 season, forcing him to throw it as often as his curveball. It worked. He is still a step away from throwing the changeup in any situation (he goes to his curve with men on), but he is getting a better feel for it. Hughes would benefit from a few innings in AAA to finally nail it down without the big league pressure on him. Right now it will sometimes make hitters look foolish or sometimes fall way out of the strike zone. If Hughes' track record is at all predictive, expect him to throw it as well as he does his fastball.

Slider: While he still occassionally throws it on the side, Hughes does not throw his slider in games anymore. It used to be his signature pitch, but he has taken so well to the curveball that the Yankees see no reason to throw both. Hughes himself says that he struggles to command two different breaking balls at once.

Command: Lots of pitchers have a 65 fastball, 70 curveball, and 60 changeup. Phil Hughes compliment them with 70 control. He can put his fastball and curveball wherever he wants, in any count, without fail. He barely walks anyone. He barely leaves anything on the broader part of the plate for the home run. If a ball bounces in the dirt, he meant to do it. He has a career BB/9 ratio of 2.05 (which is roughly Mike Mussina level). He is a smart pitcher who always thinks one step ahead of the batter.

Performance: Few pitchers excell in the minor leagues to the extent that Phil Hughes has. Simply put, he has out classed his competition. He was drafted in 2004, but the Yankees decided to play it safe with their new jewel (he missed time with a stubbed toe) and only allowed him to pitch 5 innings in the GCL, where he didn't allow a run and struck out 8. An omen of things to come? Yes. He started 2005 in Charleston, where he would spend his last moments under the radar. Hughes and his new curveball showed the 19 year olds in A ball who was boss, pitching 68.2 innings to a 1.97 ERA, striking out 72 and walking 16 (and allowing just 1 HR). He earned a promotion to Tampa, where he pitched the worst baseball of his career - throwing 17.2 innings of 3.06 ERA ball, striking out 21 and walking 4 before being shut down with mild shoulder soreness. Prospect watchers, including myself, got very worried for a moment. However, word leaked out during the offseason that Hughes had simply hit the Yankee's prefered inning count for the season and was going to be shut down regardless of injury concerns.

Hughes made just about everyone's top prospect lists after this, finding himself anywhere from the 20s to the 40s. Baseball Prospectus predicted that Hughes would have a huge 2006 with their PECOTA projection system, saying that Hughes was the second most major league ready starter in the minors, to Liriano. It was predicted that Hughes could be called up from 17 innings in Tampa and post a 3.80 ERA. Hughes did indeed have a huge 2006, which most of you probably know about. He dismantled A+ ball, but struggled for a few starts in Trenton (as can be expected from a guy who had not yet turned 20). He posted a 3.99 ERA in May, which certainly startled people. Hughes then did his normal thing: adjustment. He posted an ERA of 1.29 in his final 10 starts, striking out 71 in 48.2 innings while walking 11 and not allowing a single home run. He finished the year with a single playoff start against Portland, pitching 6 innings (his leash on innings was loosened for the playoffs) while striking out 13 and walking one and allowing one earned run. His totals for the entire minor league season and playoffs were 152 innings, 182 strikouts, 35 walks, 5 home runs allowed and a 2.13 ERA. He could have pitched more innings (he rolled through batters without effort), but the Yankees kept him on a 5 inning limit for much of the season.

Health: There were concerns about Hughes' health coming in to this season. There are no longer any concerns. It became very clear that the concerns were simply the Yankees being extremely cautious with their golden arm. They have succeeded in keeping his innings at exactly where they wanted - around 100 innings in 2005 and 150 in 2006. He should be ready for 200 in 2007. There is no reason to be concerned about his health.

Ceiling: None. None at all. Hughes has the ability to be a once in a lifetime pitcher. He has the ability to be the best pitcher in the major leagues. There is nothing stopping him. There is nothing more than I can say. He won't put up Pedro Martinez 1999-2000 numbers, but besides that you can compare him to any rookie phenom that has come up and dominated in recent years. Jorge Posada said that Hughes has a better arm than anyone on the Yankees - including guys like Mariano Rivera and Randy Johnson.

Reaching Ceiling: He's nearly there. Hughes made AA hiters look like they should go back to little league. By the time he adjusted to the level, it was almost too easy for him. Minor league hitters are too easy for him. He has everything that you could possibly ask of a prospect, and he has been expertly handled by the organization.

Comparison: A healthy Mark Prior. I used the same comparison for Betances, but I need to draw a distinction. If Betances overcomes the traditional obstacles associated with any minor league pitcher drafted out of High School, he can top out at Mark Prior's level and style. Phil Hughes has indeed overcomed those obstacles and has found himself at the brink of the major leagues with Mark Prior-like performance levels and almost the exact same pitching style. They both had 95 mph fastballs. They both located their fastballs with Mussina-like precision. They both had filthy curveballs. They both throw a similar changeup. Prior posted a 2.43 ERA in 211 innings in 2003 at age 22. Hughes is capable of the same. Hopefully he will not be cursed with the same injuries (which the Yankees have done their best to prevent).

My Take: Tyler Clippard has his control. Ian Kennedy has his brain. Joba Chamberlain has his power. Christian Garcia has his curveball. Jeff Marquez has his changeup. Phil Hughes has it all. I have never seen a pitcher without a weakness in the minor leagues before I saw Phil Hughes. Usually power pitchers have a lack of control, or control pitchers lack power, or power pitchers with control lack secondary pitches, or they have injury issues, or they are 25 before they figure everything out, or they are inconsistent. Hughes has no weakness. All of his numbers would be phenominal if he was 24 years old, but Hughes put up these K/BBs, K/9s, BB/9s and ERAs as a 19/20 year old in AA. We're looking at something special folks, and he could be the ace of a new dynasty. Hughes has it all, and we're going to see that first hand when he gets called up in 2007.