By now, everybody knows Phil Hughes' line from last night. His 5 innings of 6-hit, 2-run ball were by far his best outing of the season and right on par with what the Yankees had been getting from Ivan Nova. There were plenty of reasons to be encouraged by Hughes' start last night, none more important than the fact that he maintained velocity all the way through his 5 innings, though the ESPN gun did have him sitting lower in the 5th. But digging deeper, we can find some issues with Hughes' performance.
Coming into the game last night, I thought the 2 most important things for Hughes to do was get ahead in the count and keep the ball down. If he could throw strikes early, he could at least set himself up to get some defensive swings on the fastball or bad swings at his offspeed stuff in the event that his velocity or command abandoned him. And being a flyball pitcher, any time Phil has gotten the ball up in the zone, he's paid for it. As it turns out, neither of those things were a major problem for Hughes last night. He threw 57 of his 87 pitches for strikes (65.5%), and threw a first-pitch strike to 18 of the 25 batters he faced. And for the most part, he did a good job of working down in the zone and on the outside corner, especially against lefties. Every time he did get the ball up he gave up a hit, at least 3 of the 6 hits come to mind. But all 6 hits were singles and save for the Gardner play at the warning track, there weren't any flyballs that were hit well or in the gaps.
What really hurt Phil last night was his inability to put guys away with 2 strikes, something that has plagued him since he became a starter. Hughes was 0-2, 1-2, 2-2 on the majority of guys he faced last night, but he didn't quite have the little bit of extra zip on the heater or sharpness on his breaking ball to put guys away. The Indian hitters did a good job of fouling off fastballs in and laying off curveballs away to make Hughes throw more pitches. And his breaking stuff, while good for a few pitches here and there, really was never a threat to the Indians. For the most part, Hughes' curveball never came near the strike zone, making it easy to lay off and forcing him to go back to the fastball to try and get a strike, which is what I think was the major contributing factor to him not putting hitters away. The Indian hitters knew the fastball was coming, and even though they didn't do that much with it last night, they were still making contact (Hughes registered just 3 swings and misses, a 3.45% swing rate).
The fact that this has been a recurring issue for Hughes is actually something I think can be called a good thing. We aren't talking about a dead arm or lack of bite to his stuff today, instead we're talking about the normal issues with Hughes. And seeing as how this was his first game back on a Major League mound in almost 3 months, I feel comfortable chalking that up to rust. We've seen Hughes be sharper before, so it's reasonable to expect that his stuff will regain that sharpness as he gets back into a groove of pitching on a regular basis. Being consistent with the curveball and the change have always been key factors for his success. After last night, it looks like the fastball is well on its way back to being what it was and what we expect, so now Phil can focus on tightening up his offspeed stuff to put guys away.