The Disappointments of Youth: Phil Hughes

Dead arm used to be one of the more common terms heard during spring training. A pitcher would get railed during a March or early April start and the manager would explain it away by saying he just has dead arm — a term which is virtually useless, but which more or less prevents more in-depth questioning. Thanks in no small part to the growth and proliferation of diagnostic tools and techniques, we’re getting more actual diagnoses and fewer euphemisms. While the term still gets some play, just one pitcher actually went on the DL with dead arm — the Yankees called it tired arm, but that’s six of one, half a dozen of the other — and it was actually a pretty apt diagnosis.

From the start of the 2011 season, Phil Hughes just didn’t have it; something was amiss in his arm and it showed in his performances. Hughes had three starts before his extended stint on the disabled list and he put up Matusz-esque numbers: an ERA just under 14.00 and a 2.22 WHIP with more home runs allowed (4) than strikeouts recorded (3) in 10.1 innings of work. As the right side of this graph illustrates, while he broke 90 a few times in those starts, his average fastball sat below 90 MPH for the first time in his career and hitters feasted on his pedestrian offerings. 

Hughes wasn’t cured when he came back in early July, but he was a far sight better than he was when he left in mid-April. He posted a 4.54 ERA and 1.31 WHIP in the 11 starts he made after his return, though that line was heavily tainted by three awful starts where he gave up 6 ER or more; he gave up no more than 2 ER in any of his other eight starts. Stars and scrubs is a valid fantasy strategy, but one player seldom occupies both categories in a single season quite like Hughes did.

The news surrounding Hughes has been positive this offseason, as he was one of the first players to allegedly in the best shape of his life, but whether he is or isn’t now a modern Adonis, Hughes will enter the season in a better position than he did last season, but with a far less secure rotation spot. In fact, he may not have a rotation spot at all when camp opens in a few weeks.

With the addition of both Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda to the Yankees rotation, they really only have one unsettled spot and A.J. Burnett isn’t going to be released any time soon. Hughes will have to show that he’s back to the pitcher he was in 2009 and 2010 if he’s going to get any play in the Yankees rotation, otherwise he’ll be left as a long-reliever-cum-injury-replacement in the bullpen. He’s a great player for the Yankees to have in that role, but it isn’t really a fantasy relevant position.

If Hughes was a lock for a rotation spot and the only thing standing between him and 25 starts was his own health, I’d be bullish on him, but with Hughes, Burnett, Dellin Betances, and Manny Banuelos all with designs on those 25 starts, I’m nervous about not only his ability to get a rotation spot, but also his ability to keep a spot if he has 2-3 rough outings in a row.

If Hughes could get himself traded before the start of the season, I would be advising keepers to keep him and re-drafters to draft him in all formats. Whether you believe in the Verducci Effect or not, the massive innings increase Hughes had from 2009 to 2010 was almost certainly going to hurt him in 2011, but he’s paid the piper now and should be completely healthy going forward. Hughes is still worth drafting in AL-Only and even in mixed leagues of more than 10 teams, but the fact that he may not be able to crack the rotation has to knock him down a round or two at the very least. His profile isn’t the riskiest out there, but there is still a realistic chance that Hughes’ best category in 2011 is Holds and that severely limits his value.

It’s extremely unlikely that the Yankees would actually release Burnett, which means the chance for a SP5 controversy will be there all season, but if manager Joe Girardi tips his hand at all as to who will break camp as the team’s final starter, pay attention, because it could be the only clue owners get as to whether Hughes is a risk worth taking or not.

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Dan enjoys black tea, imperial IPAs, and any competition that can be loosely judged a sport. Follow him on Twitter.

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Benjamin Pasinkoff

Bill James always likes Hughes. At what point is his minor league domination no longer relevant.

Anyway, random trade speculation. Yankees trade Hughes in a package for Chase Headley when A-Rod gets hurt.