This Year’s Phil Hughes Will Be Brandon McCarthy

When preparing for a new season, fantasy baseball enthusiasts are always wanting to know who is going to be the next big breakout player.  Drafting or picking up a player on waivers for his breakout season gives fantasy owners a feeling of superiority, a feeling of omniscience in some sense.  Whether that feeling is justified or not is another question.  But even if your team comes in last place, you can take ownership that you “knew” Jose Bautista would bust out for 54 HR, or that your hunch that R.A. Dickey would knuckle his way into a Cy Young Award panned out.  So at The Backwards K, there is a series of posts titled “This Year’s…” where I will tell you who I think this year’s version of a 2014 breakout player will be, providing some background and analysis.

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Phil Hughes was drafted in the 1st round (23rd overall) by the Yankees in 2004 and he absolutely decimated Minor League hitters to make him one of the highest rated and most anticipated pitching prospects of the 2000’s.  Armed with a devastating curveball, Hughes made his Major League debut in April of the 2007 season as a 20-year old after the Yankees rotation was plagued by injuries.  In his second Major League start, he displayed exactly why he was so highly touted, as he was in the midst of a no-hitter after 6 and 1/3 innings before he was forced from the game with a hamstring injury.  Hughes was placed on the DL and he had a long recovery time, but he eventually returned to the Yankees and completed his rookie season showing flashes of brilliance but also showing that he had a lot of areas to improve upon.  However, in the next six seasons with the Yankees from 2008-13, Hughes failed to resemble anything that looked like a player that was once considered the top pitching prospect in the game.  Through the 2013 season, Hughes had a career line of 56 W-50 L, 4.54 ERA, and 1.32 WHIP to go along with 7.57 K/9 and 2.83 BB/9.  Despite those very mediocre statistics and coming off the worst season of his career, Hughes managed to land himself a 3-year/$24 million deal with the pitching starved Twins in the off-season leading up to the 2014 season.  Yeah, league average (or worse) baseball players get paid way too much, which makes me think that I should be playing professional baseball rather than writing about it.  If only I could throw a curveball, or hit one for that matter…

Hughes moving from Yankee Stadium to the much friendlier confines of Target Field in Minnesota was certainly a much more appealing situation, but in 2014 he actually pitched much better on the road than at home.  At Target Field, Hughes had a 4.25 ERA while giving up 11 HR.  On the road, Hughes managed a 2.78 ERA while only allowing 5 HR.  So if it wasn’t the home park that aided a breakout season for Hughes, what was it?  It was all about control.  Hughes amazingly issued only 16 free passes on the season and paired with his 186 strikeouts, he set an all-time single-season record for best K/BB ratio at 11.63 K/BB.  Also playing a positive factor might have been the reintroduction of his cutter and the scrapping of his slider.  Hughes threw a cutter regularly from 2009-11, but in 2012-13 it was nearly non-existent and he had used a slider instead.  But last year, the slider was gone and the cutter was back in full effect and at the highest usage of his career, and for the first time the cutter had a positive pitch value for him.  Overall, Hughes finished his age 28 season with a record of 16-10, 3.52 ERA, and 1.13 WHIP.  This was the first time in his career that Hughes posted an ERA under 4.00 and a WHIP under 1.25.  Better late than never, right?

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