Yankees right-hander Phil Hughes made his first major league start in nearly three months last night at Progressive Field, taking a loss against the Indians while allowing two runs in five innings pitched. Hughes, on the DL since mid-April with right shoulder inflammation, walked and whiffed two Indians apiece while also beaning two batters and tossing a wild pitch.
The Bombers' would-be number two starter behind CC Sabathia regained some, but not all, of the zip that was conspicuously absent on his fastball in April. Hughes averaged 91.5 MPH with his heater against Cleveland, topping out at 92.9 MPH.
That's certainly better than his 89.3 MPH showing in the season's opening month. Still, he didn't look like the same pitcher who sat at 92.5 MPH and maxed out at 96 in 2010. Hughes didn't get a swing and miss on any of the 40 fastballs that he threw. By contrast, Hughes' near-20 percent fastball miss rate last year ranked just outside the top 10 among starting pitchers.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi ascribes the lack of whiffs to Hughes elevating his fastball too much:
I think that's because he was up a lot. When it's up, it's flat; when it's flat, it's easy to keep your bat on the same plane. He's got to get a better downhill plane the next time he goes out.
Here's the frequency of Hughes' fastball location from last night's start:
Girardi was right. It seems like Hughes is trying to use the same pitching approach as last year, but without the same quality of stuff.
Hughes elevated his fastball a lot last season, and to great effect. Forty-four percent of his fastballs were thrown up in the zone, and hitters managed just a .241 Weighted On-Base Average against the high heat (.328 league average). Forty-nine percent of his fastballs have been in the upper third of the zone this season. In a small sample, hitters have a .418 wOBA against Hughes' elevated fastballs in 2011.
Climbing the ladder with a fastball that can hit 96 on the gun is a different story than trying to do the same with an offering that doesn't break 92. Hughes' high heat could be a problem if he can't rediscover that extra gear on his fastball.