MLB: New York Mets at Philadelphia Phillies

Phil Hughes is not who you think he is

Not all innings eaters are created equal. There is of course value in sending out a known commodity 32 times in a season, even if that commodity is known to be very bad. The deal the Minnesota Twins reached with Ricky Nolasco last week was a good example of a long term deal for a pitcher whose best quality is the ability to take the ball and pitch near league-average.

Then the Twins went and signed Phil Hughes to a three-year deal (with a lower AAV). It looks like a similar signing – a future back of the rotation piece as the talent around him improves and the team transitions into a winner.

But unlike Nolasco, Hughes isn’t really an innings eater – he’s just bad.

Yes, Phil Hughes made 29 starts last season (plus one relief appearance) in 2013. He also pitched a grand total of 145.2 innings, the fewest innings total for any pitcher to make that many starts. He is the only pitcher in modern baseball history to make 29 starts who failed to pitch 150 innings.

Of his 29 starts, six lasted three innings or less, leading baseball. In addition to leading the league in short starts this year, it ranks as the most blowup starts for any pitcher since 2009. Since he switched back to starting full time in 2010, he has 10 such starts – tied for second most in the league.

The lack of bulk innings — quality or otherwise — undercuts the value of this signing for the Twins. The hopeful Twinkies fans point to his relative success on the road compared to his home ballpark, but Keith Law suggests his struggles against right-handed hitters is a bigger issue than opportunistic hitters exploiting Yankee Stadium’s jokey dimensions. (via ESPN)

…(Hughes) remains a fastball-heavy guy who is regularly beaten on his primary pitch because it doesn’t move and he can’t locate it well side-to-side.

Hughes spent most of 2013 working with a short, soft slider that he couldn’t command, losing the low-70s curveball that was his potential out pitch when he was still a prospect so many years ago, and he’s never had a solid third pitch.

…while Target Field isn’t as homer-friendly as Yankee Stadium, it dampens left-handed power far more than right-handed power, which doesn’t help Hughes as much as it would a typical right-handed pitcher because right-handed batters use him for batting practice.

Three years at an average annual value of $8MM per season isn’t going to break the Twins banks but one has to wonder if he won’t create the very problems he was brought in to solve. Without the ability to, you know, eat innings, what good is an innings eater to an otherwise bad team?

Worse yet, the Twins rotation and farm system lacks the potential top-of-the-rotation arm to compliment the more modest workhorses, as Alex Meyer is a long shot to reach his #2 starter potential and Kohl Stewart won’t reach the big leagues until Phil Hughes is a lamented part of the Twins lamentable recent past.

The End of An Era of Disappointment in Toronto

Last season for the Toronto Blue Jays, J.P. Arencibia turned in one of the worst full seasons in recent baseball history. He became the only player in league history to clout 20 home runs while putting up an OPS under .600. As a catcher, his numbers worsened as the season progressed – likely owing to wear and tear on his body.

Catching is hard and that the Blue Jays left Arencibia out there to rot every day did him no favors. There is pop in his bat and that has value in the correctly-sized role.

After the unsightly end to the season and awaiting a big pay increase, it appeared untenable for the Blue Jays to go into the 2014 season with J.P. Arencibia as their everyday catcher.

Do the Blue Jays have the answer to their catching needs in Dioner Navarro? Probably not. As listed below, Navarro spent two of the last three seasons being very bad in a backup role. One great season with some juiced-up peripheral stats doesn’t change that overnight.

But the bar is set so, so low behind the plate in Toronto (and league-wide) that Navarro represents as good an opportunity to cover over one of the sinkholes that doomed the Jays to a disappointing 2013.

With the non-tender deadline looming, the Jays will either move Arencibia in a trade or just non-tender him ahead of his first season of arbitration eligibility. While a catcher with so much pop in his bat might be useful in a part-time role, the need for an R.A. Dickey caddy means that won’t happen in Toronto. A strange end for a former top prospect but, then again, they don’t all end with statues.

Brother Against Brother – a Shallow Study

There is nothing quite like the Real Baseball experience of watching a pitcher hit. Ah yes, the lynchpin of the great strategic battle that is National League baseball.

In making a Hall of Fame case for Mike Mussina over Tom Glavine last week, I pointed out how much Glavine’s career numbers benefit from facing the opposing pitcher so often. Last year, Gio Gonzalez boosted his numbers by dominating opposing pitchers like few before him.

It is tough to criticize pitchers for handling their opposite number with ease – it isn’t their fault one of the leagues plays under antiquated rules from a begone era. It is interesting to dig through some pitcher hitting stats because it is now December and Spring Training is still a long, long way off.

As linked above, Gio Gonzalez’s treatment of his fellow hurlers was noteworthy in 2012 as he totaled 41ks against them. If we look over the last four seasons combined, the strikeout leader is Cole Hamels with 112 pitcher Ks. The highest strikeout rate (among those to face pretend hitters at least 100 times) belongs to Gio Gonzalez, with Wandy Rodriguez second and Zack Greinke third.

Greinke’s overall domination of pitchers extends beyond just strikeouts. He also holds opposing pitchers to a microscopic .246 OPS against – powered by an astounding 2013 season in which pitchers managed two hits in 52 plate appearances, striking out 21 times against a single walk. It ranks among the best p v. p seasons in recent memory. Even more than the control against pitchers is the lack of hard contact. Greinke owns the lowest “well-hit average” (as tracked by BIS) against fellow pitchers – just .015 or two well-struck balls in 134 plate appearances!

Josh Johnson turned in one of the worst seasons in baseball as a member of the Toronto Blue Jays. Despite his size and overpowering stuff, the big righty simply couldn’t do anything right during his first season in the Al. Some whispered that he was an NL only kind of guy, an odd tag for such a capable pitcher.

But over the last four season, no other pitcher held his opposite numbers in check better than Johnson. Since 2010, opposing pitchers have a .170 OPS against Johnson. ONE SEVENTY! Seven singles, one triple, three walks. That’s it! Perhaps taking this opportunity to beat up on these overmatched foes really did hurt him in Toronto! Back in San Diego, he’ll be able to pick the lowest of low hanging fruit once again.

More “fun” “facts”!

  • Stephen Strasburg is the only active pitcher who can make one slightly outrageous claim – he is yet to walk an opposing pitcher in his career.
  • Since 2009, James McDonald has walked 10.5% of all batters he’s faced. Against opposing pitchers, he issued free passes in 10.7%. His 14 pitcher walks ties him with Clayton Kershaw for the most in our sample, though Kershaw’s faced almost twice as many hitters.
  • Ricky Nolasco might be happy to finally be in the AL. Since 2010, he has the highest wOBA against pitchers – a whopping .197!
  • According to pitch f/x, Cliff Lee pounds the zone against pitchers more than anybody else, with 67.5% crossing the textbook idea of “the zone.” Tellingly, Lee goes right after pitchers with fastballs, throwing more than 88% fastballs to pitchers compared to 57% against real hitters.

    Cliff Lee only walked one pitcher since 2005 – issuing a free pass after a seven pitch battle versus Derek Lowe. This pitched war for the ages featured a very close check swing call and one very borderline pitch called a ball. Also: Lee struck out the other three batters he faced this inning after striking out three the inning before. Baseball: it’s super weird.

Special mention for the Group of Three – the only three pitchers to allow three home runs to pitchers over the last four years.

Rk I Player Split HR H BB SO BF SO/BB OPS
1 Mike Minor vs. Pitcher 3 19 5 56 155 11.20 .381
2 Dillon Gee vs. Pitcher 3 22 3 34 150 11.33 .456
3 Matt Cain vs. Pitcher 3 32 2 101 244 50.50 .374
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 12/2/2013.

The best current hitting pitcher, Yovani Gallardo (10 career HR) only victimized one of this sad bunch. And Matt Cain allowed three home runs will hitting six of his own for his career. It’s weird. And pointless. But mostly weird.

Pitchers facing pitchers is a strange phenomenon. Might more benefit from taking Cliff Lee’s approach – just firing fastballs and wasting as little time as possible? It makes we wonder about something these great athletes experienced as amateurs. Many top pitchers don’t develop good off-speed pitches in high school because their fastballs are so overwhelming.

Why speed up the hitter’s bat? Just stick with the heat and play it safe, provided that’s an area of strength. Mostly, just don’t give up hard hits to the opposing pitcher. You’ll never live it down.

(Pitcher splits via ESPN Stats & Info)