Phil Hughes: Lucky, But How Lucky?
by Eno Sarris //
Any time a pitcher has an early-season ERA more than two-and-a-half runs lower than their career ERA, the easy tendency is to attribute the success to luck. And to some extent, this is true – it’s very, very rare for a 4.00 ERA pitcher to put up a full season with a 2.50 ERA. But young pitchers also make strides, and real progress shouldn’t be discounted. Where does Phil Hughes fall in this spectrum? If you look at the spider graph below from Bloomberg Sports Fantasy Tools, he’s certainly looking good right now.
First, let’s tackle the low-hanging fruit. Batters have a .162 batting average on balls in play against Hughes right now. That number will regress toward the .286 career BABIP that Hughes has accumulated. That means more dinks and dunks and line drives past outstretched gloves – and more runs. Hughes has also stranded 87.4% of his batters on base; MLB average for that largely luck-based stat is usually around 70% MLB-wide. So we know that some correction is on the way with Hughes.
But Hughes has also made some legitimate strides. Check out Hughes’ fastball velocity on FanGraphs; much was made of an initial drop in his velocity, from the mid-90s to a less exciting 91 MPH. Then the team moved him to the bullpen, where pitchers traditionally add about 0.7 miles per hour in velocity according to this study by Jeremy Greenhouse. In the bullpen, Hughes’ fastball started crossing the plate at an average velocity of 93.7 MPH, making him an outlier in terms of adding gas. The good news is that Hughes is currently starting and he retained some of that extra oomph, as he’s averaging 92.4 MPH this year.
Typically, when trying to get at the true talent of a pitcher that is suffering from either bad or good luck, it helps to look at a players’ FIP (fielding-independent pitching). This number strips out BABIP, strand rate, park effects, defensive impact and other factors to get at what a pitcher “should” be putting up in an ERA scale. Hughes’ FIP right now is 3.14, based mainly on his excellent strikeout rate (8.64 K/9). But if you look at Hughes’ xFIP (expected fielding-independent pitching), you’ll see that he’s sporting a more moderate 4.26 number. What gives?
Hughes’ xFIP takes into account that the home run per flyball rate across baseball comes in between 9-11% and that few pitchers stray far outside of this range. But right now, Hughes has a 3.3% HR/FB rate. Even regressing that towards his low career 7.5% number would mean more home runs are on the way.
Wait, you might say – Hughes has a 0.27 HR/9 in 300+ minor league innings, and a 0.83 HR/9 in the majors. Why can’t he limit the number of home runs he gives up? Well, once the ball is in the air he has less control. About one of every 10 fly balls leaves the park across baseball, and that number holds steady, which has spawned more than one impassioned plea for the use of xFIP over FIP. The best way to limit home runs is to keep the ball on the ground, that much we can understand. Hughes is a flyball pitcher with a low groundball rate (36.2% this year). He doesn’t fit the homer-suppression profile.
Rest-of-season projections that use this knowledge of home run rates predict that Hughes will put up about a 4.3 ERA from here on out. This sounds like a big letdown, but it would still result in an ERA around 3.70 for the year. If you told a Hughes owner that he would get a 3.70 ERA with a WHIP under 1.3 and almost one strikeout per inning from his pitcher by the end of the year, he’d be thrilled. Unless you get a knockout sell-high offer on Hughes, hang onto him.
For more on Phil Hughes, check out Bloomberg Sports Fantasy Tools.