When the Yankees decided not to resign Phil Hughes this off-season, no one in the baseball community batted an eye. Hughes had an up and down career in his parts of seven seasons with New York. He ranged from being an 18-game winner in 2010 to losing 14 games in 2013. His best season ERA-wise came in 2009 when he posted his only season of a sub-4 ERA while operating mostly out of the bullpen. His issue in New York was his high HR/9 total while in New York. Upon becoming a full time starter in 2010 his lowest HR/9 total was in 2012 when he allowed 1.65 HR/9.
When Hughes signed with the Twins this off-season for 3 years and $24 million, it seemed like a positive move for Hughes’s career. He left Yankee Stadium which had a park factor of 110 for HRs in 2013 to the friendly confines of Target Field with it’s 2013 park factor of 93. So compared to league average, Yankee Stadium allowed 10% more home runs, while Target Field allowed 7% less home runs than the average field. This meant that Hughes was likely going to lower his HR/9 total likely leading to a better ERA, and in his first season in Minnesota that is exactly the result Hughes saw. He posted a career-best .71 HR/9 which is part of the reason he also posted his first season as a starter with a sub-4 ERA (3.61). However, that does not explain fully why Hughes has had a career season.
Since 1871 only six pitchers have posted a K/BB ratio better than 10, and only three of those six pitched in the 20th century. In 1994 Brett Saberhagen posted a ratio of 11.0 which was not approached again until 2010 when Cliff Lee struck out 10.28 times more people than he walked. However, this season Hughes posted a K/BB of 11.31, which has been bested only twice in history, both in 1884. However, Hughes’s ratio is the best all-time among pitchers who have thrown more than 36 innings in the season, as the pitchers who have posted a better ratio than Hughes this season threw 17 and 36 innings respectably.
This type of record-setting season from Hughes came out of nowhere. In all of his seasons with the Yankees Hughes never had a BB/9 better than two with his best season being 2.16 in 2012. However, this season Hughes posted an astounding BB/9 of .71, which is not only the best in the league among qualified pitchers this season, but it also makes Hughes the only pitcher in 2014 with a BB/9 below one.
The reasoning for this change in Hughes is not exactly obvious, however looking at his pitch F/X data it can been seen that he threw a career-high percentage of his pitches in the strike zone. His percentage of 60.9% bests his career average of 54.5% and his previous career high of 54.7% by over 5%. However, it can also be seen that Hughes has been getting more swings this season than any other season in his career beating his career best by 4%.
Hughes has not only quietly had a record-setting season, he has also been one of best pitchers in baseball posting an fWAR of 5.7, which is good for 6th best among pitchers this season. If this new and improved version of Phil Hughes returns next season, the Twins will have pulled off one of the best free agency signings in baseball history.
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