Scouting Notes: Hughes Reaching His Ceiling, Surpassing Joba
Hughes, on the other hand, was known as the complete package. As time went on, however, it was Chamberlain who received the hype and praise while Hughes was pushed to the back burner. Now, almost three years after each player debuted in the major leagues, the projections scouts made seem to be coming to pass. Thursday, a night which Phil Hughes showed front-of-the-rotation type stuff, was just a small example of that.
It was an outstanding night for the Yankees on Thursday. After years of waiting, they appear to finally have the Phil Hughes they long suspected would one day emerge. Hughes has had injury issues, mechanical issues, and difficulties developing his changeup, but it is now beginning to look like he has put it all together.
The beginning of the emergence of Phil Hughes' began last year. He took to the bullpen role beautifully, but more than anything else it was about getting Hughes in meaningful situations night after night. By doing that, Hughes got more and more confident in using his fastball and attacking hitters. Prior to last season, we consistently saw a more tentative Hughes who leaned on his curveball as a crutch. His mechanics are now more in sync and he loves to use his fastball.
No part of this progression is all that unusual for a talented young pitcher. But, in New York, we know there is far less patience. Luckily for the former first-round pick, Yankees brass including general manager Brian Cashman have had tremendous faith in his ability.
On Thursday night, Hughes was sitting at 92-93 mph, reaching 94 mph several times. He settled around 92 mph later in his game, but for the most part Hughes was maintaining much of that spike in velocity from 2009 that most people attributed to his move to the bullpen. As I noted at the time last year, yes, the move to the bullpen certainly helped his velocity, but the more lively fastball was more due to his newfound aggressiveness and swagger that scouts saw from him in his days in the minor leagues. He was challenging hitters and rearing back and firing with the fastball last year, and as he showed on Thursday, he has carried that over into 2010.
Aside from the continued aggressive approach with the fastball, it was Hughes' feel for his secondary pitches against the Angels that stood out. He was throwing the changeup enough to put another thought in the heads of left-handed hitters, his 12-to-6 plus curveball looked as sharp as ever, and he looked very confident in his cutter. The cutter showed some very late action, and a lot of life at 86-89 mph. His curveball has, in the past, lapsed into being somewhat loopy, but like last year it looked very tight and sharp against the Los Angeles lineup.
Hughes was squeezed repeatedly by home plate umpire Jerry Layne on Thursday night, so his walk total isn't a very accurate depiction of his command. He was opening up his front side as he got around 100 pitches and lost some pitches up and away to his arm side, but for the most part he was hitting his spots consistently with three pitches. If we see more of what he showed against the Angels, the Yankees' patience is on the verge of paying off.
So, what about Joba Chamberlain? He has not pitched terribly this season. There's been good and bad moments, but the reality is that he is just not the same pitcher we saw when he first arrived in the big leagues. You could argue that he has not been quite the same since being shut down with shoulder problems in 2008. Since that time, we have not seen the same Chamberlain that pitched with reckless abandon and attacked hitters with a 96-99 mph that burst onto the scene in 2007.
The Yankees have since limited his innings, tinkered with his role during the season and allowed for many reasonable excuses for why his velocity has not been the same. But he is now working exclusively out of the bullpen once again and the velocity has not yet returned. Some were encouraged to see him reach 96 mph against the Red Sox, but keep in mind this was where his velocity once sat with ease.
Where the velocity went could be debated all the day long. But in general Chamberlain just isn't as aggressive as he once was on the mound. We used to see him explode through the finish in his delivery and be able to drive the ball down in the zone. Now, he doesn't appear to be finishing his pitches with the same aggression and in turn isn't generating the same velocity. When Chamberlain was moved into the rotation, he toned down his delivery so he wasn't so maximum-effort and could pace himself. The problem is he still seems to be pitching with that same approach, and still appears to be pacing himself. Why that is the case is difficult to tell for sure. Since experiencing shoulder problems perhaps he just isn't as willing to let the ball fly, or maybe it just isn't there. Either way, it can't be argued anymore that his velocity is anything resembling what it was in 2007.
Chamberlain still has above-average stuff, and he can be very effective pitching late in games. But let's not pretend his stuff is what it used to be. On Thursday night, the big righty pitched at 91-93 mph, broke off some very sharp sliders and for the most part was spotting the ball quite well. In other appearances early this season, he has pitched at 93-95 mph. So, yes, he still does have two plus pitches and can be effective. But it might be time to accept that the days of days of pitching in the upper 90s are a thing of the past for Chamberlain
Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain had very different beginnings to their careers, but right now they look like two pitchers heading in two very different directions.
Frankie Piliere spent the last three seasons working as a scout, most recently in the professional scouting department for the Texas Rangers in 2009. He now serves as the National Baseball Analyst here at FanHouse.