By Sweeny Murti
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Days like this are why I hate giving up on Phil Hughes as a starter.
115 pitches on Sunday. The first one was 91 mph and the last one was 95 mph. In between a lot of weak swings, a few hard hit balls, and a winning effort.
Ok, I know it wasn't perfect. Ideally you'd want more than 6 2/3 innings for that day's work. And say what you will about the opponent, but there are definitely some good bats in that lineup and ones that had hurt the Yankees earlier in the weekend. But this potential is inside Hughes and everybody knows it. That's why the Yankees have stuck with him this long as a starter.
Hughes has come out more aggressive his last two starts. He's pumped fastballs at velocities we haven't seen in a long time. 95? So many of us thought we were only going to see that when he came into a game in the 7th inning, not as he was leaving one there. He's worked in off-speed pitches instead of force-feeding them and the mix he's used the last two times out has showed the promise that was there before and we hoped we'd see again.
Tired of hearing about promise? Of course. Hughes is too. But it's important to remember that he is 25 years old. There is time for him to become an elite pitcher in this league, or least an effective starter. Let's remember that the best pitchers in this league have some years on Hughes. Justin Verlander is 29. Jared Weaver is 29. Hughes doesn't have to become either of these guys to prove his worth. If he gets back to being who he was two years ago, he is clearly more valuable as a starter than as a reliever.
Hughes has been a good sport about answering all our questions about moving to the bullpen, knowing he's put himself in this position where his role and his future are questioned almost daily. But a performance like Sunday's in KC brought noticeable relief (ironic, isn't it) to Hughes's confidence, knowing that he is still capable of throwing gas for more than 1 or 2 innings:
Hughes has made 77 starts in his major league career. In 19 of those starts he has pitched at least 6 innings and given up 4 or fewer hits. Sometimes he's walked a few too many and sometimes one of those hits was a 3-run home run. But he has shown the ability to overpower hitters for longer than one inning at a time. It's that potential that keeps the Yankees from throwing up their hands and saying, "Okay we give up…he's a reliever."
Understand that Hughes is still only 25 years old, drafted out of high school in 2004. If he had gone to college he would have been drafted in 2007, and the first round of that year's draft included college pitchers David Price, Ross Detwiler, Brett Cecil, and Tommy Hunter. Some of those guys have moved faster than others, some have shown better results. But none have had to move through the pressure-packed New York Yankee Universe the way Hughes has had to. It's a different world, this Yankee Universe, and some of the youngsters who appear to be having more success than Hughes are doing so because of their environments.
It's taken a long time to get Hughes to this point and he's still not where any of us want him to be. If he's going to be a starter here he needs to be a good one. We are all in agreement here, even Hughes. But every time you think it's time to give up, you get a sign like you did on Sunday that says, "Not so fast."
I know Hughes has to be better. So do the Yankees. Hughes knows it too. But it's important to remember that at 25 he is still young enough to be able to get there. There will be more bumps in the road. But that potential looked so good only two years ago. It would be a shame to throw it away now.
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