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Alex Remington

Slumpbot .200: Phil Hughes runs into New York's Joba Rules

Alex Remington
Big League Stew

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Using the best technology available today, Slumpbot .200 identifies a few players who are currently having trouble and then offers solutions for recovery.

Phil Hughes(notes), New York Yankees

Data: 16-7, 4.29 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 2.6 K/BB

Malfunction: It just ain't ever easy for a pitcher in the Bronx. After Phil Hughes performed spectacularly in the bullpen last year, the Yankees decided to make him a starter this year, the same career path that had already failed for Joba Chamberlain(notes). Hughes has pitched at a slightly better-than-league average clip for most of the year — even making the All-Star team — but he has recently run into a bit of a wall.

Over his last three starts, Hughes has given up 13 earned runs over 14 2/3 innings and manager Joe Girardi has decided to skip Hughes' next start. Girardi has stated concerns that Hughes is facing fatigue after having pitched in the bullpen last year and he has some evidence on his side. Hughes has pitched 50 more innings this year than he did last year, and the last time he made as many as 26 starts was 2006, when he was a 20-year-old in High-A and Double-A.

But are the Yankees really concerned about his innings and fatigue? Or is he being skipped in the rotation as a knee-jerk reaction to a few bad starts?

Diagnosis: Hughes made 21 starts in 2007 and 2008, and his numbers are improved across the board from that abbreviated stint in the rotation. The trouble is that he's hurt by an unfair comparison. His stats as a starter should be compared to the rookie starter he was in 2007 and 2008, rather than the ace reliever he was in 2009. Of course, he hasn't been as effective in the rotation as he was in the pen — for one thing, since he pitches so many more innings as a starter, his average fastball is more than 1 mph slower this year, even though it's faster than it was when he was a rookie. It's natural for a pitcher to be more effective in the pen.

In fact, Hughes is actually throwing a few more strikes than he did last year, and his walk rate is actually down, but his strikeouts have decreased much more, as have his swings and misses. However, his command control seem to have largely deserted him in the past two weeks: In the 14 2/3 innings of his last three starts, he gave up four homers and 11 walks, more than double his rates for the rest of the season.

Reboot Directions: If the Yankees are exercising caution and restraint, I applaud them. At age 24, Hughes doesn't need to be treated with kid gloves, but he's been yanked around (no pun intended) from the rotation to the bullpen over the last couple years, and it would be understandable if he were experiencing arm soreness around this time of the season.

But if they're penalizing him for a brief bout of wildness? Well, they'll only hamper his development further. The only way Hughes will ever be able to pitch a full season in a major league rotation is if they let him pitch a full season in a major league rotation. There's just no other way to do it.

What other players are currently slumping?

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Jeff Niemann(notes), Tampa Bay Rays 10-6, 4.28 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 2.1 K/BB
Jeff Niemann was having a crazy good season. Then he injured his shoulder and went on the DL in early August. I don't want to say that he came back too early, but in 10 innings since coming off the DL, he's given up 23 runs on just 19 hits. That's hard to do. After his latest disaster, he said, "Everything's there, everything's fine. It's just a matter of putting it all together." That sounds to me like a ballplayer putting a brave face on an ugly wound. Thanks to Jeremy Hellickson(notes), the Rays have more starting pitching depth than any team in the majors. But Niemann needs to get his health right.

Yovani Gallardo(notes), Milwaukee Brewers 11-7, 3.80 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 2.6 K/BB
Gallardo is actually leading the NL in strikeouts per nine innings, with 9.8 K/9 — more than a whiff an inning. But he's been awfully shaky the past month and a half, with a 6.57 ERA in his last nine starts. He has been hampered by a .387 BABIP over that period, but he's also given up 22 doubles and four homers, so it's not like he's getting nickeled and dimed to death. He has given up at least four earned in six of his last nine starts, after only doing that in five of his previous 21. Like Niemann, he came off the DL immediately before his recent indignities began, returning from an oblique injury in late July. He says he feels fine, but it's hard to escape the conclusion that he still isn't fully healthy.

Delmon Young(notes), Minnesota Twins .303/.334/.488, 16 HR, 97 RBIs
This is the best season of Delmon Young's career, as he's set career highs in virtually everything. But he looked a whole lot better at the end of July, when he was hitting .334 with a .914 OPS, looking for the first time like the big-time slugger he was drafted to be. Since then, his power has nearly vanished, and his plate discipline has gone with it. In 34 games since I last wrote about him, he's batting a putrid .223, with a .581 OPS and just 11 extra-base hits. He's still incrementally better than he was in 2007-2009, but Young still has the same fundamental problem he's always had: He doesn't have enough power to justify his terrible plate discipline. (Shades of Jeff Francoeur(notes).) It's hard to tell now whether his first-half hot streak was more the result of improved plate discipline than blind luck. But right now, it doesn't look good.

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