The Yankees' Phil Hughes enjoyed his best start of an injury-marred 2011 season on Sunday, allowing two runs and walks apiece in six innings pitched while striking out five in a win over the Toronto Blue Jays. Hughes, making his second start since serving a DL stint for shoulder inflammation, got six hitters to swing and miss at his fastball (thrown at an average of 91 MPH) after failing to register a whiff with the pitch in his last appearance. The 25-year-old righty made some changes to his mechanics and the grip on his curveball prior to his Sunday start. Here's Ben Shpigel of The New York Times:
Hughes last pitched July 6 against Cleveland, and the 10-day layoff allowed him to throw four bullpen sessions. He used that time to gain comfort with a subtle mechanical tweak — his hips now open more as he finishes his delivery — and a new curveball, one that he turned to out of necessity. Once an outstanding pitch, it had lost bite and depth. He noticed that hitters were tracking the ball out of his hand, and as a result he did not generate as much weak contact or as many as awkward swings as before.
So last week at the suggestion of the pitching coach Larry Rothschild, Hughes abandoned his knuckle grip in favor of a more conventional style, which produces a more acute break, added velocity — 75 to 80 miles per hour — and a spike in confidence.
Hughes' curveball averaged slightly more than 74 MPH prior to his Sunday start, breaking away from right-handed hitters 6.2 inches more than a pitch thrown without spin and dropping 5.1 inches. For comparison, his 2010 curve averaged about 76 MPH, broke away from righties 5.5 inches and dropped 8.6 inches. So, Hughes' breaker had lost some bite and depth. Did the change in curveball grip make a difference on Sunday?
The pitch was effective, as Hughes threw 17 of his 25 curveballs for a strike and batters went a collective 1-for-9 against the breaking ball. There were some differences in terms of velocity and break, though nothing huge: Hughes' curve averaged 75 MPH, breaking away from righty batters 4.5 inches and dropping 4.6 inches. The new grip on the pitch didn't seem to add much velocity or sharp break.
On average, the type of curveball that Hughes displayed last year (with sharp, downward break) tends to fare better than the type of curve that he showed against Toronto on Sunday. Since the beginning of last season, curveballs with the velocity and movement characteristics of Hughes' 2010 curve have a .217/.252/.360 opponent batting line and a 26 percent miss rate. But curves with the kind of velocity and movement that Hughes had on Sunday, with considerably less downward break, have a .258/.287/.408 opponent line and a 22 percent miss rate.
There are many other factors that can influence the effectiveness of a pitch (such as delivery, other pitches in a player's repertoire and sequencing), but hitters generally put better swings on the kind of curveball that Hughes is currently throwing. For Hughes to have long-term success with the pitch, he might want to re-discover the downward bite that his breaker showed last season.