Commentary

Hughes' slow start means quick hook

Yankees to keep close eye on righty after Tigers feast on his not-so-ferocious fastball

Updated: April 7, 2011, 11:25 AM ET
By Andrew Marchand | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- Phil Hughes knows he can't live under these speed limits. He makes too many mistakes to have his fastball consistently at 89-91 mph. To match his 2010 All-Star form, Hughes needs to be at 92-94.

[+] EnlargePhil Hughes
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesPhil Hughes, whose velocity wasn't up to par, served up a pair of two-run dingers to Miguel Cabrera in Sunday's 10-7 loss to the Tigers.

Hughes couldn't get there on Sunday and a problem that was whispered about in spring training came roaring along like the 4 train in Hughes' first regular-season start of 2011. Hughes couldn't find his velocity and Miguel Cabrera kept finding the seats.

"It is a little disconcerting right now," Hughes said after his four innings of five-run pitching in the Yankees' first defeat of the season, a 10-7 home run fest against the Tigers.

Hughes took the loss, but the bigger concern is whether his fastball will disappear like Javy Vazquez's did last year, or Joba Chamberlain's did the year before.

If Hughes stays at 89-91, then what?

"I make too many mistakes over the plate to live at that," Hughes said. "[The retired] Jamie Moyer has been doing it for years. I attack guys and I am aggressive. When my velocity is a tick down I can't get away with as many mistakes as I normally do."

Pitching coach Larry Rothschild put it more succinctly.

"That is not his game really," Rothschild said.

On Sunday, Rothschild thought Hughes overcompensated, tried to pump up his fastball and instead dialed down his mechanics and, thus, lost location. Cabrera smacked two two-run bombs and Hughes didn't make it to the fifth inning.

Hughes is just 24, so maybe his velocity will come back soon -- but the only one who is playing down the severity of the issue is Yankees manager Joe Girardi. In 24 hours, Girardi went from "curious" about Hughes' lack of spring velocity to "not real concerned" about his pitcher's lack of a fastball in a real game.

Of course, Girardi downplayed Vazquez's lack of velocity last season until he finally removed Vazquez from the rotation.

Hughes is not Vazquez -- not yet, anyway -- but he is a lot like Chamberlain, a pitcher the Yankees have stamped, "Handle With Care." Chamberlain couldn't consistently pump up his fastball anymore, and now is relegated to middle relief -- the setup man for the setup man.

Hughes isn't going anywhere, but neither will the discussion about his fastball until his velocity comes back.

This spring, a scout said Hughes didn't look the same. Hughes' velocity was down to a point that if it didn't go up, the scout saw bad news ahead. Prior to Sunday's 2011 debut, Rothschild admitted to being "a little bit" concerned about Hughes' lack of heat.

Still, Girardi and Hughes both said it's the same situation as it was last spring. In 2010, Hughes' missing velocity came back by the time his first regular-season start occurred.

In Tampa this spring, Girardi said Hughes was at 88-90. That didn't change much Sunday.

In his four innings, Hughes averaged 89.3 mph on his four-seam fastball, according to Pitch F/X, which charts such things. Last year, his four-seamer was 92.5 mph. Where did those three miles per hour go?

Did Hughes' career-high 191 innings last season abuse his arm too much? Is he hurt? Did fired pitching coach Dave Eiland take Hughes' heat with him when he cleaned out his office?

Hughes and Rothschild both said Hughes is not hurt. There is no evidence of that, but between throwing more and throwing less they haven't been able to figure out how to get higher readings on the gun.

"There is not an easy way to get there," Rothschild said.

On Sunday, Hughes threw 40 four-seam fastballs and 37 cutters. He averaged 83.5 mph on his cutter, maxing out at 88.8. Last year, that 88.8 mph max was his season average. But here is why Hughes can't live at these speed limits: Of the 77 fastballs he threw, only two were swinging strikes, according to Pitch F/X.

"It is more an arm strength thing," Hughes said. "Hopefully, it comes around. It did last year."

If it doesn't, then move over A.J. Burnett, the Yankees have a new bigger, more pressing problem. There seems to be a lot of reasons to believe Hughes will get it back -- his youth being first and foremost -- but until Hughes breaks the 92 mph speed limit, his fastball will continue to be a major issue.

"There is going to be concern until you see it," Rothschild said.

Andrew Marchand is a senior writer for ESPNNewYork. He also regularly contributes to SportsCenter, Baseball Tonight, ESPNews, ESPN New York 98.7 FM and ESPN Radio. He joined ESPN in 2007 after nine years at the New York Post. Follow Andrew on Twitter »

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