Commentary

Again, Phil Hughes promising change

Youngster still trying to please Joe Girardi by working changeup into his repertoire

Updated: March 1, 2011, 9:54 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

BRADENTON, Fla. -- "If there's one more question about the changeup," Phil Hughes said, "it's a world record. Gotta be."

He was right, of course. There were several more, and it was a record, at least for this training camp.

But actually, it's more like a broken record. For the second straight spring, we hear the same request out of Joe Girardi: Just throw the damned changeup, Phil.

[+] EnlargePhil Hughes
Noah K. Murray/US PresswirePhil Hughes, at the prodding of Yankees skipper Joe Girardi, is working on his changeup for the second straight spring.

And for the second straight spring, we are hearing the same answer out of Hughes: OK, boss.

In his first start of the spring, Hughes threw the damned changeup Tuesday against the Pirates. He threw three of them, in fact. One each to the first two batters, Alex Presley and John Bowker, guys I'm reasonably sure you've never heard of, and one in the second inning to a guy you might have heard of, Garrett Atkins.

And then his day was done, two scoreless, hitless innings -- he did walk Presley leading off the game -- and three changeups thrown, their outcome unrecorded except for the fact that once again, that changeup is going to play an important role in Phil Hughes' arsenal.

Unless, of course, it does not.

By Hughes' own admission, his failure to throw his changeup enough to suit his manager in 2010 was due to a lack of effectiveness of, or a lack or confidence in, the pitch.

In a word, he was simply too stubborn.

"Things were going so well in the first half and I wasn't throwing it, I just figured I didn't need it," he said, referring to the point of the season when he was 10-2 with a 3.58 ERA.

But by July, his ERA, which was 1.38 on May 12, had already begun its precipitous rise. He would finish 2010 at 18-8 with a 4.19, meaning he was 8-6 over the last four months of the season. More ominously, as his strikeout totals dipped, his HR totals rose; 17 of the 25 home runs he allowed last season were hit after July 4, and it often appeared he had misplaced his put-away pitch.

That renewed the calls from Girardi and new pitching coach Larry Rothschild for Hughes to add a changeup to his fastball/curveball/cutter repertoire.

"This kid won 18 games, so it's pretty hard to complain about what he did," said Girardi, who then proceeded to do so. "But I think [the changeup] is important for him to take the next step. Because there are going to be days when you don't have that curveball right away or you don't have that cutter right away and you want something to give hitters a different look.

"He did struggle in the second half. If you're only a two-pitch guy, and people see you enough, you have to start making adjustments."

Once again, the adjustment the Yankees want Hughes to make is adding the changeup. And once again, Hughes says he is working on it.

"I feel like it's getting a lot better," Hughes said. "I know, you heard it last spring and it didn't really translate into the season. So who knows right now? But I feel like it's a good pitch for me and hopefully I can carry that over into April when it really matters."

The difference this year, Hughes says, is that Rothschild has taught him some of the finer points of throwing the pitch that will make him more likely to use it not just in spring training, when results don't count -- incidentally, the Yankees wound up losing again Tuesday, 2-0, and stand at 1-3 so far this spring -- but in real-life regular-season situations, in which every pitch is vital.

"I've always been taught to throw it just like a fastball," Hughes said. "One of [Rothschild's] tips was to really just explode my hand at the end, really get that arm speed going at the end, because hitters are only going to see your hand come through the zone. And not to get too aggressive with it where it sails up out of the zone. I've tried doing it, and overall, it's been consistently down in the zone and pretty good, so, hopefully that can stay with me and translate into April."

Hughes had some problems keeping the ball down Tuesday, but against the light-hitting Pirates, all it cost him was that leadoff walk to Presley. As the spring wears on, Hughes said, he will throw the changeup more often until he reaches the point where there will be no regular-season situation in which he would be too reluctant, or too stubborn, to let it go.

"The pitch itself probably isn't any different from last year," he said. "It's just about not being stubborn and making sure that I throw it enough that it's actually a factor and it's in these hitters heads."

It certainly is in Hughes' head, although he says developing his changeup is "in a five-way tie" on his priority list along with improving his fastball, curve, cutter and win total now that he is likely to be the No. 2 starter, if such designations mean anything, ahead of A.J. Burnett, a change that has not been officially announced.

Still, he admits the changeup has not come easy for him, even though he has been trying to throw it since he was the ace of Foothill High School in Santa Ana, Calif.

"I talked to some people who said, 'Either you have a feel for it or you don't, and it's something you're always going to battle with,'" Hughes said. "That made me feel a little bit better. Like I wasn't the only one who couldn't throw a changeup. I don't feel like it's going to be a big strikeout pitch for me, a James Shields-type changeup, but I think it can be usable."

Still, for the second straight spring, Phil Hughes' changeup remains very much a work in progress, with no guarantee that when he and the Yankees go north, that pitch will go with him.

"It's not gonna hurt me to work on it in spring training," he said. "I'm not just gonna scrap it, especially this early in my career. I'm not just gonna give up on it because it's not easy."

NOTES: David Robertson followed Hughes and struck out two in his one inning of work. Lefty Steve Garrison threw two scoreless innings before the Pirates scored a run off Brian Anderson on an RBI double by Pedro Ciriaco in the sixth. They added another one on a sac fly in the seventh. ... The Yankees, fielding a lineup minus Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano, Mark Teixeira and Derek Jeter, managed just four hits, including a first-inning triple by Curtis Granderson, off six Pittsburgh pitchers. Eric Chavez had two singles to raise his spring average to .333. ... Jesus Montero, a hitting prospect and a defensive suspect, threw out two baserunners, although one was a gimme when Chris Snyder, thinking the batter had walked on a 3-2 pitch, jogged into second and was easily thrown out when the plate ump called a checked-swing strike three to end the third. But the second one, on Presley, was a legitimate gun-down on an excellent throw. "His arm's never been in question," Girardi said. "He has a good motion and a lot of arm strength." ... Wednesday marks the spring debut of A.J. Burnett, who will start and throw two innings against the Astros at GMS Field. Game time is 1:05 p.m. ET, and YES will televise.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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