December 2, 2013
Phil Hughes Finds a Friendlier Home
Reportedly signed RHP Phil Hughes to a three-year, $24 million contract, pending a physical. [12/1]
In the last week of spring training, I identified five players who were entering their walk year and were “balanced on the border between ‘about to be rich’ and ‘about to be richer.’” “If they can turn in strong seasons, they’ll command big-time contracts,” I wrote, “but any missteps could cost them some serious cash.” One of the players I picked, Phil Hughes, made more than a few missteps, finishing with an ERA over five. And now we know roughly how much cash he cost himself.
In 2012, Hughes had a season much like Ricky Nolasco’s 2013: 190-plus innings with a league-average ERA (after park adjustments), which was worth a couple of wins. Nolasco, coming off that kind of campaign, got four years and $49 million. Hughes, after his 2013, settled for one year and $25 million less from the same team. Hughes is 3 ½ years younger and two miles per hour faster than Nolasco; had he turned in another Nolasco-like season in the DH league, it's not crazy to think that he could have commanded as much as $60 million over four years. Instead, he’ll be paid like a less dependable Jason Vargas. That’s bad news for Hughes and his agent, who was probably counting on a bigger commission, but good news for the Twins, who may have just landed a league-average pitcher for half the price they paid the last one.
That's not to say that $24 million is chump change, but spread out over three years, it's a reasonable price to pay today for a pitcher who's equal parts puzzle and potential. Hughes has long been baseball’s best example of a player who’s a poor fit for his ballpark. Fish out of water are better adapted to their environment than extreme flyballers are to Yankee Stadium, and the right-handed Hughes is among the most extreme members of the species (flyballers, not fish). Last season, 34.5 percent of his batted balls allowed were outfield flies, the most of any pitcher who threw at least 75 innings. Combine that pitching profile with Yankee Stadium’s short fences, and you get the game’s third-highest home run rate over the past two seasons (behind Tommy Hunter and Joe Blanton). You also get some scary splits:
Scary, that is, if you’re the Yankees. Not so scary if you’re the Twins, who can dream about what that “away” line would look like extrapolated over a full season in which Hughes might not have to make any appearances in the Bronx. Hughes’ home/road splits haven’t been quite so severe over his whole career, but they’re still significant: 4.96 ERA vs. 4.10, .807 opponent OPS vs. .690, 76 homers allowed vs. 36. And now he’s headed for a home park that’s as well-configured to hide his weakness as Yankee Stadium was to expose it.
Target Field is a neutral park—it’s pretty friendly for doubles and triples—but it’s also one of the hardest places to hit a home run, particularly for left-handed hitters. For a pitcher with Hughes’ skillset, going from Yankee Stadium to Target Field is a change of scenery we can believe in. (It’s no coincidence that the other teams tied to Hughes—the Royals, Mets, and Marlins—also play in big ballparks.) Hughes' struggles to develop a useful third pitch and put hitters away with two strikes haven't stopped him from posting strikeout rates slightly above league-average for starters (and about 150 percent above average for Minnesota starters), and his walk rates are also in a range that's conducive to modest success. Starting next season, his susceptibility to the third true outcome won’t be a fatal flaw (though he could still stand to add a sinker).
Hughes might derive some psychological benefit from leaving behind a fanbase that still saw him as a supposed-to-be ace, but in his case, the burden of ballpark likely outweighed the burden of expectations. It’s somewhat surprising that he didn’t push for a pillow contract in hopes of attracting a bigger offer after 2014, but as the winter’s youngest free agent starter, he won’t be too old to turn heads the next time he hits the market. Don’t be surprised if he outpitches Nolasco between now and then.
With Nolasco and Hughes in hand, the Twins have the makings of a major-league rotation, which they lacked last season, when their starters collectively posted a higher ERA than Hughes. It’s still an assortment of fourth and fifth starters—Kevin Correia, Sam Deduno (or maybe Mike Pelfrey), and some combination of Kyle Gibson, Vance Worley, Andrew Albers and Scott Diamond round out the rest of the staff—but the new additions should make the short-term team more palatable as Twins fans wait for baseball’s best farm system to pay dividends.
Five of the franchise’s top 10 prospects have tentative 2014 ETAs; if you’re an optimist, you can see the Twins as contenders during the life of Hughes’ deal, especially if Alex Meyer turns into the top-of-the-rotation arm they haven’t had since Francisco Liriano and Johan Santana (who was almost traded for Hughes in better days for both pitchers). And as La Velle Neal noted, the Twins had never given as much money to an outside free agent as they have to Nolasco and Hughes, so it appears that the Pohlad pockets won’t prevent Terry Ryan from trying to build a bridge and supplement to the up-and-coming core. —Ben Lindbergh
We know the reasons why the move to Minnesota may be good for Hughes from a park perspective, but that's only part of the reason why he gets a tick up in both long-term and short-term value with this move. For a pitcher like Hughes, with whispers that he may be better off in the bullpen sounding like screams, the Twins are a perfect match due to their lack of starting pitching depth on the major league roster and in the upper minors, even after signing Ricky Nolasco. From a fantasy perspective, Hughes is much more valuable (and has more upside) as a starting pitcher, and if he's more likely to stick as a starter for a couple of years than he was before he signed the contract, that's an important factor in the long run. For 2014, he'll still be part of what is expected to be a down Twins team, so don't expect much by way of wins--though I'll still put money on him clearing the four wins he accumulated in 2013. He's not someone who should be on draft radars (even in the endgame) for 10 and 12 team leagues, but he makes for an interesting flier in deeper mixed leagues to see if the change of scenery is really all it's cracked up to be. —Bret Sayre
Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @benlindbergh