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July 11, 2013

Overthinking It

Phil Hughes, Homer Bailey, and the Diverging Paths of Pitching Prospects

by Ben Lindbergh

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On the night that Homer Bailey pitched his second career no-hitter, fanning nine Giants against only one walk, Phil Hughes was also in action. Hughes had a good outing, but hardly a historic one: he threw seven innings of one-run ball against the Twins, striking out three and walking two. Bailey’s start was the one that led SporsCenter, but it’s appropriate that the pair’s spots in their respective rotations were synched.

Bailey and Hughes have been linked for a long time. Both were hard-throwing, right-handed high schoolers selected in the first round of the 2004 draft. Hughes stands 6’5”; Bailey stands 6’4.” Hughes is less than two months younger. On our list of the top 100 prospects of 2007, Hughes placed second and Bailey ranked fourth, which made comparisons between them inevitable. Just breathe in the August, 2006-ness of this excerpt from Future Shock:

Really, you are looking at 1a and 1b here. If I ranked them tomorrow I might take Bailey. The next day I might go back to Hughes. The two are remarkably similar.

Flip a coin here folks, but my gut gives Hughes the wafer-thin edge.

(PECOTA, for what it’s worth, made Tim Lincecum 1c in that discussion, but Nate Silver gave Hughes the edge anyway, calling him the “Practically Perfect Pitching Prospect.”)

Both Bailey and Hughes debuted in the majors in ’07 at age 21, and both slogged through some disappointing early seasons marred by underperformance and injury—including matching 73-game DL stints for right shoulder inflammation. And on a certain level, at least, their career stats look very similar:

Pitcher

IP

ERA

FIP

FRA

K/9

BB/9

HR/9

WARP

Bailey

760.7

4.38

4.01

4.38

7.3

3.0

1.0

9.6

Hughes

730.0

4.41

4.28

4.59

7.6

2.8

1.3

8.3

Some of the similarities are uncanny enough that in certain school districts, the careers of Bailey and Hughes might be cited as evidence of intelligent design. The context is different, of course: Hughes has spent the last several seasons in the AL East, while Bailey drew an easier assignment in the NL Central. And Hughes has also spent some time in the bullpen, which skews his stats somewhat. On the whole, though, the two have taken different routes to essentially the same place.

So on the surface, it seems strange that one player is entrenched on his team, while the other could be headed out of town in the time it takes to refresh MLBTradeRumors. Bailey won’t be a free agent until after 2014, but Cincinnati has discussed signing him to an extension and plans to revisit those talks. Hughes, on the other hand, is being “aggressively pushed” in trade talks despite pitching for a contending team. In light of the starters’ similar track records, why are the Reds trying to retain one while the Yankees are doing their best to deal the other away?

The short answer: Bailey is still showing signs of development, while Hughes seems to have stalled. Hughes’ FIP in his rookie season was 4.43, and save for his big bullpen season in 2009, it hasn’t budged much more than 0.20 points in either direction in any season since. It’s not that he hasn’t tried anything new; as Jorge Arangure noted in early May, Hughes has almost completely eliminated the cutter from his repertoire in 2013, replacing it with a refined slider. At the time that article appeared, Hughes had a 3.60 ERA, and optimism abounded. His ERA since then is 5.10.

The same sort of optimism surrounded Hughes when he added a cutter, and later a changeup. Neither of those pitches panned out. Every time Hughes tinkers and shows some sign of success, we remember the prospect pedigree and our years-old expectations and start to buy in again. And every time, he soon goes back to being the same slightly below average pitcher he’s been since he made the majors. Since Hughes seems to be a compulsive tinkerer when it comes to mechanics and pitch types, we’ve ridden this rollercoaster enough times to accept that a truly significant climb isn’t coming.

Evidently, the Yankees have come to the same conclusion. And if they don’t think that Hughes is about to take a big step forward, it makes perfect sense to trade him. Pitching has been the team’s strength, offense is a glaring need, and the Yankees have Michael Pineda, David Phelps, and Vidal Nuno waiting in the wings to replace Hughes if they succeed in swapping him for a hitter.

Even if the Yankees did think Hughes had further growth ahead of him, it wouldn’t be worth it for them to outbid the other teams that might pursue him this winter, since it’s clear that he’d be better in almost any other ballpark than the one he’s in. Hughes got grounders in the minors, but he’s been a big fly-ball guy since he made the majors, and that trend shows no sign of reversing itself. Hughes’ 31.0 percent groundball rate this season is his lowest yet, and the lowest in baseball. The owners of the four-lowest groundball rates after his—Kevin Slowey, A.J. Griffin, Tommy Milone, and Mike Minor—all pitch in home-run-suppressing parks. Hughes’ best bet is to work out a way to join them. Over the course of his career, he’s been at a considerable home-field disadvantage, allowing a 4.04 ERA on the road and a 4.77 mark in the Bronx, where he’s coughed up 66 percent of his homers in 51 percent of his innings.

Since Hughes won’t be a qualifying offer candidate, the team that signs him won’t have to give up a draft pick. The Yankees are right to try to recoup some value while they can.

And then there’s Bailey. Until recently, Bailey’s growth was almost as hard to find as Hughes’. Last year, he lowered his ERA to 3.68, but his peripherals told the same story that they had the previous season. The righty’s real accomplishment was making it to 33 starts and 208 innings in an injury-free season. This year, though, the performance has improved significantly. Bailey’s ERA is almost identical to what it was last year, but his FIP has fallen all the way to 2.82. The only thing preventing his ERA from falling with it is an anomalous line with runners in scoring position.

Bailey has radically altered his pitch selection since last season, replacing many of his four-seamers with sinkers and splitters. It hasn’t hurt that he came into the season stronger and has seen his velo go up a tick, either. Unlike Hughes, his tinkering seems to have had the intended effect: he’s getting more grounders and chases and missing more bats both inside and outside the strike zone. As one would expect, that combination of outcomes has led to more strikeouts and fewer homers, which is exactly what we would have wanted to see. For the first time in the majors, Bailey is pitching something like the ace the scouts said he’d be.

I don’t need to tell you that forecasting pitching prospects—and, for that matter, pitchers—isn’t easy. When we went back and forth between Bailey and Hughes late last decade, we weren’t wondering which one would fall slightly less short of league average; we were wondering which would be dominant immediately. We thought we knew that at least one of them would. Now we know that the answer was “neither.”

And now we think that Bailey is and will continue to be the superior pitcher, and that Hughes, while far from a bust, is doomed to be a perpetual disappointment. But we probably are, and probably should be, a little less confident than we were before, if only because nothing about the Bailey/Hughes similarity story has played out as expected so far. Bailey could break down. Hughes could go to a pitcher’s park and halve his home-run rate. That coin we were flipping is now weighted on one side, but it’s still spinning.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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