Phil Hughes makes his triumphant return to Yankee Stadium this weekend to make his first non-Yankees start at the place he used to call home. Hughes has been a revelation for the Twins so far this season, going 5-1 with a 3.23 ERA while primarily doing it throwing just a couple different fastballs and a curveball.
Hughes was kind enough to take some time to chat prior to Wednesday’s 1-0 loss to the Texas Rangers to talk about the season that’s been, and the weekend to come.
Brandon Warne: “In terms of repertoire, it’s pretty obvious you have changed some things coming into this year. What’s gone into that thought process?”
Phil Hughes: “Obviously when you have the year that I had last year, you figure any change will be a good change. So this offseason, I sort of thought about it to myself for a little bit about what I can do to get better — to turn things around. My slider was kind of a pitch that got me out of some spots last year I guess you could say, but it definitely wasn’t a quality pitch. I just started to think back about what type of pitcher I was at my best, whether that was in the minor leagues, or when I first came up…stuff like that. The curveball was always at the forefront of that. So that was kind of the reasoning behind going back to the curveball and scrapping the slider. I was just like “my curveball can be good; I know it can be good. I just have to work on it, and focus on it, and throw it.” So that was a decision I made this offseason. I talked to Andy about it, and it kind of went from there.”
BW: “Was it kind of a ‘less is more’ approach, just honing in on different things, or was it just knowing what you could and couldn’t command, and going to war with it?”
PH: “I was just trying to think back about when I was at my best, and what I was doing well. I was commanding my four-seam, curveball, and occasional changeup. I feel like my cutter has become a complementary pitch to that. I’m able to throw it to both sides of the plate. I can back door it to lefties and front door it to righties, and obviously in to lefties and away from righties. I just wanted the curveball to be back to the pitch I knew it could be, and knew it was capable of being. I felt like the slider was getting in the way of that development I guess.”
BW: “And now your command has been great this year. I don’t necessarily mean walks as much as your zone percentage, or percentage of pitches you’ve thrown in the strike zone. You’re at a career best. Has that been throwing a fastball predominantly, or has it been better execution, or something else?”
PH: “I probably credit most of it to mechanics. I’d get into modes the last couple years where I’d overthrow with guys on base or in big spots even out of the windup. Any time you overthrow it’s going to cost you location a little bit. This is probably the most comfortable I’ve felt mechanically in as long as I can remember; even probably the minor leagues. I’m able to repeat my delivery, stay nice, easy, and fluid where everything finishes at the end. I feel like with that formula, I can pound the strike zone, and that’s kinda been what’s been working the last month or so.
BW: “Did the Twins do anything to you mechanically, or is this all you?”
PH: “No. No I talked to Rick and we started working on some things in spring training just to keep my — it sounds weird — body out of it as much as possible. Stay nice and easy. Don’t overthrow and fly open, you know all those things you talk about. Staying nice and easy mechanically. All the aggression and effort is at the end.”
BW: “One thing that’s happening that I don’t know if you’re aware of is that you’re near the top of the league in fouls induced. Is that something that really think about at all?”
PH: “No. That’s happened before. I think I in like 2010 I set the record for most foul balls in a game or something like that. That’s just the nature of how I am. My fastball has a little bit of life on it. I’m going to be in the zone a lot and guys are swinging, so you’re going to get foul balls. That’s just part of it. I’m a flyball guy, so obviously they’re going to be hitting the bottom side of the ball and fouling it back, or whatever it is. Early in counts I’ve never been a guy who tries to be absolutely perfect, and nibble. I’ll try make a pitcher’s pitch late in the count when I’m ahead, so early on I’m going to get foul balls and things like that. That’s just the nature of it. If I’m in the strike zone and guys are swinging, there’s going to be more foul balls mixed in there. I don’t think it’s something I need to be overly concerned with; my pitch counts have been OK.”
BW: “Can you recall a time in your career where you’ve pitched better than this?”
PH: “I think back to the first half of 2010, where I went on a good run. But mechanically-wise, this is probably the best I’ve felt in a while. There’s been some other times where I’ve went on some decent runs. This is probably right up there.”
BW: “Feel free to be as specific or as vague as you’d like, but when you became a free agent did a lot of teams express interest, and did you single out places that would be a good place for you to pitch?”
PH: “For sure, I wanted to go somewhere I felt would be a good fit, both with personally and with baseball. I felt like this kind of met every need and thing on the checklist. So yeah, that was definitely up there. There was a lot of interest. The Twins were probably the most aggressive I would say. I think a lot of teams kind of threw their hat into the ring to see if they could get a bargain; ‘it doesn’t hurt to try call’ sort of thing. So there were a bunch of teams. I don’t know how many teams were serious, but there was some interest out there.”
BW: “I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but do you have any extra juice going into this weekend versus the Yankees?”
PH: “I mean I’ll try treat it like any other game as much as I can. But I think human nature is you’re going to get a little more amped up for something like that. It’ll be fun. I’m looking forward to it. I’m glad I get to go in there and spend a couple days before I have to pitch, and see some people around there and stuff like that. It should be a fun weekend.”