Until two months ago, the 23-year-old
While Hughes' performance during his 28 big league starts, which he has made over the course of three seasons, has been inconsistent -- he's 8-9 with a 5.22 ERA as a starter -- he remains very young (he was the second-youngest player in the American League in `07, and the fifth-youngest in `08), and he has given the Yankees, who think so highly of him that they two winters ago balked at including him in a trade offer that might have returned
That the Yankees moved Hughes to their bullpen in early June, after he had gone 3-2 with a 5.45 ERA in seven starts as a fill-in for the suddenly injury-prone
Hughes had no complaints. "I was fully expecting to be sent down," he says, "so to be able to stick around and pitch in the bullpen, I was pumped about it."
The result? "Obviously," says Cashman, "he's had extreme success."
Even after he was charged with two earned runs in Toronto on Tuesday night (both of which came on a
Hughes's emergence as a reliable eighth-inning bridge to Rivera has galvanized a Yankees' bullpen that was a shambles through the season's first two months: the club was 33-23 (.589) through June 7, the day before Hughes made his first relief appearance, and it's 32-19 (.627) since then. It has also quieted calls in New York to move
It's easy to do, Cashman continues, because most pitchers with the skills to be front-line starters -- like Chamberlain and Hughes -- should prosper as relievers. Pitching in relief is, quite simply, a less demanding job, and while the list of former starters who have excelled as relievers is long, few have ever managed to successfully transition the other way. Hughes, for instance, has as a reliever distilled his repertoire to mainly his two best pitches -- his fastball and his curveball -- and he can throw them at maximum effort, without having to worry about saving something for several innings down the line, or about facing the same batter twice. His average fastball as a starter was in the range of 91 to 92 miles per hour; as a reliever it's 95 to 96. "Basically," he says, "I'm just more aggressive, attacking the zone and not being afraid of contact."
He hasn't had much reason to fear that. In June, hitters swung and missed at more than a quarter of pitches he threw in the strike zone -- 26.6 percent of them, in fact, the fourth best rate in the majors. In July, when he became even bolder about throwing strikes (he threw 74.6 percent of his first pitches over the plate that month, baseball's third-highest rate), batters still had trouble hitting them: They swung and missed at 17.4 percent of the pitches he threw in the zone, ranking him 37th of the 277 pitchers who accumulated more than 10 July innings.
While Hughes has occasionally mixed in a cut fastball as a reliever, he has by and large set his change-up aside: He has thrown exactly one of them since he joined the Yankees' bullpen. It's a pitch that both he and Cashman know that he'll have to command when he becomes a starter again, and there is some concern that his stint in relief might delay its development. "He'll have to get back to that," says Cashman, "but the sacrifice of continuing the development of that change came at an explosion of confidence, in that he now knows that he can dominate any hitter in the game."
Hughes has so transformed the Yankees' 'pen that the club is in no rush to move him back into the rotation this season, even though Wang is injured again. "If the club were to stay the same, there's a shot he could stay in the bullpen, yes," says manager
Even as the idea that Hughes might someday succeed Rivera as the Yankees' closer has gained traction in New York, the Yankees continue to view Hughes as nothing but a future starter, as did the general managers who called Cashman at the trade deadline with Hughes's name on the tips of their tongues. There were two of them, Cashman reveals, and only two because Hughes's future as a valuable and dominant starter now seems clearer than ever, and the price to acquire him would be steep indeed. "The teams that approached me on him knew that if there were going to ask for a name like that, it would involve some huge, huge names coming back," Cashman says.
Stitched in white block letters on Hughes' glove is the biblical reference "PHIL 4-13," and tattooed on his inner left biceps, in bold black script, is the full passage:
Hughes has proven that one of the things he can do with that right arm is pitch, and pitch extraordinarily well, out of the bullpen. The Yankees will continue to take advantage of that for now. That Hughes will be able to carry the confidence and experience that he has gained as a reliever to the Yankees' rotation is only a matter of time, and of circumstance.