Until two months ago, the 23-year-old Phil Hughes had pitched out of the bullpen exactly five times in his entire life, as best as he can remember: twice during the Yankees' 2007 ALDS loss to the Cleveland Indians, and three times in the minor leagues. The Yankees drafted the self-possessed Californian in the first round of the 2004 draft for his potential to start games, and his early professional success in that role led Baseball America to rank him two years ago as baseball's fourth-best prospect.
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 Johan Santana from the Twins, little reason to doubt that he might one day headline their rotation.
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 Chien-Ming Wang, was a matter of circumstance. "We were vulnerable," says general manager Brian Cashman. "It was one of those all-hands-on-deck situations." Wang had returned, meaning the Yankees had six healthy starters, but the bullpen was struggling badly without Brian Bruney, the eighth-inning man who had been sidelined since late April with discomfort in his right elbow. So the Yankees decided that instead of shipping Hughes back to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, where he would continue to start, they would see if he might take to pitching in relief in the short term. "It wasn't the optimal thing in terms of Phil's development as a starter at the big league level, but we had to sacrifice that for our immediate club needs and our efforts to try to win," Cashman says.
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 Vernon Wells double allowed by closer Mariano Rivera, who relieved Hughes with two on and two outs in the eighth), Hughes' statistics through 22 appearances and 30.1 innings as a reliever suggest that he has quickly become the best set-up man in the American League. His 1.48 ERA as a reliever ranks him first in the AL among relievers who have thrown more than 20 innings; his 0.82 WHIP is fourth; as is his 11.57 strikeouts per nine innings.
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 Joba Chamberlain, the club's last reliable eighth-inning man, from the rotation back into that role. Chamberlain, who is scheduled to start Thursday night's series opener against the Red Sox, is now in the midst of his finest stretch as a starter. He has won three straight starts, and in none of them did he allow more than three hits or one earned run. "Our steadfast belief that Joba's a starter, not a reliever, has been proven over time to be correct," says Cashman. "Sticking guys with that kind of stuff in the 'pen, that's easy to do."
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 Joe Girardi. "I wouldn't say that he will not start a game the rest of the year, but I wouldn't tell you that he will, either."
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: I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. "It's definitely my favorite verse," Hughes says. "I got it during the season, when we were in Atlanta in June, so I didn't want to get it on my right arm."
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.