Recently I put together a post analyzing Ivan Nova's performance. My purpose was to take a look at his peripheral stats to try to understand if he was really showing potential, or if he was getting lucky, and was due to get shelled. To do this I collected data on all the Yankee pitchers, to contextualize Nova's stats. I noticed something interesting along the way, something that had nothing to do with Ivan Nova. Phil Hughes and CC Sabathia have eerily similar peripheral stats this year, save one.
Take a look:
The data above that are most important to the argument are both pitchers' stats in 2010. To add a little color (at Larry's spot-on suggestion) I have included how CC did when he was younger, closer to Phil's age. We'll return to those later data.
The similarities between CC Sabathia and Phil Hughes are to be found in their K/9, BB/9 and BABIP. These data are almost identical for the two pitchers this year. They strike out the same number of hitters, and give the opposition about the same odds of getting a hit on a ball in play. CC actually walks MORE batters than Franchise. The difference between the two pitchers is that CC doesn't let a lot of batters go yard on him, while Phil gives up more than one bomb a game.
This suggests that Phil is closer to being a front line starter than many Yankee fans may give him credit for. The numbers bear this out. Phil gives up about 0.6 homers per nine innings more than CC does. This translates to about 0.45 runs a game that Phil gives up that CC doesn't, assuming either pitcher goes 7 innings. If we adjust Phil's ERA to assume he gives up only as many homers as CC, it suddenly falls to 3.73 on the season, and represents the difference between Phil being a 100 ERA+ pitcher (which he is this season) or a 120 ERA+ pitcher this season, which he would be if he could control the long ball. That's the difference between a 4th or 5th starter and a front line guy.
This hypothesis plays out anecdotally as well. Hughes gave up two homers in Wednesday's game, each with a runner on base. Had he been able to keep the ball in the park, even if the batter still got a hit, Hughes would have almost certainly kept at least one of those runs off the board.
Phil seems to be guilty of the same offense Al Leiter was attributing to David Price in Monday's game. Al was arguing that Price lacks a pitch for the batter to put in play. He either strikes the batter out or gives up a hit because he hasn't developed enough secondary pitches, specifically something like a changeup that a batter is meant to hit weakly. This may be true of Price, but it is certainly true of Hughes. He relies too much on his fastball, and when he misses, he has an outsized chance of giving up the long ball. The numbers suggest that if Phil learns a low-exertion pitch that the batter is meant to connect on weakly, he may become a pitcher closer to CC's caliber.
The question, then, is whether or not there is evidence to suggest that a young pitcher like Hughes can learn to give up fewer home runs, or if it just may be a risk to his stuff (like Javier Vazquez). That's where CC's old stats come in. I've thrown up the numbers CC put up when he was 23 and 24 because Hughes started this season at 23, but is currently 24, and either of those age seasons for CC compare well to what Hughes has done currently.
The numbers are encouraging, but not as encouraging as I would have liked. On the one hand, at 23 CC was in many ways a worse pitcher than Hughes is now. He struck out fewer batters and gave away more free passes. In his age 24 season CC improved, and many of his numbers converged on precisely the levels at which Hughes is performing right now. On the other hand, CC has always given up fewer homers than Hughes.
Hughes' ceiling as a pitcher may therefore be determined by how well he can improve specifically his home run rates, since he already does most other things as well as the Yankees' ace. If he just improves his home run rate by the roughly 25% CC has over the years, then Hughes will become a 4.00 ERA, 110 ERA+ pitcher, which is roughly what Andy Pettitte has done for his career. If Hughes can improve further, then the numbers already suggest a CC-type pitcher.
One thing is certain, we may not have to wait long. Sabathia broke out in his age 25 season. He took his K/9 up to 8.03, lowered his BB/9 to 2.06 and lowered his HR/9 to roughly what it is now, and has been since, at 0.79. His ERA lowered to 3.22 and he became one of the best pitchers in baseball. Unlike Hughes, CC has been a big league starter since he was 20 years old. To the extent that age, and therefore strength and physical maturity, was more important than big league experience as a starter in determining why CC had his break out season at age 25, then we may be about to see a similar evolution in Hughes next season, regardless of how many homers he gave up to Dan Johnson on Wednesday.