Yankees Notebook: Phil Hughes reflects on move to the bullpen

Phil Hughes and the Yankees fell to the Rangers Thursday at Yankee Stadium. (Getty Images)
Phil Hughes has been moved back to the bullpen role he succeeded in during the 2009 championship season.
Credit: Getty Images

Phil Hughes was introspective about his lost season as a member of the Yankee rotation, noting that it was ironic the season went so poorly even though his velocity has been better than in a few years.

Velocity rarely led to poor execution of pitches, which is why Hughes found himself discussing a demotion to the bullpen Wednesday afternoon after the Yankees decided to give David Huff the start in his next scheduled turn Saturday against the Red Sox.

Hughes was unsure of what led to his 4-13 record, which saw him go 2-11 with a 5.12 ERA over an 18-start stretch beginning when he allowed seven runs and recorded just two outs in a 12-2 loss to Seattle on May 15.

A lack of execution on pitches led to hitters having a .285 batting average and .820 OPS against him. Those numbers have inflated to .336 and .915 since the All-Star break.

“It’s hard to say,” Hughes said. “You go through your ups and downs in every season. It just seems like this year particularly has been a lot of downs. You go back and think about what you did to be successful, and its one thing to think about it and it’s another thing to actually execute it.

“Obviously I have a game plan every start of what I want to do; sometimes it’s just you’re able to execute it and sometimes you’re not.”

Hughes was once rated the fourth-best prospect in the minors by Baseball America and made his debut as a starting pitcher in April 2007 when the Yankees were in need of arms and Joe Torre’s job security was getting threatened. After a lost 2008 due to injuries, he filled in for a while for Chien-Ming Wang in 2009 before moving to the bullpen.

While being part of the late-inning bridge to Mariano Rivera, Hughes was among the more dominant eighth-inning men the Yankees have had. Besides being 5-1 with a 1.40 ERA in 44 appearances, opponents had a .172 batting average and a .456 OPS.

In that stint, he fanned 65 in 51 1/3 innings while producing a .257 batting average on balls put in play. During that time, the velocity on his four-seam fastball averaged 94.5 mph.

This year the Yankees are mostly set in the late innings with Shawn Kelley and Boone Logan serving as the lead-ins to David Robertson and Rivera. How Hughes gets used could be a combination of situations, primarily based on the availability of others. The Yankees are banking on the experience of seeing him dominate in short bursts four years ago to translate into this stint.

“I’ve seen him do it before,” manager Joe Girardi said. “So he should have confidence he could do it, so we’ll just see.”

“I think that’s true for anybody,” Hughes said of many starters having better stuff when going to the bullpen. “When you know you’re just out for an inning or two, everyone’s stuff bumps up a little bit too. We’ve seen it time and time again from anybody who used to be a starter and going to the bullpen kind of gives you a little bit of extra juice.”

As for Huff, he has allowed one run in 19 innings over nine appearances. His most notable outings were Monday’s 5 2/3 innings stint against the White Sox and a five-inning scoreless stint against the Blue Jays two weeks ago.

“Huff’s been throwing the ball extremely well and I haven’t,” Hughes said.

Huff is 17-26 with a 5.41 ERA in 52 career starts. All of those came with the Indians, who made him a first-round pick in 2006 out of UCLA.

Huff’s last appearance saw him throw 48-of-62 pitches for strikes and 15 first-pitch strikes to 20 hitters. Included in that outing was an impressive 12-pitch sequence against Alexei Ramirez, Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko.

“I’m just going to go out there and try to win a ballgame and put up some zeros,” Huff said. “That’s it. It’s always exciting, but I’ve got to go out there and do what I’ve always been doing, and that’s attacking the hitters and making them uncomfortable out there. If I get away from that, we’re going to have some issues.”

Follow Yankees beat writer Larry Fleisher on Twitter @LarryFleisher.


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