12 January 2006

Pending Pinstripes Yankee Prospect of the Week: Philip Hughes

Baseball America just released its list of the Top Ten Yankee Prospects last week, so this seems like a good source of material for my own analysis/commentary. The list is as follows:

1. Philip Hughes, rhp
2. Eric Duncan, 3b/1b
3. Jose Tabata, of
4. C.J. Henry
5. Austin Jackson, of
6. Eduardo Nunez, ss
7. Marcos Vechionacci, 3b
8. Christian Garcia, rhp
9. Jeff Marquez, rhp
10. Tyler Clippard, rhp

Most of these guys, excepting perhaps Duncan at #2, will be completely unfamiliar to most of you. Duncan's name came up in trade rumors last summer, which is the only reason you'd have heard of him, but as he is still with the Yankees and is considered their second-best prospect by a pretty substantial source, you'll be hearing a lot more of him soon. Let's look at Hughes first though...

Philip J. Hughes, rhp
Born: June 24, 1986
Height: 6-5 Weight: 220 Bats/Throws: Right
High School: Foothill High School (Santa Ana,CA)
Drafted: NYY 1st round (23rd overall) of 2004 amateur entry draft (June Regular Phase)

W  L   ERA   G   IP    H   R  ER  HR  BB   SO   h9    hr9   w9    k9   whip
9 1 2.07 20 91.3 58 25 21 1 20 101 5.72 0.10 1.97 9.95 0.85

What’s he got going for him?

Hughes reportedly throws a 92-94 mph fastball and can throw even harder if necessary. His curveball is supposedly above average and his slider, which was his best pitch before the Yankees forced him to develop the curve in 2005, bites late and hard. His command of the fastball and solid mechanics have led one Yankees official to refer to him as “Mark Prior lite”, but it should be noted that historically the Yankees tend to hype their own prospects more than anyone else does.

What’s he got going against him?

In a word: History.

Hughes was drafted out of high school last year, which may not bode well for him. A lot of organizations with higher draft picks than the Yankees decided to focus on college pitchers, and with good reason. In the 2004 draft, only 7 of the 28 pitchers selected in the first round were drafted out of high school, and only 3 of the 14 pitchers taken before Hughes were high school pitchers. There is a movement away from the high risk/high reward idealogy associated with drafting pitchers this young.

For example, the last time the Yankees used their first pick to draft a pitcher out of high school was 2002, when they took Brandon Weeden. His stats looked much like those of Mr. Hughes after his first two years in the minors:

W L ERA G IP H R ER HR BB SO h9 hr9 w9 k9 whip
4 4 2.70 23 80.0 60 36 24 1 39 68 6.75 0.11 4.39 7.65 1.24

Admittedly, not quite as good, with slightly worse hit, walk and strikeout rates, but still looking like a decent prospect. Unfortunately for the Dodgers, they thought so too, and they took him (along with Jeff Weaver and Yhency Brazoban) in the trade that sent Kevin Brown to New York. For whatever reason, Brandon regressed considerably and started weedin’ himself out of the Dodgers’ talent harvest, going 9-18 with an ERA around 5.50 in the last two seasons for the Columbus Catfish of the Low-A Sally League.

A better illustration of this might be found by looking at the comparative numbers of draft picks that actually have major league careers from either high school or college. I looked at the 1999 amatuer draft because it was convenient, the Yankees drafted a pitcher in it, and it was long enough ago that anyone who graduated from high school that year is now 25 or so, and probably already in the majors if he ever will be. Here’s what I found:

Total Players Drafted: 51
Pitchers: 36
High School Pitchers: 15
College Pitchers: 21

Of the 15 high school pitchers, only four (27%) have made it to the majors:

Jimmy Gobble (14-14, 5.27 ERA, 254 innings in three MLB seasons)
Jerome Williams (23-22, 3.92 ERA, 383 innings in three MLB seasons)
Casey Daigle (2-3, 7.16 ERA, 49 innings in one MLB season)
Josh Beckett (41-34, 3.46 ERA, 609 innings in five MLB seasons)

Of the 21 college pitchers, 11 (52%) have made it to the majors. They include:

Mike “Mac the Ninth” MacDougal, who has closed most of the few games the Kansas City Royals have won since 2003. He’s got 49 saves and a 3.97 ERA in 170 MLB relief innings.

Jason Jennings (49-43, 5.02 ERA in 729 MLB innings, all with the Rockies), who was the 2002 NL Rookie of the Year.

Brett Myers (42-33, 4.47 ERA in 656 MLB innings). Last year his 3.72 ERA was 20th in the NL and his 208 strikeouts tied him for 3rd place in the Senior Circuit.

Ben Sheets (55-62, 3.83 ERA in 982 MLB innings over five seasons), who has won at least ten games in each of his five seasons in the majors despite not even pitching enough to qualify for the ERA title in 2005 or 2001, and despite pitching for the Brewers. His 2.70 ERA ranked 3rd in the NL in 2004 and his 264 strikeouts were second only to Randy Johnson.

Barry Zito (86-53, 3.50 ERA in 1209 innings over six MLB seasons), who won the 2003 AL Cy Young Award. He’s pitched 213 or more innings in each of the last five seasons, with a better than average ERA each season and a career ERA 29% better than the adjusted league average.

And Matt Ginter, who isn’t much of a pitcher but can play the banjo!

Anywho, that was a considerable digression, and only one of dozens of drafts, but you get the point: High school pitchers taken in the first round tend not to make it to the majors as frequently as college pitchers do, and once there, they don’t have the same success. College pitchers are older when drafted, have less “growing” left to do, know their bodies better, and have faced tougher competition, which makes them more polished. We can see some of these issues in Hughes already. Baseball America’s scouting report on him indicates that “the biggest hurdle he must overcome with regard to his health is getting to know his body better“. He has already been injured several times, with shoulder and elbow tendinitis, a tired arm and a stubbbed toe, at different times, all of which helped limit him to those 91 innings over two years. This may not be a bad thing, as young pitchers who throw a lot of innings have a tendencty to get seriously hurt. Perhaps it’s better to bring him a long slowly. Of course, young pitchers who get into bar fights tend to get hurt, too, so maybe it’s best to keep Hughes at the ballpark as much as possible.

One thing the Yankees’ organization did to help keep him healthy was to prevent him from using his slider. More important, this also forced him to develop his curveball, which has become a plus pitch when thrown hard enough. The Phillies did this with Brett Myers, banning his curveball to get him to work on his fastball and change-up, and it worked.

Prognosis for 2006:

Hughes is expected to start 2006 in High-A Tampa, but if his curve, slider and low-to-mid 90’s heater are all working, he’ll move up through the rankings quickly. John Manuel of Baseball America says, “…he should be in the mix for a rotation spot in New York in 2007—as long as he stays off the disabled list.” But I would add another caveat to that statement: As long as he doesn’t get traded, either. The Yankees have not drafted and signed a first-round pitcher who actually started more than one game for the major league club since…are you ready for this? Bill Burbach. You’ve never heard of him because he got drafted in 1966 and spent parts of three seasons with the Yankees from 1969-71 and then hung up his spikes for good. More often than not, Yankee draftees become prospects and then promptly become trade bait, as per Eric Milton and Scott MacGregor. So unless the Yankees are running away with the AL East division next July, look for Hughes to be dealt somewhere for pitching help. You heard it here first.

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