Phil Hughes: Potential Trade Target

It’s no secret that the Nats could use some help bolsteringthe back of their rotation. While Taylor Jordan has exceeded expectations (assuming you set fairly low expectations for him) and Ross Detwiler’s injury theoretically shouldn’t be season-threatening, the Nats have gone 13-24 when pitchers other than Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann have started. That’s nowhere near good enough for the team to make the playoffs.

I don’t trust Detwiler’s oblique, Jordan’s ability to keep pitching this well (or his mechanics, or his probable innings cap) or Dan Haren at anything pitching-related. I believe the Nats need to trade for another starting pitcher (for additional thoughts on the matter, read Kolko’s piece from this morning). The Nationals Review put together a nice list of trade possibilities on June 24, but I feel that they missed one key name who hit the market today: Phil Hughes.

According to MLB Trade Rumors, the Yankees are aggressively trying to trade him. At 48-42, the Yankees aren’t necessarily sellers, but they may use this opportunity to move a pitcher with more name value than performance value to help their terrible lineup. Hughes isn’t exactly cheap, either; he makes $7.1 million this year and will be cashing in on his name value this offseason no matter how good or bad he is in the last half of the season, so the Yankees are deeming him expendable.

Hughes’ main strength is that he has good control. He put up a 2.16 BB/9 in 2012 (league average was 3.05) and has a 2.37 BB/9 in 2013 (league average is 2.98). Hughes is excellent at getting ahead in the count with first pitch strikes, throwing them 69.5% of the time in 2013 and 64% over his career (league averages tend to hover in the 58-60% range). Even when he’s struggling, he’s still throwing strikes (read more on that at Beyond the Box Score).  Hughes’ current struggles partially revolve around the fact that he’s too hittable. Batters make contact with his pitches 83.1% of the time when they swing this year (82.5% career) whereas league average generally hovers in the 80-81% range.

The other problem with Hughes is his mediocre command; he can throw strikes, but oftentimes the ball doesn’t go where he wants it to. For a pitcher known in the minor leagues as a ground ball machine, he now leaves the ball up in the zone far too often and is more of a fly-ball pitcher than ever before. It’s one thing to live up in the zone when you can hit your spots (think of Tyler Clippard, who occasionally gets burned with homers but in general succeeds with high fastballs); Hughes doesn’t miss bats as well, though, and plays in homer-friendly park, which doesn’t mix.

In his career, Hughes has been much better on the road than at Yankee Stadium. Hughes’ career road OPS allowed is .111 points lower than at home while his ERA is 0.73 points lower. While new Yankee Stadium looks more like a pitchers park in 2013, it was the six most hitter-friendly park in the big leagues from 2010-2012. Hughes has allowed an astounding 63 HR in 77 career games in new Yankee Stadium and 40 HR in 92 games elsewhere. Getting out of that park will help the flyball pitcher immensely.

That’s where Nationals Park comes to help. While Nats Park has leaned towards being a hitters park in 2013 (11th in runs scored/game), it is fourth from the bottom in HR allowed/game this year (park factor of .798, with 1.00 being neutral) and is generally right around the middle of the league (from 2008-2012, it has been 16, 19, 15, 9 and 13). It’s not exactly the former Petco or Safeco fields before fences were moved in, but it’s still much friendlier to fly-ball pitchers than Yankee Stadium.

Hughes is not a perfect pitcher, nor is he the same guy that was the #4 prospect in all of baseball per Baseball America in 2007. That doesn’t mean he can’t help the Nationals, though. The already league-average pitcher’s value can be maximized by moving him out of both the American League and an extreme HR-friendly park into the National League and a park that doesn’t manufacture homers on the assembly line.

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