Perhaps he is the ultimate example in recent years of a player needing a change of scenery. The Minnesota Twins are in Yankee Stadium this weekend, and they have scheduled former New York Yankees pitcher Phil Hughes to start against the Bronx Bombers for the first time. Barring any changes, this start will occur on Sunday, June 1.
After essentially getting run out of the Bronx, Hughes has adapted to his new home just fine. In a smaller and much more media-friendly market in Minneapolis, Hughes has become a very bright spot in the Twins’ rotation, which has an American-League worst 4.55 ERA and is 24-27 as play begins on May 30. Hughes, though, is 5-1 with a 3.23 ERA and 1.19 WHIP in 10 starts, by far the best in all three categories in the Twins’ rotation. He also leads the team in strikeouts and innings pitched.
Why would the Yankees let a pitcher like this get away? He won 16 games for them with a 1.9 WAR just two years ago and 18 with a 2.0 WAR two years before that. In 2012, though, those 16 wins came with a 4.19 ERA, and he got those wins thanks in large part to the powerful Yankees offense that averaged 4.97 runs per game. His 18 wins in 2010 also came with a 4.19 ERA. His best season as a Yankees came in 2009 — 8-3. 3.03 ERA and 1.11 WHIP — when he made seven starts and 44 relief appearances
In 2013, Hughes fell — and fell hard. He made 29 starts and one relief appearance for a Yankees team that had so many position players and many pitchers on the disabled list for at least part of the season, some for most of it. Hughes finished at 4-14, 5.19 ERA, 1.46 WHIP, and -0.7 WAR. He averaged less than five innings per start. It reached a point at which fans would boo him most every time he took the mound.
During the past offseason, Hughes signed a three-year, $24 million contract with the Twins. The new team gives him a fresh start in a rotation that also includes Ricky Nolasco, Kyle Gibson, Kevin Correia, and Mike Pelfrey (currently disabled). The overall rotation has not performed well, but Hughes has stepped up as the staff ace.
Hughes, obviously, has never pitched against the Yankees, but he has already beaten the Detroit Tigers twice this year. He has also beaten Kansas City, Baltimore, and San Diego with his only loss coming to Toronto on April 15. He has a current streak of seven straight quality starts since then in which he allowed two or fewer runs in five of them.
How will Hughes fare in his return to Yankee Stadium? Often, players seem to play very well against their former teams, especially teams that may have given up on them. Hughes has very pitched well all season to date, but the Yankees have started to show life of their own by winning four of their last five before the Twins came to town. Hughes may need another quality start to beat them, but — so far — he has shown that he can pitch well enough. We will see Sunday how the reunion turns out.
PHOTO CREDIT: (Pioneer Press: Scott Takushi)