Loving Hughes, Hating on Verlander

In this series, I will be taking a tour around the diamond for in-depth looks at players who I value differently than the market consensus. Expert ranking lists are not worth the paper they are printed on without analysis as to why players are ranked where they are. Since the featured players in this column will be guys who I value much differently than the mainstream, you may not agree with where I rank them, but it is still important to understand why I have them where they are. Sometimes alternative viewpoints can be more illuminating than group think, even if you do not agree with the opinion.

 

Love – Phil Hughes, Minnesota Twins

Phil Hughes had a huge breakout in 2014 and he finished as the 25th best SP in fantasy with the following numbers:

16 Wins, 3.52 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 186 Ks in 209.2 IP

Since he had been mostly awful during his most recent seasons in the Bronx, Hughes’ 2015 draft price tag is still not as high as it could be. The move to Minnesota appears to be just what the doctor ordered for Phil Hughes, but let’s take a look under the hood and try to determine whether or not the newfound success is sustainable moving forward.

Changes

Anytime a pitcher undergoes such a drastic transformation, it is essential to determine what he did differently to allow those changes to take place. The first major difference is an obvious one. Phil Hughes is a fly ball pitcher and Yankee Stadium is a power hitter’s delight. Minnesota’s Target Field is much more pitcher friendly. The ballpark factor can’t entirely explain a HR/9 getting cut in half from one season to the next (1.48 to .69), but it certainly helped Hughes a great deal. Seeing more fly balls land in outfielders’ gloves instead of the cheap seats appears to have helped Hughes’ confidence as much as it helped his ERA.

Phil Hughes altered his pitch mix in 2014 also. He abandoned his slider in favor of a cut fastball that travels at about the same speed as his four-seamer. The cutter has some late right to left tail on it and since the pitch looks a lot like his fastball coming out of his hand. Hitters have had a tough time discerning between the two offerings. He has been successful against lefties by starting the pitch off the plate and bringing it back into the zone. Similarly, he likes to start the pitch on the outside half of the plate against righties before it tails out of the zone.

The second change Hughes made is an adjustment to his curveball. He threw a tighter curve with about 2.5 additional MPH in velocity. It did not break quite as much as the 2014 version, but the current version seems to complement his fastball a little better. Since Hughes has all but eliminated the changeup from his arsenal, it is more important that his curve ball complements the two fastballs.

Ks and BBs

Strikeouts and walks are the two most important categories to analyze when trying to determine a pitcher’s future fantasy value. The driving force behind Hughes’ 2014 success was a ridiculous 11.63 K/BB ratio. To put that number into proper perspective, consider that Cliff Lee, who is widely known for having immaculate K/BB ratios, posted a career high K/BB rate of 10.28 in 2010 and has only had a K/BB ratio greater than 7.0 on two occasions.

Hughes has done a pretty good job of limiting walks for his entire career, but his .69 BB/9 and 1.9% BB rate are both career bests by a wide margin. He got it done by being aggressive early in counts (72.5% first strike percentage) and by getting hitters to chase often (38% O-swing). It is unlikely that Hughes will be able to best his 2014 BB rate, but owners can expect elite control and a BB/9 under 1.5.

On the strikeout front, Hughes’ numbers were more or less in line with career averages. He was able to K 21.8% of the hitters he faced, which was his highest total since 2009, but not by a substantial margin. The corresponding K/9 of 7.98 is playable in any format. Although the spike was not drastic, Hughes’ change in pitch mix could easily explain the jump in strikeout percentage. 2015 owners should expect a similar K/9 between 7.5 and 8.0.

Splits

Considering that he used to play half of his games in Yankee Stadium, one might expect that his home ERA is considerably higher than his road ERA over the course of his career. I did not expect to see that this trend continued in 2014. Hughes’ home ERA was 4.25 and he pitched to a 2.78 ERA on the road.

Over the course of his career, Hughes’ righty lefty splits are pretty neutral. Interestingly enough, last season the right-handed Hughes fared significantly better against lefties than against righties. His wOBA against lefties was an outstanding .272, while righties posted a .321 wOBA against him. These splits will be interesting to monitor moving forward because much of his success in 2014 stemmed from his ability to dominate lefties. If he regresses in this department, Hughes could come crashing back to earth.

Batted Ball Profile

The biggest knock on Phil Hughes is his propensity to give up too much hard contact. As mentioned before, he really struggled with the long ball during his Yankee tenure. There were a number of factors that played into his career best HR/9 of .69. Hughes’ fly ball rate in 2014 was just 40.2%. While that is still above league average, it is also substantially below his 44.8% career rate. In addition to fewer fly balls, Hughes also benefitted from a career low 6.2% HR/FB rate. Despite the new digs, owners need to be prepared for a few more HRs allowed in 2015.

Hughes also gave up a ton of line drives (23.2%) which led to a BABIP of .324. Neither number is unprecedented, but both lie significantly above career averages. The high line drive rate combined with the lower than normal fly ball rate makes the high BABIP look pretty fair to me.

Hughes’ 2014 ERA was significantly higher than all of his ERA indicators. His FIP was just 2.65, his xFIP was 3.18 and his SIERA was 3.17. Despite what these numbers suggest, I do not think Hughes was unlucky. If his HR/9 stays down, the BABIP will likely remain high. Owners should expect a 2015 ERA somewhere in the mid 3s along with a strong WHIP below 1.20.

Injury Risk

Phil Hughes has made 29+ starts in four of the past five seasons. His heavy reliance on fastballs does not put him in as much risk as most pitchers. Hughes is one of the more durable pitchers in the league and he is a good bet to throw more than 180 innings.

Conclusions

I am always a sucker for pitchers with elite K/BB ratios, and none were better than Phil Hughes in 2014. When I say none were better, I mean that literally. Hughes’ 11.63 K/BB is the best ever for a pitcher who threw more than 200 innings. Overall, his 2014 numbers appear to be supported his skills. There are certainly reasons to be a little nervous moving forward, but if he can continue to avoid walks and limit HRs like he did in 2014, there is also a chance that 2015 could be even better. Overall, I think that his ADP as the 42nd SP off of draft boards makes Hughes a good value. He has the upside to be a top 20 SP, and since owners won’t have to pull the trigger until sometime after pick 150 there is a lot of potential value to be had.

Here is my projection for Phil Hughes in 2015:

14 Wins, 3.50 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 170 Ks in 200 IP

Hate – Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers

As recently as 2012, Justin Verlander was one of the most dominant starting pitchers in all of baseball. Over four seasons, Verlander established himself as the premier workhorse in the American League. During that stretch, he averaged a staggering 238.4 innings pitched in the regular season alone. He also averaged 19.5 wins, 244.25 Ks, an ERA just under 3.00 and a WHIP under 1.10.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Last season, Verlander failed to finish inside the top 100 starting pitchers with a team crushing 4.54 ERA and 1.40 WHIP.

Justin Verlander is the 45th ranked starting pitcher on Y! and 58th on ESPN right now. According to fantasypros.com, his ADP has him ranked as the 33rd SP. It is very tempting to look at Verlander’s Cy Young past and think what a tremendous value he could be if he somehow regains his former glory. The trouble is he has done very little over the past two seasons to give us legitimate reason to think this is possible.

Best shape of his Life

Recent reports suggest that Verlander has bulked up, adding 20 pounds of muscle and he is fully healthy heading into spring training. While that is nice to hear, I am not getting too excited until I see what the radar gun has to say. Adding bulk may help, but it may mean absolutely nothing. Sometimes, increased muscle mass can negatively impact performance if it causes lost flexibility or range of motion. I am not making any assumptions about this news until I see Verlander pitch.

Diminished Fastball

When Verlander was at his best, his fastball was arguably the best pitch in all of baseball. Last year, for the first time since 2008, his fastball earned a negative grade from Fangraphs. It is not just that Verlander has lost velocity (average fastball velocity has dipped from 95.6 in 2009 to 93.1 in 2014), but he is also having greater difficulty commanding the pitch. Because he is no longer able to reach back and approach triple digits with the heater, his ability to hit his spots is more important than ever.

To compensate for his struggling fastball, Verlander has been throwing more changeups over the past two seasons. He threw changeups 18.4% of the time in 2011, but that number has risen to over 28% in each of the past two seasons. The trouble is that he has not really lost any velocity on the changeup, so the velocity gap between the two pitches has narrowed significantly making the changeup less effective also.

Essentially, Verlander still has the same approach that he had five years ago, but his stuff is not nearly as good as it was. Unless Verlander is able to either regain some of his lost velocity or to reinvent himself as a pitcher, 2015 is likely to be another letdown for his fantasy owners.

Ks and BBs

Despite the high velocity, Verlander has never really been a huge K/9 guy. Through his best seasons, he typically hovered right around a strikeout an inning. Since achieving a career high K% of 27.4% in 2009, his K rate has gradually fallen over the years before the bottom completely dropped out last season. Verlander’s 17.8% K rate is fully supported by the fact that hitters were chasing less out of the zone (30.9% in 2014, over 33% in three seasons prior) and by the lack of swings and misses (8.7% swinging strike rate is lowest since 2008).

Over the same time period, Verlander’s walk rates have also gone up. During his two best seasons in 2011 and 2012, his BB/9 was just above 2.0 (2.04 and 2.27). Over the last two seasons, his BB rate has regressed back closer to career averages. His 2.84 BB/9 in 2014 was not the main issue for Verlander, but when combined with a lack of strikeouts one is left with a suddenly mediocre K/BB ratio of just 2.45. Since his best seasons all included K/BB ratios near or above 4.0, it is easy to see one of the driving forces behind the sudden decline of Justin Verlander.

Batted Ball Profile

The other major issue affecting Justin Verlander is that he is more hittable now than ever before. Although his HR rates are right in line with career averages, Verlander’s fly ball rate has slowly increased over the past three seasons. Fortunately, his HR/FB ratio has seen a corresponding decline over than same span. He has always had lower than average HR/FB ratios, but last season’s 6.8% mark was the second lowest of his career.

His line drive and ground ball rates appear more or less in line with career averages, but his BABIP has been well above .300 for two consecutive seasons. Since his rookie year, Verlander’s BABIP has fluctuated between .270 and .320 in every season but one. The lone outlier was Verlander’s magical 2011 season where his BABIP was a ridiculous .236.

2015 owners should expect a BABIP somewhere in the upper half of his career range. Pencil him in for a BABIP between .290 and .320. If his HR/FB rate creeps back up, he will likely struggle again to keep his ERA below 4.00 and he is unlikely to post a helpful WHIP either.

Name Value

Maybe the most difficult part of owning Justin Verlander is the difficulty in assessing who he has truly become. Although he should have been left on fantasy benches for the majority of 2014, how many owners really have the discipline to make that call? My guess is that most people who draft Verlander in 2015 will stick him in their opening day fantasy rotation and keep him locked in even if he continues to struggle. Big name pitchers can be really difficult to bench, even when all the numbers say otherwise. Personally, I don’t want that headache in 2015.

Conclusions

Verlander can’t be as bad in 2015 as he was in 2014, but that does not mean that he will be a helpful fantasy asset either. He is not the same pitcher that he once was. Even if Verlander bounces back, I think the best case scenario is for his production to meet his ADP. His name value remains much higher than what the underlying numbers suggest his production will be moving forward.

Here is my Verlander projection for 2015:

14 Wins, 4.00 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, and 150 Ks in 200 innings

I would be fine with paying a buck or two at the end of an auction or spending a draft pick in the last round or two to acquire Verlander. At his current price tag, however, his 2015 owners are highly unlikely to profit. Like former aces Tim Lincecum and Ubaldo Jimenez, Verlander just does not have what it takes to dominate hitters anymore. Do yourself a favor and look elsewhere for pitching upside in the middle rounds of your drafts.

Tommy Landseadel

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Tommy is also known as tlance on the CBS and Sports Hoopla message boards. He has been playing fantasy baseball for 16 years in many different format types and looks forward to helping you with your fantasy baseball questions! You can now follow me on Twitter @tlandseadel