During the middle of last season, Yankees pitcher Phil Hughes made the stark realization that he simply wasn't good enough. This is not to say he didn't think he was good -- just not great, at least not good enough for the expectations that he had placed upon himself, and that thousands of Yankees fans had put upon him when he was a heralded young prospect.
Hughes has always been an enigma to most baseball fans. Some think he's simply overrated because he plays for the Yankees. Meanwhile, Yankees fans think he's still yet to tap into that immense potential. After all, Hughes throws in the mid to lower 90s, features at least four pitches, and is still only 26 years old.
Hughes himself still saw potential for improvement. So when he realized that hitters were easily anticipating his pitches, and that he increasingly had a difficult time fooling them even when they didn't know what was coming, Hughes sought a change.
For an athlete, change is always difficult. For baseball players, who are attuned to their routines for 162 games per year, change is like the unwanted visit to the dentist's office. Out of necessity, perhaps out of desperation, Hughes decided to try a new pitch anyway.
"If you pick up on things that hitters were trying to do to you, and you don't really have anything to combat that, then I guess you start thinking about ways that you can start incorporating new pitches into what you do," Hughes said.
The easiest solution, and the one that would require the least amount of drastic makeover, would be for Hughes to transform his cutter into a full-fledged slider. The two pitches aren't so different. They both move sideways. The slider is just a more drastic version of the cutter.
"I think at the time I wasn't pitching horribly," Hughes said. "It was just something that I wanted to incorporate. I felt it would be better if I did do that. I felt it would be a good pitch for me because it would be a little bit of a change of pace, just off the slower curveball that I throw, four seam fastball and change up. I felt it was something that came out of my hand like a fastball."
Hughes had good reason to abandon the cutter. It sucked. Last season, according to data from BrooksBaseball.Net, hitters walloped Hughes' cutter for a .474 average and a 1.053 slugging percentage. In 2011 it was equally terrible: .500 average, .679 slugging percentage. The pitch was useless, except as a change-of-pace-pitch, but the only pace it changed was to go from getting outs to not getting outs.
First, Hughes began messing around with different grips for the slider. Eventually, Hughes settled on a grip that he had used in high school. Hughes actually had thrown a slider in high school, but Yankees coaches soon after he was drafted told him to swap the pitch for a curveball. The Yankees believed that as a pitcher who throws over the top, Hughes would better benefit from a pitch, like the curve, that tilted downward. Sure enough, the curve became an important pitch in Hughes' development.
But the slider might become an even more important pitch for him. Since adopting the slider, Hughes has become a vastly different pitcher. He is finally living up to the potential placed on him, and he's setting himself up for a possible big pay at the end of the season when he becomes a free agent.
The slider is now arguably Hughes' best pitch. Last season, when Hughes was simply toying with the idea of adopting the slider, he threw the pitch only 5 percent of the time. But he had success with it. Hitters swung and missed Hughes' slider a remarkable 35 percent of the time, more than 15 percentage points higher than any of his other pitches. Batters had just a .146 average with a .313 slugging percentage against Hughes' slider in 2012.
"It's a side to side pitch," Yankees catcher Chris Stewart said. "Before he was pretty much an up and down pitcher, with his fastball up and down, curveball up and down. It helps expand the plate when he's able to go side to side with the pitch. It's another pitch to put into the hitter's mind that they have to be aware of. At the same time, it's something he can throw with two strikes, and expand the plate to get hitters to swing at pitches they don't necessarily swing at."
The plan was for Hughes to increase his usage of the slider during spring training this year. But Hughes missed three with a bulging disk in his back. Hughes was immediately thrust into the Yankees rotation once he felt healthy, although he struggled in first few starts while he got back in shape. But in his past four outings, Hughes is 3-2 with a 1.93 ERA. He has struck out 30 batters in 28 innings, a 9.64 strikeout per nine innings average that would be the second highest of his career.
Again, the slider has made all the difference. This season Hughes has upped his slider usage to 21 percent. Batters swing and miss at Hughes' slider 32 percent of the time and have hit just .111 with a .222 slugging percentage.
"It's given me a different look, especially when I have my good fastball," Hughes said. "I think guys have to commit to one or the other. With my curveball they could sort of see it out of my hand. And the changeup isn't really that effective to right-handers. I think the slider has given me a way to combat right-handed hitters, which really gave me trouble last year. It was unusual because right-handed hitters hit close to .300 (.308), and lefties were really under that (.211). I felt the slider as its developed has given me a weapon, especially against right-handed batters."
The challenge now will come when hitters adjust to Hughes' slider. If they expect to see it more often, can Hughes still be successful?
"There's always adjustments that go on, from the time I came up, I can't even remember how many times I've had to try and change what I do," Hughes said. "But at the same time even if they make an adjustment and look for a slider, it just makes my fastball better if I have good command of it. As long as my stuff stays sharp, I don't feel like I have to change much."
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Arangure has been a baseball writer since 2003. He has worked as a senior writer for ESPN and The Washington Post. He's still looking for a Mexican restaurant in New York City that's as good as something from his hometowns of Tijuana/San Diego. He doesn't think he'll find one.