Earlier in the week, we talked about Phil Hughes and his need for a put away pitch. In that article, I mentioned that his fastball wasn’t good enough to get by on its own. There are a few different reasons for that, though, and they are all intertwined.

As outlined previously, Hughes has had somewhat of an over-reliance on the pitch, especially in 2012; the pitch has good-but-not-great velocity, and is fairly straight; and he has good control but poor command of the pitch.

If he only had one or two of these issues, it would be far less of a problem. However, combining all three spells trouble. A pitcher can rely heavily on his fastball, if it is overpowering or if he has pinpoint control. He can get by with catching too much of the plate if he has great velocity. And he can be successful with decent velocity if he locates the pitch well. Hughes, though, has not been able to excel in any of those areas, so his shortfalls in each of them are compounding on each other.

If he adds a good breaking pitch, as discussed in the previous article, he might be able to get by with his fastball where it is. It will still cause trouble, but it could at least be somewhat limited. But either way, he needs to find a way to improve his command.

Hughes has been able to throw his fastball for strikes, but he has not thrown QUALITY strikes. Here are his fastball heat maps from last season (courtesy of Fangraphs):

heatmap1
heatmap2

That’s a TON of pitches near the middle of the plate and relatively few near the corners. Major League hitters love to see pitches in those areas of the plate. In fact, they love it so much that they were offering at Phil’s fastball 52.74% of the time – the second highest swing rate of any starter who threw at least 500 four seamers last year.

Hitters were jumping out of their shoes to swing at his fastball last year, and with good cause: when they made contact, the ball was going a long way, yielding a .470 SLG and .211 ISO, both career highs (as in bad for Hughes). If Phil threw harder, he might have been able to get away with that kind of command. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have overpowering velocity.

Hughes’ fastball ranged from 86 mph to 95.6 mph last year, sitting at 92 mph on average. There’s nothing wrong with that – 92 mph is slightly above league average for starting pitchers and there are plenty of hurlers who live in the low 90s successfully. But they do so with either stellar command or good complimentary pitches.

Matt Cain, for instance, has averaged 91.8 mph over his career, but has mixed in a good slider and change-up to keep hitters guessing. It was the other pitches that were key to his success. If relied as heavily on his fastball as Hughes does, he likely wouldn’t be as successful.

And then there’s Jeremy Hellickson. He averaged 91.3 mph on his fastball last year but his wFA (runs above or below average for a particular pitch) was 2.8 where Hughes’ was at 0.2. This is largely because Hellickson painted the corners and yielded a .384 SLG and .135 ISO. He did have a 10.6% BB% on his fastball where Hughes was at 6.0%, but he was able to overcome those additional walks largely by preventing hitters from driving his fastball for extra bases. This could end up being somewhat of a double-edged sword for Hellickson in the future, as the walks could come back to bite him eventually. Still, it’s probably safer to issue a few walks by painting the corners than it is to surrender homers by leaving the ball up and over the plate.

If Phil is ever to become more than a league-average starter, improving his fastball command would be a big step in the right direction.