My NY wife loves the Yanks, and so I've adopted them as my AL team, but I had to let her know it was likely going to be a tough year for both her team and the rival Red Sox. In fact, I almost tried to wager the farm on the under 87.5 preseason win total. I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop in the Bronx, but so far it’s looking like that may have been a good bet to fail to make. There have been a number of pleasant surprises in New York, but one who appears to be slipping under the radar in many leagues is Phil Hughes. With a scheduled start Friday inflating his ownership numbers slightly to 50% (on account of the streamers), Hughes has strung together a very impressive season despite a 1-2 record through 6 games. Through his last 4 starts, he’s pitched 28 innings and racked up 30 Ks (9.64 K/9) while surrendering only 5 walks, and it was a 3-IP, 5-ER blow-up against Baltimore that has destroyed his ERA in the early going. More and more, though, that outing is looking like the outlier to a strong start to the 2013 season.
It's still a small sample size, but a closer look at Hughes’s numbers reveals that he’s made some minor improvements that could be driving this improvement. He’s relying on his slider a lot more than usual (18% of pitches thrown compared to a career average of 3%), and it’s working as evidenced by the PITCHf/x data. Overall, he’s getting batters to swing more and swing more outside the zone, and his swinging strike rate is up above previous years. Looking back at the trend he started last year, there’s reason to believe these improvements will continue to hold and could result in another step forward this season.
The more luck driven numbers are inconclusive as his LOB% (80%) which has always hovered around the league average (72%) indicates a few more runs will cross the plate, but a .343 BABIP should regress going forward, resulting in fewer baserunners. Hughes's batted ball profile is fairly average, and while it’s a small piece of the pie, he only has 1 infield popup which should even out, too.
Depending on the depth of your league, Hughes may not be someone you pick up and hold, but he’s at a minimum worthy of a spot start, especially with the right matchup. Wins are fluky so don’t let those fool you, but if he can maintain a K/9 above at least 8.5 and keep his K/BB above 4.0, we may be seeing the emergence of a much more useful pitcher. We’ll keep an eye on his next few starts to see if Hughes is on the verge of a post-hype sleeper breakout season.
Other interesting options in Miami – Recently discussed in our excellent Fringe Waiver Targets column, I couldn't help but dig into the stats a little more on Kevin Slowey, as I’ve been a fan of the control specialist since his days in Minnesota. Known for a stellar career BB% of 3.8%, this year he’s put together quite a start to the season with a 1.81 ERA, sub-1.00 WHIP and a K/9 of 7.25 (never a big strikeout guy, this is actually better than his career average of 6.75 K/9). Averaging over 6 IP per start, he’s 5-for-7 in QS (twice he didn't make it out of the 6th) but only has a 1-2 record due to poor run support playing for the Quad-A Marlins. With an ownership rate of only 39%, it doesn't appear that many owners have bought the hype thus far, and the underlying numbers seem to indicate there could be reason for skepticism. His .250 BABIP, 5.7% HR/FB and 87.9% LOB should all regress to the mean, and they explain why his FIP, xFIP and SIERA all say his ERA is 1-2 runs below where it should be. Even hitters’ plate discipline against him doesn't appear to have changed much, which makes me think the K rate will still just remain average at best.
At this point, I’m giving a partial endorsement on Slowey contingent upon your league set up. If you're in a heavy streaming league, he’s definitely worth continuing to roll the dice with until he shows signs of slipping; in an NL-only or very deep league he’s definitely worth the add to see if he has figured out something new. On the other hand, if your league has a starts cap, I would be a little more hesitant, because despite the solid control, Slowey is not a WHIP specialist, and the strikeout upside and win potential just aren't there-- you'd likely be better off streaming high upside setup guys. If your league counts QS in addition to or in place of wins, then Slowey gets a bump. The 31st- ranked pitcher on ESPN’s player rater, Slowey is a great example of the type of player owners who are cognizant of their league rules can jump on when the opportunity is right and get the most out of their bench spots.
While speaking of Marlins’ hurlers, I'd probably take the gamble on Jose Fernandez fresh off a dominant bounceback outing if I had to choose between the two. He has the excellent combination of a K/9 above 9.0 and a GB% above 50%, and the secondary ERA numbers all suggest he’s actually been unlucky and deserves an ERA better than his current 3.48 mark.
For owners looking to stay current on pitchers to target, remember to check out our Ultimate Waiver Wire Watch List (updated daily) where you can find great updates and feedback on pitchers and position players from the staff here at RotoBaller.com.