Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, AJ Burnett. When examining how the Yankees have transformed from a team that last year missed the playoffs into the most dominant squad in all of baseball this season, these are the names — arguably the three most noteworthy free agent signings this past offseason — that instantly jump to the forefront of one's thoughts.
And then, of course, there is the captain Derek Jeter having one of the best seasons of his career in his new leadoff role, Mariano Rivera and his 38 saves and 1.78 ERA, and Robinson Cano with his AL-leading 289 total bases. But overlooked amongst the collection of stars and future Hall of Famers populating the Yankees' roster is a pitcher who arguably may be the Yankees' most valuable player (in the strictest interpretation of added value to winning), setup man Phil Hughes.
Called up from AAA to be the Yankees' fifth starter after Chien-Ming Wang went on the disabled list, Hughes struggled mightily in the rotation. From April 28th to May 31 Phil started seven games, throwing 34 2/3 innings while posting a 3-2 record and an unimpressive 5.45 ERA, surrendering 21 runs on 37 hits, striking out 31 and walking 15. Because of his lack of success, when Wang was healthy enough to return, Yankee manager Joe Girardi decided to reinsert the two-time 19 game winner back into the slot occupied by Hughes. But this was not the only important decision the Yankees manager was faced with.
Girardi — his team struggling due in no small part to a highly unstable bullpen — had two options in deciding how to handle Hughes' future. He could either send the youngster back down to the minors, keeping him in his starting role and allowing him to get innings as such at the AAA level, or he could move Phil to the bullpen, allowing him to continue to face major league-caliber opponents but drastically changing the role of a starter projected for such a profusely successful future success that the Yankees refused to include him in a deal for Johan Santana. It took guts but Girardi made his decision and he stuck too it, even after Wang went down for a second trip to the DL (this time for the rest of the season). While the call to make Hughes the setup man was undoubtedly difficult, Girardi has been more than rewarded for his decisiveness and fortitude in sticking with his decision.
Since moving to the setup role on June 8, Hughes has been nothing short of outstanding. In 40 2/3 innings, the 23-year-old pitcher is sporting a minuscule 1.11 ERA, surrendering only 5 runs on 22 hits and striking out 54 while walking only 10. In this span, the opposition is hitting only .156 against Hughes with a paltry .212 OBP and a .411 OPS. He has 15 holds as a setup man and has even picked up three saves, recently filling in for the injured Rivera and allowing his red-hot team to never miss a beat, even with the greatest closer of all time sidelined for a short period of time with a sore groin.
Looking at the Yankees' roster it is understandable how the name Phil Hughes could get lost in the mix. Jeter and Teixeira will both make claims to the MVP at the end of this season, and CC Sabathia and his league-leading 16 wins could make an outside case for the Cy Young award. Throw in the aforementioned "greatest closer of all time" and it may seem hard to make the case that a setup man could possibly be notable amongst such an overwhelming cache of talent.
But the statistics are clear; Phil Hughes is arguably the best setup man in baseball today. Girardi's brilliant decision to move Phil into this role — and most importantly — to keep him there despite the Yankees' continuing difficulties finding a viable fifth starter, has now given New York a consistent and effective structure by which to shorten the span in which an opponent can feasibly beat the team. With the Yankees potent offense and strong starting rotation, the Hughes/Rivera connection has been vitally crucial for a team that has made a habit out of the late-inning come-from-behind win.
Especially important come playoff time, hitters go into slumps and even the top aces in the game occasionally have bad starts, but in Phil Hughes the Yankees now know that if they can keep a ball game close into the eighth inning, they will have every opportunity to win that game without the opposition scoring further. If the tendency is to underestimate the importance of this factor, reference the Yankees' teams 1996 to 2001. Even after Rivera assumed the closer role and Wetteland packed off to Texas, players like Jeff Nelson, Mike Stanton, and Ramiro Mendoza were crucial to the success of those Torre-led championship teams, and Phil Hughes is much better than any of the players who formerly manned the setup role in front of Rivera.