Friday, September 02, 2011

Hughes the Force, Luke

Out of options next season, infielder Luke Hughes has certainly made the most of his late season audition so far.
Never considered a blue chip prospect in the minors, Hughes garnered attention in 2008 when he had what some viewed as his Great Leap Forward – hitting .309/.369/.524 with 18 home runs split between New Britain and Rochester. That fanfare would not last long as he would be sidelined with various ailments, including a hernia that required season-ending surgery in 2010.
Even if he isn’t a touted prospect, Hughes definitely has shown a decent enough right-handed bat and utility capabilities in the field that would propel him upwards to Minnesota. Playing in parts of April, May, June and July this season, he had been tasked with manning second, first, third and some occasional DH duties. Although the defense has been adequate enough, offensively Hughes had been hit-or-miss. Over the course of his first 198 plate appearances in 2011 he posted a .233/.296/.317 batting line with nine extra base hits - three of which were home runs.
Judging from that performance, there was nothing to suggest that Hughes’ ceiling was anything more than a utility player or platoon bat…in Triple-A.
Meanwhile, since his recall in August he has provided the Twins’ lineup with what is becoming an exceedingly rare source of wallop. His contact rate is still down, as evidence by his 14 strikeouts in 44 plate appearances, but when he does connect he is packing a punch. In August, he has collected 10 hits, seven of which have gone for extra bases while four of those had left the yard.
This is not just a four-game phenomenon either. In his last 10 games in Rochester prior to being recalled, Hughes mashed to the tune of .333/.366/.641 with seven extra base hits – two home runs - in 41 plate appearances.
When there is a sudden onslaught of power, it does not surprise me to discover that there are some modifications that accompany the surge. For Hughes, those modifications start with his hand set-up – elevating his bat position to his head-level and holding the bat almost parallel to the ground.
Here we see a front view of his set-up of his new stance followed by the pre-demotion one:
Some regular readers may recall that this is the same adjustment that Delmon Young made back in June. Heading into the early June Texas series in which he made his changes, Young was hitting just .219/.250/.271 with six extra base hits in 164 plate appearances. From that point forward until he was traded to Detroit, Young hit .313/.360/.447 with 14 extra base hits in 161 plate appearances so you can see how the tinkering helped tap back into Young’s power vein.
Another component of this retooling is that Hughes has reduced his weight transfer on to his back leg. In the first clip from June we find Hughes making a significant shift from his front leg to his back one when loading up for his swing. Because of this, you see that his head changes planes:   
When hitters show this kind of instability it means that they wind up hitting the top of the baseball more than desired. For the first several months of the season, Hughes had a high groundball rate helping verify that this may have been influencing his game.
Fast forward to August and this highlight demonstrates why Hughes’ alteration is critical adjustment in the hitting process. In it we see a very stable backside – there is little front-to-back shift in his body when loading up. This keeps his head still and on one plane: 
The result of this has been a better line of vision leading to square contact – and a big increase in line drives and fly balls.
It is difficult to tell if Hughes can maintain this pace. Mechanical changes can have sustained results (as Curtis Granderson and Jose Bautista have proven) or a temporary boost (as Delmon Young has shown time and again). The difference is a player’s ability to select the right pitches and demonstrate some patience. For his minor league career, Hughes has not shown a high aptitude for drawing walks. Likewise, scouts and pitchers will begin to find a combination that might slow a hitter’s hot streak down – be it a heavy dose of breaking stuff or fastballs in on the hands – and Hughes has yet to be tested.