Why the San Francisco Giants Should Pursue Phil Hughes, Not Bronson Arroyo


Aug 15, 2013; Bronx, NY, USA; New York Yankees starting pitcher Phil Hughes (65) pitches during the first inning against the Los Angeles Angels at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

The San Francisco Giants entered the offseason with a list of goals. Atop that list? Finding a starter or two to fill a rotation that had only two pitchers under contract for 2014.

So far, so good.  Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain have been penciled in for a long while now. Following them is Tim Lincecum, who the Giants re-signed before the curtains closed on the postseason. He’ll be back on a two-year, $35 million pact. And following Lincecum is TIm Hudson, who the Giants signed for two years, $23 million. He’ll take the reins of the No. 4 spot in the rotation.

That leaves one spot and one interesting scenario conjured up by yours truly: If the Giants had to choose between Bronson Arroyo and Phil Hughes, who would they pick?

Hint: It is Hughes. But first, let’s get the details out of the way.

ESPN’s Jim Bowden recently tweeted that the Giants still have interest in Arroyo. To clarify, the “still” is needed there because that was in the wake of the Hudson signing and while San Francisco does need one more starter to fill out its rotation, that vacancy could be filled with a cheaper internal option. If you’re looking for names, Yusmeiro Petit is a perfect example.

As for Hughes, well, that idea kinda-sorta comes out of left field. The New York Yankees castoff hasn’t directly been linked to the Giants. All we have to speculate with is a tweet from Mike Berardino of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, who was told that Hughes will likely end up in National League West.

That means that the Los Angeles Dodgers, San Diego Padres, Arizona Diamondbacks, Colorado Rockies and the Giants could all be in play. Of course, not all of four NL West teams need Hughes. Los Angeles just recently signed Dan Haren to a one-year pact. San Diego did the same by signing Josh Johnson. Arizona hasn’t added a starter (yet), but Chase Field isn’t an ideal fit for Hughes’ fly-ball tendencies. The same can be said about Coors Field and its not-so friendly environment for pitchers.

That leaves the Giants. Hence my speculation.

Sep 28, 2013; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Bronson Arroyo (61) takes the field during the first inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Great American Ball Park. Mandatory Credit: Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

So…the point is: If it comes down to Arroyo or Hughes (and it very well could, with the starting pitchers rapidly flying off the board), the Giants should splurge on Hughes, not Arroyo.

Don’t get me wrong, Arroyo is a solid option. He eats up innings (average of 211 per year since 2005) and he’s pretty consistent (104 ERA+ in the same span–4 percent better than league average, in other words). As far as No. 5 starters go, that would be hard to beat.

Better yet, Arroyo isn’t going to break the bank, nor is he fishing for what, say, Ervin Santana is fishing for (five-year deal upwards of $100 million). In comparison, Arroyo is looking for is a two or three-year deal, probably with an average annual salary in the neighborhood of $15 million.

Which is reasonable. Very reasonable, especially when teams have an extra $25 million to spend due to the new national TV deals. Put simply: There’s a ton of money lying around. And money lying around means money to spend.

So, if Arroyo nets a three-year deal in $40 million range, well, that wouldn’t be the biggest overpay in history. All hell wouldn’t break loose.

But on the same token, dishing out said deal to Arroyo wouldn’t be much of a bargain. If we use FanGraphs’ WAR-based value system, we’ll find that just once has Arroyo been worth at least $15 million in a single year–2006. In 2013, he was worth a mere $3.8 million, and just once since 2009 has he been worth more than $10 million.

Jul 2, 2013; Minneapolis, MN, USA; New York Yankees starting pitcher Phil Hughes (65) delivers a pitch in the first inning against the Minnesota Twins at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Hughes, on the other hand, could be one of those bargain pickups. Everybody loves a bargain pickup, especially–emphasis on the especially–general managers.

On the surface, Hughes looks broken. His numbers are far from appealing, as his 4.65 ERA over the last four years portrays. His peripherals (4.50 FIP, 4.39 xFIP) don’t give him much justice either.

So why could he be a bargain pickup? Well, there are a couple of things.

No. 1: At 27 years old, he’s still young. Meaning, he could settle (he might have to settle, actually) on a one or two-year deal in attempt to rebuild his value and thus, land a lengthier, more lucrative contract before he hits 30. Such a deal could fall in the one-year, $8 million range that MLB Trade Rumors pegged him at, give or take a couple million. Point is: It won’t sniff what Arroyo gets.

No. 2 is specifically directed towards him landing in San Francisco, and I bet you could guess exactly what I’m poking at. Hint: It has to do with the friendly pitching confines of AT&T Park.

Ah, yes, Hughes’ fly-ball tendencies. Per FanGraphs, Hughes’ 46.8 percent fly-ball percentage since 2010 is third in baseball. He does indeed pack a knack for inducing the fly ball.

That can be good and bad. In Yankee Stadium (formerly Hughes’ home park), for example, it’s bad. Very bad. If we visit ESPN Park Factors, it’ll confirm that Yankee Stadium is a flat-out hitters’ park. In terms of home runs, it was the ninth-most hitter-friendly park in baseball in 2013. In 2012, it was the eighth-most friendly. And so on.

Given that Hughes is very familiar with Yankee Stadium (and not so much in a good way, for the most part), it’s then no wonder that his 1.44 HR/9 rate since 2010 checks in as the sixth-highest mark in baseball.

Attributing Hughes’ lofty home run rates entirely to Yankee Stadium’s small dimensions would indeed be obscuring the fact that Hughes did have some other issues–opposing hitters smacked around his fastball to the tune of a .917 OPS in 2013, for example.

But … two words: AT&T Park. It’s pretty much a pitcher’s heaven. Call it the opposite of Yankee Stadium. Since 2010, it’s been in the bottom 20 (usually very near or at the bottom) in yielding home runs, which, if you connect the dots, would figure to fit Hughes’ batted-ball tendencies very well.

So there are a couple of things working in Hughes’ favor, even more so if he winds up in San Francisco.

Another thing working in his favor: Hughes, even during this four-year rough patch (2010-2013), has been more valuable than Arroyo, by WAR’s reckoning, at least. That is not a typo.

Observe (2010-13 statistics):

[table id=6 /]

Give the edge to Arroyo in ERA, xFIP and BB% departments. Narrow leads (except for ERA), at that. And for Hughes, he holds leads in the FIP, K% and WAR departments.

Now, what exactly do these numbers mean?

For Arroyo, the gist of it is this: Change could be bad. Since he doesn’t pile up the strikeouts, that leaves more room for the defense behind him to kick the ball around. The catch, though, is that his former team, the Cincinnati Reds, didn’t kick the ball around much, netting baseball’s fourth-best defensive value rating in 2013.

If you prefer a larger sample size, let’s go back to 2010. Same story–the Reds, per FanGraphs’ all-in-one defensive value metric, have been baseball’s best defensive team during that span–take into account that players come and go, so it’s far from the exact same defensive alignment in those four years. It’s certainly an interesting trend, however, and it’s safe to call Arroyo a fortunate fellow.

July 22, 2013; San Francisco, CA, USA; Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Bronson Arroyo (61) delivers a pitch during the ninth inning against the San Francisco Giants at AT

At least to some degree.

Because Arroyo does have a knack for inducing a decent amount of fly balls (35.3 FB% in 2013, 28th-highest in baseball). That habit does help him out a bit, because fly balls don’t yield as much bad luck as ground balls–think slow rollers in no man’s land, choppers, speedy runners. You get the point.

Fly balls aren’t all good, though. Home runs are, after all, a part of being a fly-ball pitcher, and Arroyo has given up his fair share of long balls. His 12.8 HR/FB rate since 2010 is right up there (11th-highest).

As for Hughes, well, he holds a significant lead in the WAR department. Thus…He’s instantly a WAR hero. He’s more valuable than Arroyo, and nothing else matters, right?

Sort of. WAR measures a player’s overall value. Hughes had a higher WAR than Arroyo did in 2013. So that’s how we reach the “more valuable” conclusion, but that’s a bit inconclusive. I hate to kill the mood, but there’s more to it than just WAR.

To avoid cutting ourselves short, below we have their opponents’ wOBA (Weighted On-Base Average) numbers–wOBA basically measures a hitter’s overall offensive impact.

[table id=7 /]

By my count, Arroyo has the edge in three of the four years–remember, lower is, obviously, better.

So if we throw all the data together, Arroyo has a marginal edge. But that’s the key word: marginal. Yet the difference in Hughes’ and Arroyo’s contracts likely won’t be marginal.


That leads us to a pretty definitive conclusion. Given Hughes’ age (he’s about nine years younger than Arroyo), upside and cheaper demands, the Giants should pursue him over Arroyo. Simple the fact that they’re almost equal on paper while the money is projected to tilt vastly in Arroyo’s favor seals the deal.