In Game 3 of the ALCS against the Tigers, Yankees' starter Phil Hughes exited with a back injury. It wasn't a new problem, as Hughes has re-aggravated a herniated disk injury from 2004 before. But it's a reminder that injuries have played a significant part in the stalling of Hughes' career, and at a time when the Yankees needed him to pull through, they got in the way once again.
Hughes doesn't think that he'll miss any time -- the pain wasn't as serious as last year's recurrence, when Hughes reportedly could not get out of bed. But his departure forced the Yankees to use their bullpen for five innings. With the way their offense has been -- New York has scored just five runs in three games, and just 2.6 runs per game in the playoffs -- they need their pitching to be rested and effective.
Even if this doesn't harm New York's chances, there have been other moments where injuries have held Hughes back. It's hard to remember now, but Hughes wasn't just a promising pitching prospect. He was considered the best in all the minors.
Baseball America rated Hughes fourth in their top 100 heading into 2007. He was the second pitcher on the list; the first minor-league hurler to rank, Daisuke Matsuzaka, imported from Japan, was the other. At Baseball Prospectus, Hughes was rated second, the top hurler ranked. This all came a season after Hughes was named the top prospect in the Double-A Eastern League -- expectations were high for the 2004 first-round selection, but Hughes appeared to have the stuff to reach them.
Injuries were not a new thing for him upon reaching the majors. They had already crept into his minor-league career, cutting into his innings. Hughes threw just 91 frames in his first two years in the pros: he was shut down in his initial campaign with a sore elbow that turned out to be tendinitis, and upon his return, broke his toe, ending his debut campaign at five innings. While he didn't miss time because of when it occurred, this is also when he dealt with the herniated disc in his back. Following the 2005 season, Baseball America went into more detail about his health:
One Yankees official has called Hughes Mark Prior light since he joined the organization... Like Prior, Hughes has not been durable the last two years. He has pitched for three teams as a pro and has ended each stint on the disabled list... Hughes hasn't needed surgery, and the Yankees insist the biggest hurdle he must overcome with regard to his health is getting to know his body better. All pitchers get sore, but Hughes has to learn what soreness is to be expected over the course of a season and what's unusual.
As we'll find out eventually, Hughes still might not have that last bit down.
In the second half of 2006, the Yankees started to limit Hughes' workload. He was still just 20 years old, and had exhibited injury concerns, so New York was right to be careful. Because he was able to reach 146 innings even with the limitations, Baseball America felt Hughes had "emphatically" answered the durability question, and it was likely he would see the majors in 2007.
Hughes would start eight games in the minors, but most of his season came with New York. The right-hander tossed 72 innings over 13 starts there, but would have pitched even more if not for -- wait for it -- an injury. Hughes strained his hamstring, and spent 94 days and 85 games on the disabled list. He was rehabbing for a return weeks after the initial strain, but then suffered a grade 3 ankle sprain while performing agility drills during said rehab. In 2008, injuries struck again, with Hughes suffering a stress fracture in his rib cage, an injury discovered after a dip in velocity. This would keep him out for 118 games, limiting him to 34 innings in the majors, and another 35 in the minors.
In 2009, two years removed from his big-league debut, Hughes was finally healthy. The Yankees didn't use him as a starter, though, instead using sticking him in the bullpen. The Yankees didn't find a real fifth starter that season -- Hughes started seven contests, and four others combined for another 25 starts -- but it didn't hurt the eventual World Series winners, nor Hughes, who posted a 152 ERA+ with 10 punch outs per nine.
That success led him back to the rotation the following season. Hughes threw a career-high 176 innings, made the all-star team, and posted a league-average ERA+. The 2011 season undid this progress, though: shoulder inflammation cost him 73 games, and it was plain to see before the DL stint that he was hurting. Hughes' velocity had fallen dramatically, just as it did before the stress fracture was discovered in 2008. Fastball velocity doesn't tend to slip as much as it did for Hughes on either occasion without an underlying injury, and Hughes had failed to find his heater throughout spring training and the start of the year, when he gave up 16 runs in his first 10 innings. While he was better after his return, he wasn't exactly good, either, with a 4.48 ERA and 1.9 K/BB, and the Yankees were concerned with his conditioning by year's end.
Hughes was healthy this season, but just average once more. Homers ruined him, undoing much of what his great K/BB should have accomplished. Hughes has shown he can start in the majors, but he's a long way from who he was supposed to be. Had he been pitching routinely, rather than spending significant time disabled, things could be different for the 26-year-old. The Yankees, if they had the homegrown ace they expected these last five years, might have a different history themselves. Hughes is still young enough to make things right -- Homer Bailey says hello -- but each season makes it harder to hope for that.