Phil Hughes was legitimately annoyed when he walked Chicago’s Jordan Danks last Saturday. Few pitchers hate walking batters the way Hughes does, and he knew the walk had some implications on a little-known statistic — one he could set a new single-season mark for by year’s end.
As Hughes prepares to start Friday’s game against Cleveland, he does so with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 11.0 — 176 strikeouts and 16 walks. That equals the best single-season ratio in the history of baseball, matching the mark set by Mets pitcher Bret Saberhagen in 1994. With that second-inning walk to Danks on Saturday, Hughes knew he had to pick up 11 strikeouts to get back to that ratio.
Sure enough, he did just that. But several days later, the walk to Danks — just the 16th walk Hughes has issued in 194 2/3 innings this season — still ate at him.
"I’m disappointed giving up walks whatever the case, especially when I have a guy 0-2," Hughes said, alluding to the Danks at-bat in which the Twins righty got ahead in the count. "I sort of tried to avoid walks, whatever the situation. It was disappointing in the moment. Hopefully my next couple starts out, I can avoid them and see where it shakes out at the end."
It could shake out to be the best strikeout-to-walk ratio in baseball history. Sitting behind Saberhagen’s all-time record is Cliff Lee, who had 10.28 strikeouts for every walk back in 2010. You have to go all the way back to 1884 — Jim Whitney of the Boston Beaneaters — to find the only other instance of a pitcher striking out 10 batters per walk in a single season.
Most of Hughes’ other numbers during his first year in a Twins uniform have been impressive, including his 3.56 ERA and 15 victories. He’s already set a new career high for most innings in a season and should top the 200-inning mark in Friday’s game.
But it’s Hughes’ ability to limit walks while also racking up strikeouts that’s been historic.
"I don’t think I would put a whole lot of stock into it," Hughes said. "For me, it’s about quality starts, giving us a chance to win, limiting runs. Those are the key numbers. That’s what translates to wins and losses. It’d be kind of a cool thing, but certainly not an earth-shattering mark by any means. You could have an unbelievable strikeout-to-walk ratio and still give up a ton of runs. Limiting runs and winning games is what we’re here to do, and everything else just kind of comes with that."
Before this season, Hughes’ best strikeout-to-walk ratio was 2012 with the Yankees, when he posted 165 strikeouts and walked 46 batters — a ratio of 3.59. So why the drastic jump?
Hughes didn’t have a complicated answer when asked for the key to this year’s success.
"Just trusting my stuff and attacking the zone," he said. "I wish I had a more elaborate answer for you. I feel like my mechanics have been pretty sound for the most part this year, allowing myself to repeat my delivery and throw a lot of strikes."
Whatever the reason, the Twins will take it. Minnesota is an organization that has prided itself on limiting walks — even if Twins pitchers haven’t always possessed the greatest strikeout potential. Manager Ron Gardenhire cites the likes of Brad Radke, who led the league in 2001 when he struck out 5.27 batters per walk. In his career, Radke ranks 34th all time in baseball history with a 3.30 K/BB ratio. Twins general manager Terry Ryan brought up the name of Carlos Silva, whose 7.89 K/BB ratio was the best in the league in 2005 and ranks 17th best in a single season.
Hughes has a chance to top all of them in his first season of a three-year, $24 million deal with Minnesota.
"You can tell that he thinks about that," Gardenhire said. "He doesn’t want to put people on free. He believes in throwing the ball in and out and over the plate. He worked hard at it this year. If you look at his numbers, it’s kind of in ridiculous territory how well he’s thrown the ball over the plate (with) that few walks for that many innings. That’s pretty amazing. You don’t see too many guys being able to do something like that and have success."
Before the season, Hughes ditched his slider — "never a pitch that I really felt great with" — to focus on the rest of his repertoire. His curveball has been a big pitch for Hughes this year, but he said the ability to establish his cutter on both sides of the plate has been instrumental in limiting the walks while piling up the strikeouts.
As for that historic mark Hughes is chasing? He admits it’s on his mind as he prepares for his last few starts of the season. But if he doesn’t get it, he won’t be heartbroken.
"Obviously our job as pitchers is to not allow runs, and that’s the ultimate goal," Hughes said. "The other things are a good indicator of how good of a job you’re doing with that. If I can go out there and throw a shutout every time, I don’t really care what anything else says, whatever numbers I have or anything like that. That’s basically what it boils down to. I’m not trying to limit walks and get a bunch of strikeouts and everything else is out the window. I’m trying to get outs first and foremost and everything else kind of falls into place."