It was only a few years ago that Jared Hughes looked like a guy who would wash out in the upper levels of the minors. The 2011 season was the fourth year where he spent time at the Double-A level. He had put up less than impressive numbers as a starting pitcher, and combined for a 4.09 ERA in 61.2 innings that season, spanning 13 appearances and 11 starts.
In the second half of the season he was moved up to Triple-A, and made an important move to the bullpen. Suddenly he looked like a prospect who could reach the majors, with a 2.11 ERA in 42.2 innings of relief. What was even better was his strikeout rate, which jumped to a 9.5 K/9, way up from the 4.8 K/9 in Altoona that same year as a starter. By the end of the season he was pitching in the majors, making 11 appearances in September.
Hughes would return to the majors for a full season in 2012, posting a 2.85 ERA in 75.2 innings, thanks in large part to a heavy ground ball approach. Despite that success, he struggled in 2013, and spent the season moving back and forth from Triple-A, pitching just 32 innings in the majors with a 4.78 ERA, largely due to a lack of control.
Now Hughes is coming off another good season. In a 2014 season where the Pirates’ middle relievers were a disaster, Hughes was the lone bright spot, posting a 1.96 ERA in 64.1 innings. His xFIP of 3.79 suggests he won’t continue to be that good, but the advanced metrics point to numbers that would warrant a Major League stay.
The Pirates have a few openings in the bullpen, and Hughes would seem to be a favorite for one of those spots with his 2014 numbers. However, he’s not counting on a spot just yet.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned, that you never really have a spot,” Hughes said. “I really have to continue to just get better. Physically, mentally, all of the above. Just continue progressing. I can’t really worry too much if I have a spot or not, but I do know that I’m going to go out there and give them my all everyday, and I’m going to win a spot on this team.”
One issue with Hughes is the fact that he’s a sinkerball pitcher. In his time in the majors, he has thrown his fastball a whopping 85.7% of the time. Breaking that down, he uses the sinker 63.2% of the time, and the four-seam fastball 21% of the time. Last year he upped the usage of the sinker to 77.5% of the time. But the pitch can sometimes be ineffective, especially when it’s not down in the zone.
“I know the things that work for me, and obviously I’m a sinkerball pitcher and keeping the ball down is really important,” Hughes said. “Even though it’s the same thing I’ve said in years past, it’s not always down. So it’s one of those things where I really want to continue getting on top of the ball, keeping it down, because that’s the pitch that gets the ground balls.”
Hughes said that keeping the ball down is more of a feeling thing, rather than an issue with his grip or his mechanics. The goal can be achieved by committing to the pitch. He did a great job of keeping the ball down and generating ground balls in 2014, although he didn’t give total credit to the pitch. Hughes also credited his preparation, workouts, and his coaches. The latter part shows the benefits of familiarity.
The 2015 season will be the tenth year that Hughes has been in the Pirates’ organization. Prior to working with pitching coaches Ray Searage and Euclides Rojas in the majors, he spent time with each coach in the minors. Searage was his pitching coach in the Arizona Fall League in 2008. Rojas was one of the pitching coordinators in the organization for years before joining the MLB staff.
“Over the years they figured out the keys that work for me. It’s really quick. When they see something, they tell me, and it’s better,” Hughes said. “We speak the same language. There’s no doubt we speak the same language in terms of mechanics.”
Hughes is also working on his secondary stuff this year. He said that he is working hard on his slider, and would love to incorporate changeups more this year.
“It’s a pitch that I used at times last year, and when I used it, it was usually effective,” Hughes said. “So I’ve got confidence in it. It’s just a matter of getting it into games in Spring Training, and using it then, so that when the season comes around, I’ve got it in the arsenal.”
The bread and butter will be his sinker. Last year he used the pitch to generate a 64.6% ground ball rate, which ranked fourth in the majors out of 330 pitchers who threw 50+ innings. With the Pirates’ focus on defense and shifting, a similar ground ball rate should lead to strong results this year, and likely will allow Hughes to keep his ERA below the advanced metrics once again.