Jared Hughes: From Failing Double-A Starter to High Leverage MLB Reliever

Moving into a high-leverage situation in the Pirates bullpen is not something that Jared Hughes was sure was going to happen just a few short years back.

Similar to the path of Tony Watson, Hughes started his journey as a starting pitcher, and looked like he was going to flush out of the system before advancing past Double-A.

“The climb through the minors was really long,” Hughes said. “It was tough and I went through a lot with not much success. I think that I just found success at the right time in Triple-A and I was able to come up here in September and help out.”

For Hughes, who was drafted in the fourth round in 2006, the 2011 season was the fourth campaign that he spent time at the Double-A level. Unlike a lot of pitchers who find themselves and develop, control was never the issue that created the standstill. Instead, Hughes was simply too hittable, en route to a 4.09 ERA in that season with Altoona.

However, in getting some time with Indianapolis that season, Hughes found himself. He tossed 42.2 innings, allowing 35 hits and boasting a strong 2.11 ERA. He even earned a call up and showed what he could really do at the highest level.

For Hughes, he give the credit to those behind him for that success.

“I am a sinker ball pitcher, so I am forcing contact,” Hughes said. “When I hit the higher levels, the defense is outstanding. I am just out there, trying to get them to hit the ball. Then, there are guys behind me, making outstanding plays. I was just the guy on the mound when they make the plays.”

With the transition to the bullpen, he also was able to learn that he was much better as a max effort hurler, rather than holding back as a starter.

“Being in the Major Leagues now, to have success here, you just have to go out and give it everything that you have every night,” Hughes said. “There is no pacing yourself or holding anything back. It is all in every night and you cannot be afraid.”

He said that the confidence to give his best stuff every night is something that he learned through the struggles and made the journey all worthwhile.

While the sprint in from the bullpen on a nightly basis is not something that Hughes actively interprets this way, but it still creates a microcosm of this mentality that has brought him to the top of his game.

Coming into the weekend, Hughes had the fifth-longest streak of stranding inherited runners at 14.2 innings. While it was broken in Milwaukee, Hughes had allowed not allowed an inherited runner to score since May 1st. Prior to that, the only other inherited runner that scored on Hughes was during the season’s opening weekend.

This is a situation that Hughes lives for.

“I enjoy [inherited runners], because my goal is to get ahead in the count and force contact,” Hughes said. “If there is a guy on and there is less than two outs, it is a double play situation, so it works for me because I want them to do exactly that and put the ball on the ground. It is just enjoyable to get in the game when it matters and just get competitive.”

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle has seen this competitiveness, and has made Hughes one of his go to pitchers out of the bullpen in high-leverage situations.

“We have used him as our go to guy in big innings with men on base,” Hurdle said. “Either close games or ahead, we have used him and he has not gotten his fair share of clean innings. He has definitely been a factor for us and a great addition to our bullpen.”

Health has been something that has been on the side of Hughes, with the exception of one stint in 2013. This is something that Hurdle thinks has led to the one down time in his big league success.

“He had a fine rookie season for us,” Hurdle said. “Then he pitched, I think, less than 100 percent with injury, until the injury forced him down in 2013. It is the only time that we have seen him bad, not successful, and not sharp.”

During the campaign, Hughes worked only 32 innings out of the Pittsburgh bullpen, and struggled to a 4.78 ERA. With the health struggles, he reverted back to being quite hittable, allowing 37 hits in the span.

However, while the struggles were there, Hughes looks at that as a positive that has gotten him to where he is today.

“[The injury in 2013] was tough,” Hughes said. “I just learned a program that works. It is still always a battle to keep in shape. We have a great training staff and conditioning staff that keep us healthy and on the field.”

Even though his career has been a journey — from a near wash out as a starter, to a successful reliever, to more roadblocks, to the best that he has ever been the last two seasons — Hurdle has seen the evolution in the right-hander.

“We are so proud of [Hughes] and happy for him,” Hurdle said. “[After the injury], the way that he was able to bounce back in Spring Training throughout the year [was impressive]. He continues to evolve and it can be a power sinker at times. We have seen it in the mid 90s, but it usually 90 to 92.”

Hurdle said that the addition of an improved slider more often has led to even more success for Hughes this season. However, he points to the sinker as the main culprit for the quality work. He said that inherited runner success that Hughes has seen speaks to the quality of his stuff and the movement.

Hughes has been a testament to hard work and finding a niche that works at the big league level. He is the main man who Hurdle turns to, in order to prevent big innings and strand runners on. This is a critical role and he will be vital down the stretch in the Pittsburgh bullpen.

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    July 21, 2015 11:01 pm

    We basically have 3 pretty solid guys in the bullpen – Melancon, Watson, and Hughes. Although we get infatuated with the occasional 100 mph fastball, the bottom line is that Caminero hasn’t been very good – and nether has Bastardo – both with ERA around 4 which is terrible for a reliever. Worley is inconsistent. We all talk about the need to fix first base and right field, which they both need addressed somehow, but our lack of dependable bullpen depth maybe a bigger concern.

  • Hughes is fine in the seventh most nights the rest of the bunch is like the often mentioned box of chocolates.

    • Did you notice that after Rodriguez let that ball get through the hole, Hughes turned towards him and gave him the ” don’t worry, I’ve got this sign ” ? Next pitch a DP ball.

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    July 21, 2015 11:44 am

    I agree with this article 100% – Hughes has really developed into a pretty reliable reliever and is definitely now an asset. Other than Melancon and Watson, he has been the next best reliever all season – dependable and pretty consistent.

    OTOH, Bastardo failed again last night – surrendering a big hit to the one left-handed batter he was called upon to get out. Got the Royals back into the game. Does anyone know of good left-handed relievers who may be available in a trade, without costing the farm? We need a second quality LH reliever badly. Watson cannot pitch every game.

  • When he came back to Altoona to rehab in 2013, he threw some of the most incredible sinkers I have seen anywhere.

    • You’re an Altoona based guy right? What do you think of Kuchno? Tim said he’s a power sinker guy. I have no shot of seeing him pitch seeing as how I live in Philly.

      • Kuchno isn’t Hughes,at least yet deacs. But Kuchno is on a different path towards much the same goal really.

  • I love his demeanor on the mound. In interviews with his hat off he looks like a little kid. On the mound with his hat brim covering his eyes and the way he’s breathes, he looks like a nutbar.

  • Wasn’t there a story out elsewhere about a roommate or coach or friend who inspired him to go ‘all out crazy’ on the mound? I read that somewhere.

  • The perfect high leverage RP for Pirates. He has an uncanny ability to squelch opponents rallies.

    I liken him to the character played by William Macy in the movie The Cooler.

    Jared “The Cooler” Hughes. I like it.

    • Yeah, uncanny, like the .355 batting average against and 46% strand rate he’s allowed in high leverage situations this year.

      Not pointing this out to jump on Hughes, who is a fine reliever, but this idea that a guy who relies solely on luck and defense being perfect for high leverage situations is a myth.

      Jared Hughes is a *practical* high leverage reliever, not perfect. Perfect high leverage relievers are the guys who strand runners without putting the ball in play. Those guys are just usually elevated to “closer” status, removing them from specialty high leverage situations.

      Hughes is a guy who typically suppresses power and limits walks. In front of a good defense with a little luck, that is a pretty good profile for the constraints of the situation.

      • You’re one of those guys that points out all the plot holes in movies, aren’t you.

        • I’m kidding before I get the wraith of NMR thrown my way…….

          • And even I can’t figure out what the hell is going on in this season of True Detective… 😉

            • Just started Season 1 last Friday. Should’ve listened to all my friends. It’s amazing. The darker the series the better.

              • Loved Season 1; writing, plot, acting were all fantastic

                • So no plot holes then? Kidding. At the very end of the first episode they drop a bomb so you’re interested in what happens then and 12 or so years in the future or their present. It’s great writing and the two of them work together seamlessly.

                  • There’s also a villain character that I think looks exactly like Corey Hart. You’ll know when you see him…

                    • Will he limp when walking? Is that his tell? I shouldn’t make fun. For me as an accountant it would be the equivalent of not being able to add anymore.

                    • That villain probably is a better 1B than hart and pedro

                    • I’ve always been a Pedro supporter cause I’ve always been able to recognize that he is what he is and accepted it. I was fine with the possibility of a 240/25/80 with tons of strikeouts every year. Especially with the lack of power on the team But the defense, the lack of HR’s now which used to compensate for the other decencies……I can’t do it anymore. It pains me to watch him.

                    • You and me both, brother.

                    • Not to beat a dead horse but sometimes, sometimes Pedro, just move the runners over if you can’t drive them in or get a hit. I used to make exceptions because he would go on these stretches where he would carry the team but it’s not happening this year.

                    • You mean like last night?

                      See, I don’t believe people would be happy with that Pedro. And I believe the organization has tried turning him into that Pedro to the detriment of his overall game.

                      If Pedro regains productivity once he moves on I guarantee it won’t be because another club turns him into something he’s not.

                • Season 2 lacks basically all of those positives.

                  • So despite the star power in season two the writing sucks and I should pass?

                    • I hate to say the writing sucks because I’m sure Nic Pizzolato is infinitely better at what he does than I am, but I’m also pretty sure he’s the only one that can actually follow what the heck is supposed to be happening in this season.

                    • Read his book ” Galveston ” and you will see that his nihilistic, dark characters are what he sees and then writes.

                    • I’m going on vacation in two weeks and need something light and fluffy to read on the beach. This “Galveston” sounds like that book from what I read on Amazon.

            • Besides that it sucks? Last season at least had Matthew!

            • That’s because you are trying to read too much into it. Most did that with Season One also.

        • Hahaha

      • You’re right, but I think you’re still selling him short. He’s consistently one inning of good Charlie Morton. That’s not a bad thing when you need a double play.

        Which, now that I think about it, is pretty much what you said.

      • Add this : Especially when you need a double play ball, which isn’t a skill to be minimized.

        • Even the double play ball narrative is situational for me, leo.

          With runner(s) in scoring position and big holes opened up by double play alignment, I’d still rather have a guy who can put an out on the board with the ball being put in play than a guy who is *trying* to let the hitter put the ball on the ground with all that space opened up.

          When it works, it’s great. But you’re still counting on a bunch more luck than skill.

      • Lies, damn lies and statistics. The Cooler is a Stud. I don’t care what fangraphs says.

  • Good article. Before I even started reading I was wondering who would be the next Hughes. Does Kuhl fit the bill?

    • They have a lot of sinkerball guys. I think Kuchno fits the bill a bit more, since he has the best ground ball rate in the system with his power sinker.

  • No question. Men on base, call Jared. He’s been a double play machine. Great guy too.
    The bullpen is pretty good, but Bastardo has been average to poor. Not quibbling, but when Holdzkom is ready he should be back in the pen as his cutter is simply dominant.
    I would leave Liz starting in the minors and he would be my first choice if there is an injury. Worley would stay in the pen as a long man which appears to be a good spot for him.

    • Liz is a free agent after this year right?

      • If he stays in the minors, yes.

        • And if he gets called up and finishes with the team how long do they have him? The point I’m getting at is what is the plan for him? If they want to keep him beyond this year would they want him up even as a reliever?

          • I believe they’d have him for about 4-5 more seasons. One issue here is that he would probably be making close to his salary this year, since I don’t think you can give someone less than 80% of their previous year’s salary when they are under team control.

            It’s more likely that if they want him beyond this year, they would DFA him and try to get him back under a minor league deal.

        • Tim…pls explain. If he is on our 40 man, do we keep him?