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.