CHARLESTON, WV – Casey Hughston has a problem, and that problem is the number 42.
The answer to life? Jackie Robinson’s jersey? A Coldplay song?
Nope. His strikeout total so far in 2016. This ties him for second-most in the South Atlantic League among players with at least 2.7 plate appearances per game. Hughston is also last in batting average (.142) and on-base percentage (.209), and he is second-worst in slugging (.208). We listed him as our 35th prospect in our 2016 Prospect Guide, and the Pirates went over-slot on him last year in the third round, giving him a $700,000 bonus. So far, his offense has yet to live up to the expectations.
At this rate, 2016 could be an historically abysmal season for the former third-round pick. If he continues to see the same amount of playing time and continues whiffing at his current rate of 1.6 times per game, he will wind up with approximately 188 strikeouts, which would eclipse the franchise record set by Brent Brewer in 2007, when the club was still associated with the Milwaukee Brewers. In fact, Hughston could finish the year with the highest strikeout total since the South Atlantic League resumed play in 1980.
If Hughston surpasses the SAL record, the two players he leaps, Lewis Brinson and Tim Battle, could serve as a glimpse of the future. On the bright side, Brinson, an outfielder currently in the Texas Rangers system, righted the ship after a 191-strikeout season in 2013 with the Hickory Crawdads. Last year, he hit .332 with a mere 98 strikeouts in High-A, Double-A, and Triple-A, combined. In 2016, he is the starting center fielder for the Double-A Frisco RoughRiders. On the other hand, Battle struck out 195 times in 2005 and never made it past High-A. He has spent the last six years in and out of the Independent League. He is not listed on a professional roster for the 2016 season and turned 30 last year.
The West Virginia Power staff, though, predicts Hughston’s trajectory will follow Brinson’s path.
“When [Hughston] does make contact, he’s hitting the ball hard,” said Manager Brian Esposito. “He’s just had bad luck, hitting it right at guys.”
In fact, when Hughston makes contact, he seems to be hitting it right at one guy: the left fielder. Herein lies his problem. Until this season, he has had trouble reaching the outside portion of the plate. As a left-handed batter, he historically hasn’t been able to let the ball get a little deeper and then drive it to the opposite field. During Spring Training, Hughston worked with dedication and intensity to improve this one skill, committing much of his mental energy to this singular focus.
So far this season, almost all of his contact that has reached the outfield (fly balls and hits) has been to either left or center field. In order for this to happen, he must be waiting on pitches until they get deeper into the zone. This implies that he has adjusted his timing significantly, and this could be causing him to now be late on pitches over the middle and on the inner half of the plate. Hughston confirmed that he and hitting coach Ryan Long have been working to improve this area of his game.
“I’m trying to see the ball earlier, swing at better pitches,” said Hughston before the Power left town for an eight-day road trip.
Predictably, all but two of Hughston’s base hits have come when he is ahead in the count. These two factors, the conscious attempt to wait on the ball and the failure to battle back from a pitcher’s count, have led the Power staff to diagnose the problem as mental, rather than mechanical or injury-related. Or, as Esposito puts it: “He’s thinking too much.” Hitting coach Ryan Long agrees.
“When we struggle, we have a tendency to go internal,” Long explained after an 0-for-3, one-strikeout performance by Hughston. “We’re working on his focus, controlling what we can control. There’s a lot out there that’s beyond our control.”
That focus and strong work ethic became apparent when, moments later, Hughston stepped into the batting cage, still in full uniform, to put in some work off the tee with a teammate.
It’s clear that Hughston is disappointed with his numbers this season. In recent interviews, he has seemed despondent and closed off – a contrast to his typical gracious and genteel manner. When asked about the root of his problems, he began, “If I knew…” before trailing off into silence. He is working consistently and closely with Long and is confident he will “figure stuff out in the end.”
The Pirates organization clearly hopes that will be the case, and there are bits of silver lining in Hughston’s struggles. The Pirates drafted him last year, on his 21st birthday no less, for his promise of power and speed, so the low on-base percentage might be more troubling for the organization. As of today, Hughston owns the second-highest stolen base total on the team, trailing Tito Polo, who has twelve more hits than Hughston. He has only been caught stealing once compared to Polo’s six times. Due to his exceptional speed, Hughston has the ability to put himself in scoring position for the bigger bats in the lineup, specifically Carlos Munoz; as a result, Hughston has scored the fourth-most runs for the Power this season.
His speed has also paid off in the outfield, where he is one of the most consistent performers. Splitting roughly equal time in left and center, he has only committed one error and already has an assist. His skill with the glove and ability to play in all three outfield spots all but guarantee that Hughston’s struggles at the plate won’t jeopardize his spot in the starting lineup. But while he’s in the lineup, there’s certainly one line we’d like to hear a little less frequently: “Mighty Casey has struck out.”