CHARLESTON, WV – While a month in Florida may seem like a dream vacation for some, for Casey Hughston, it was anything but.
After a deplorable start to 2016 with the West Virginia Power, the Pirates chose to send the 2015 third-round draft pick to Extended Spring Training in Bradenton, Florida. Prior to being sent down, Hughston struggled with a high strikeout rate, as well as deflated offensive numbers. In the days before the demotion, he seemed demoralized and disaffected, not the affable guy who would “challenge anyone to a dance contest” according to the trivia the team splashes across the video board during games.
“I just needed to step away from the game a little bit,” said Hughston. “Kind of regroup, refresh.”
Hughston spent a month in Florida and returned to the team on June 16, just before the South Atlantic League All-Star break. Immediately his former club noticed a difference in the former University of Alabama star.
“When he came back, the first thing I recognized was not how he was physically,” said Power hitting coach Ryan Long, “it was more his presence, his state. He was in a good place, worry free.”
The refreshed, worry free Hughston came out of the gates in strong form. Through his eleven games in June, Hughston hit .311/.360/.489. He doubled his home run total for the season, hitting two in 50 plate appearances.
In July, Hughston hit another slump. His line dropped to .222/.258/.429, as of July 20, although he has hit three home runs in 68 plate appearances.
Some of the struggles can be attributed to Hughston’s new role with the team. He moved to leadoff and started to rely on his speed to get aboard. In July, he has attempted to bunt at least once per game, preventing him from exercising his newfound power.
“For me, [bunting] is one of my weapons,” said Hughston. “I haven’t been using it a lot in the past, I’ve kind of gotten away from it, but I think it’s going to help me out.”
He has also been attempting more steals, swiping four bags in eight attempts since his return.
Hughston is not your quintessential leadoff man, especially considering his raw power and muscular build, but Long sees this as an opportunity to stretch the young outfielder. Long noted that Hughston has embraced the challenge.
“We do different. We do hard. We do challenging. We do uncomfortable. That’s a big, big philosophy of ours, and that’s how we grow ’em up,” said Long.
The recent peaks and valleys have obscured one heartening detail about Hughston: the strikeout rate is going down. Prior to the trip to Bradenton, Hughston struck out in 35.2 percent of plate appearances. In June, that number barely dropped to 34 percent. So far in July, he’s striking out 29.4 percent of the time. That could stand to come down a bit more as we head toward the end of the season, but it is actually better than two of his teammates (Alfredo Reyes and Ke’Bryan Hayes, though Hayes has only played five games this month) and is close to the rates of Daniel Arribas and Logan Hill.
Many of Hughston’s strikeouts recently have looked better than those in the spring. He is timing pitches much better and isn’t swinging as wildly as he was. He still struggles with balls on the outside of the plate, which has been his weakness for his entire career.
“There’s still some untapped resources there,” said Long. “He fouls off a lot of pitches he could hit.”
In some ways, his ability to foul pitches off comes as a boon. As the leadoff hitter, an extended at-bat gives the rest of the lineup more opportunities to watch the starter and time his pitches. In the month of July, Hughston has averaged 3.87 pitches per plate appearance, slightly above the team average of 3.68.
When he does get a hold of one of those pitches, he drives the ball with authority, another improvement of his early season form. He now leads the team in triples (some of which seemed to be doubles he stretched out of sheer force of will) and much more frequently foul tips the ball than weakly pops up in foul territory.
Hughston said his power comes from some adjustment he made while in Extended Spring Training.
“[I’m] getting into my legs more, not pressing too much,” he said.
Long has noticed Hughston’s more relaxed approach to the plate.
“It’s not about being strong or trying to hit the ball very hard,” he said. “It’s actually about being looser and freer, staying on the ball longer, and actually not trying to do too much with it. That’s the major key so that’s what he’s working towards.”
As always, Hughston’s skills are invaluable in the outfield. His speed, combined with an ability to quickly pick up the ball off the bat, enables him to cover large swaths of center field. He takes punishing hits as he lays out for diving grabs, like the one on July 13 that saved Mitch Keller’s shutout bid.
This type of hustle defines the Casey Hughston that the Pirates drafted in the third round last year. The guy who throws his body around making acrobatic plays in the outfield, who always tries to take the extra base, who drops down a bunt even though he has the power to crush the ball. That’s the Casey Hughston who returned from Florida.
“He’s definitely been a better version of himself since he’s been back,” commented Long.
Hughston seems optimistic about his return to the Power as well. “For me, I feel like I’m finally syncing it all together.”