Jared Hughes has not had a very good Spring Training. Does a closer look at his process and results tell us why?

Jared Hughes just came off a game (March 20th) where he pitched the 8th inning, logging three quick outs, two of them via strikeout.  However, this kind of result has been the exception, rather than the rule, from Hughes so far this Spring.

Is there something wrong with Jared Hughes?  We aim to find out by taking a closer look at his appearances this Spring.

Ground Ball Machine

Hughes has made a name for himself by throwing a very good sinkerball and inducing a lot of ground ball outs.  His ground ball percentage over the past three seasons is 62.1%, good for 13th best in the MLB for all pitchers with at least 100 innings during that time.  In 2016, this number slipped to 57.9%, which is low for Hughes but still very good when compared to the rest of MLB.

In his previous appearance on March 15 against the Baltimore Orioles, he gave up 4 runs, 3 of them earned, on three hits, a walk and a hit batsman.  On paper, this looks like a rough outing and, judging only by the batted ball results, it was truly awful.  But a closer inspection reveals that Hughes may not have been as bad as his stat line shows.

Devil in the Details

Jared Hughes came in to start off the 7th inning and gave up a double to Chris Gentry.  The pitching sequence here showed that Hughes was throwing his normal sinking fast ball inside to this right-handed batter with good results.  He was not effective in throwing this same pitch outside.  He threw two of these outside pitches way off the plate and in the dirt and did not look comfortable in doing so.  After that, Hughes came back to his inside fast ball and Gentry, having just seen Hughes struggle to throw outside, was waiting for it.  Gentry turned on the pitch, lacing it down the third base line.  It was a good pitch and an even better piece of hitting.

The next batter flew out to center field on a perfectly located sinker.

The 3rd batter Hughes faced was left-handed and was subjected to Hughes’ tinkering.

Hughes alternated between his low and outside sinker to the right-hand side of the plate and his “experimental” pitch to the left-hand side.  He could have been working on a slider-like pitch here but it is difficult to tell.  He never gained control of the pitch and eventually beaned the hitter in his back foot.  The next batter, a righty, got more of the same from Hughes.  If it was an inside or low sinker, it was in a good place.  If it was an outside fast ball or slider, it was wild.  This particular batter missed Hughes’ only mistake pitch – a fast ball left out over the plate – but he golfed one of Hughes’ best pitches, a low sinkerball, into center field for an RBI single.  Again, if you just looked at the stat line, you’d see that Hughes gave up an RBI single.  However, the real story is Hughes is having a hard time controlling his sinker / slider to the left side of the plate.

Hughes walked the next batter, mainly because he continued to work on throwing to the left side of the plate.  After this, Hughes got a visit from Pirates’ pitching coach Ray Searage.  We don’t know what was said, but based on what followed, it is likely that Searage encouraged Hughes to not worry about the results and to keep working on his problem pitch.  The next hitter, a left-hander, got alternating low inside balls in the dirt and very well located fast balls on the outside corner.  He eventually hit a hard ground ball that got through the infield.  Ground balls are good results for Hughes.

However, the real story is Hughes is having a hard time controlling his sinker / slider to the left side of the plate.

The last hitter that Hughes faced that day did not see any “problem pitches” and eventually hit a weak ground ball to shortstop.  This should have been a tailor-made double play to end the inning, but Chris Bostick’s throw to first was way off the mark, allowing a run to score.  At this point, Hughes was pulled from the game, likely because of pitch count.

When you look at this outing through the lens of Jared Hughes working on one of his weakest pitches instead of throwing his best pitches, then the results are not as surprising.  Hughes has demonstrated that he is willing to do this in Spring Training and he must feel that suffering this kind of stat line (and the resulting media scrutiny) is worth it.

Previous Outing – More of the Same

His outing from March 11, 2017, again against the Orioles, was more of the same.  In summary, Jared Hughes faced six batters and gave up three hits and three runs.  Again, this stat line does not tell the whole story.  He was working on the same pitch to the left side of the plate, allowing hitters to get ahead in the count.  He gave up a home run on a mistake pitch that he left out over the heart of the plate, but came back and struck out the next right-handed batter with two inside fast balls and a classic Hughes low sinker.  It was almost as if he said “enough working on that pitch, I’m striking this guy out”.

When you look at this outing through the lens of Jared Hughes working on one of his weakest pitches instead of throwing his best pitches, then the results are not as surprising.

When we analyze his other Spring Training outings, we see that he is always working on something and rarely just pitching his best stuff to get batters out.  Sometimes he had great innings where he was lucky – the hitters missed his mistakes.  Sometimes, he had poor results when he threw the pitches right where he wanted.  However, he always seems to prioritize the process of working on his pitches over getting the hitters out.

Consistent Approach in Spring Training

The last point is that Hughes has made a recent habit of having horrible Springs, only to turn in good, sometimes great, regular seasons.  Last year in Spring training, he allowed a 19.64 ERA and a .500 opponent batting average only to come back and post 3.03 and .277 for those two stats in the regular season.  This was true again in 2015, when he posted a Spring training ERA of 10.61 followed up with a very good season of 2.28 ERA pitching.

Based on the evidence, Hughes uses Spring training to tune up his pitching arsenal and doesn’t care very much about the batted ball results.  He’s basically practicing the pitches that he has the hardest time throwing.  This makes it tough on fans because all they often see is the stat line, which looks damning.  But if you watch the game and appreciate the process that Hughes is following, it starts to make sense.

Of course, the batted ball results are the only thing that really matters once the season starts.  Hughes understands this and is doing everything he can to set himself up to achieve those results once the regular season starts.

Sean Riley

Sean Riley is a lifelong Pirates fan who now resides in Portland, OR. He is a former executive of several major companies and a published author. His current passion is balancing statistics and good old-fashioned “feel” to provide insight into the game of baseball. Sean is married to a great gal and the father of two amazing boys.