There was a moment in spring training when catcher Russell Martin looked Jared Hughes square in the eye and gave him a piece of advice that launched his season: Trust your breaking ball.
As the weeks, and now months, have unfolded, Hughes has morphed into a high-leverage pitcher for the Pirates, based partially on the advancement of his slider.
His bread-and-butter pitch will always be the sinker, but it has played better because of his breaking ball.
“I think that was a big moment in time,” Hughes said, recalling the conversation. “[Martin] said, ‘Hey man that’s a good pitch, just throw it with confidence. You need to have confidence in that pitch. If you can go out there and throw that slider with confidence, it’s going to make it really difficult for guys to cheat with your sinker.’ Because it moves in the opposite direction.”
Hughes is using the slider at a similar rate as he did in 2013 (12.6 percent), according to data compiled by Fangraphs.
It’s simply playing better, figures manager Clint Hurdle.
“It’s the command of the sinker. He does pitch inside so people don’t get comfortable to both sides of the plate,” Hurdle said. “But actually his breaking ball showed up probably the best. It’s the best breaking ball we’ve seen him have, the best slider.”
Hughes was solid in 2012, but took a step backward in 2013 when he compiled his career worst ERA in part because he was coming off an injury.
He said he spoke at length with pitching coach Ray Searage and bullpen coach Euclides Rojas and came up with a plan to adjust.
This season, Hughes has a career-best 1.94 ERA in 461⁄3 innings pitched, and a career-best WHIP of 1.122.
“I didn’t pitch very well last year,” Hughes said. “I looked back, listened to what Ray and [Rojas] told me and I really made some adjustments. It’s a constant game of learning.”
It has paid dividends.
“It seems like every year we’ve had a go-to guy for the bases loaded,” Hurdle said. “Jared has turned out to be that guy a little bit more than anybody else this year.”
Short answers for a short bench
The Pirates have faced a double whammy this past week playing without Andrew McCutchen (fractured rib) and Neil Walker (back tightness).
Beyond the obvious production and defensive play lost from two of the team’s marquee players, neither was placed on the disabled list during the team’s series against the Miami Marlins and San Diego Padres.
That left a short bench for Hurdle to work with. He was diplomatic when fielding questions about the challenges.
“It presents,” he said, then paused, “some different challenges.”
Different? Certainly. More like difficult.
Thursday, he had his backup catcher and two left-handers in first baseman Ike Davis and outfielder Travis Snider on the bench heading into the game.
The bright side of that?
“There’s a lot of players in here who have been doing it all year off the bench,” Davis said. “Now that you get a chance to play. Who knows what could happen?”
Hurdle said it has been the team’s way this season to battle on.
“We focus on who we have, not on who we don’t have,” Hurdle said. “We focus on meeting the demands of the game. … They are collectively a very cohesive group and we just battle.”
The Pirates play the next four games against the American League Central-leading Detroit Tigers. Two are at home, followed by two on the road. The Pirates are scheduled to miss David Price, Detroit’s newly acquired left-hander, who starts today against Toronto. But they will see, in order, Justin Verlander, Rick Porcello, Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer.
Series against Washington and Atlanta follow the Tigers before the schedule picks up some serious steam in the latter half of the month. Starting Aug. 22, the Pirates have 12 consecutive games against the three teams they’re contending with for the Central Division title — Milwaukee, St. Louis, Cincinnati, then St. Louis again.