In the 1960s and 1970s, the National League dominated the American League in the All-Star game. And the reason is pretty simple. The NL was quicker to embrace black players than the AL was. The 1965 starting lineup for the NL had black stars Ernie Banks, Dick Allen, Willie Stargell, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. The black AL starters were Earl Battey and Willie Horton.
You want to be ahead of the curve and not always playing catch-up to the other teams in the league. That’s why it’s so frustrating to me that the Mets seem so content to do whatever every other team in the league does. If the other 29 teams use a LOOGY, you can be sure the Mets will use one, too. Doesn’t matter if every LH reliever in the org is terrible – they’ll not only use one, they’ll run their entire bullpen to maximize the chances – and successes – for their lefties.
But maybe the worm is starting to turn. My opinion was that when they were picking a new GM to replace Sandy Alderson that they would pick old pro Doug Melvin. But they didn’t. Now, it might have been better if they had picked Rays executive Chaim Bloom but whatever you think about Brodie Van Wagenen, hiring a former agent to be your GM is not a move the other 29 clubs have done before.
Many fans out there wanted the Mets to hire interim pitching coach Phil Regan on a permanent basis. Regan, who may or may not have ties to all of the other 29 organizations, would have been a safe choice. But the Mets went with Jeremy Hefner, someone praised throughout the industry with his ability to take cutting edge analytics and present it to ballplayers who may not necessarily be open to new ways of doing things.
And maybe because of Hefner – pure speculation on my part – the Mets now have Jared Hughes. Since joining the club late in this shortened season, Hughes has allowed just one hit in 5.2 IP and has a 0.706 WHIP to go along with that 0.00 ERA.
Hughes had been a good reliever for a number of years but ran into some hard times last year, at age 34. And that’s less than ideal when you’re a middle reliever who’s pitched for four different organizations. Those guys don’t often get another crack. Hughes did get a minor league deal with the Astros but when the shutdown came, he opted out and became a free agent at a time when absolutely no clubs were making any type of moves, much less picking up 34 year olds coming off a season with a 5.29 FIP.
Stephen J. Nesbitt of The Athletic wrote a profile on Hughes and what came next during the early days of the pandemic.
Hughes began his backyard education into the science of pitching this spring. He found the answer, too. And all it took was a most 2020 cocktail: Zoom calls, Twitter threads, yardwork, isolation, lasers, a Sony slow-motion camera, Rapsodo pitch-tracking software, Python coding, InflataRod and an aerospace engineer.
Hughes built a pitching mound in his backyard so he could look to address the reasons why his sinker, which had been so effective for him previously, was no longer getting the job done. Hughes had a 1.64 HR/9, which is a horrible rate for anyone and just about unimaginable for a guy who makes his living getting ground ball outs.
But he wasn’t going to just build a mound and throw, throw, throw. Rather, Hughes was going to look for answers beyond traditional baseball methods. Nesbitt outlined how Hughes got connected with an aerospace engineer professor at Utah State through Twitter and the two ended up, first in technical discussions but later in a more traditional player-coach relationship, over how, as Hughes put it on a Twitter post, “grip and spin effect the movement of the ball.”
Additionally, the duo worked on reintroducing the slider into Hughes’ arsenal. Hitters were laying off the slider because they could see it coming. Hughes and Barton Smith, the engineering professor, began work to eliminate the tipping of Hughes’ slider. The thinking was that if hitters didn’t know the slider was coming, the movement of that pitch was so completely different from his sinker that it would cause hitters fits. The high-speed cameras indicate that the difference between his sinker and slider is “20-plus inches of horizontal movement.” And another thing to consider is that if hitters weren’t laying off the slider, his fastball would be a better pitch, too. If you’re wondering which way the ball is going to break, the pitch that comes straight at you will catch you off guard.
Hughes posted a 5-second video to his Twitter account illustrating his different pitches and what the batter has to contend with if he doesn’t know which pitch is coming.
Overlay of my slider, four seamer, and sinker. pic.twitter.com/DFrzA5ghNT
— Jared Hughes (@locatejared) June 20, 2020
It’s easy to see Hughes’ early results with the Mets and just write it off as a small sample fluke. And maybe that’s all it is. Or maybe we have a guy who embraced different ways of getting better and we’re seeing the results of the work he put in. If the answer turns out to be the latter, it will make it that much easier for Hefner to bring advanced concepts to other hurlers on the staff.
And even if this is nothing but a fluke, it’s nice for the Mets to have another reliable arm in the pen for the remainder of this shortened season. We see all the time relievers having success in 60-inning seasons not able to duplicate it going forward. That should make it easier to believe that Hughes can maintain this early success over 25 innings, even if it’s more fluke than reality
Edwin Diaz has five straight scoreless appearances. Dellin Betances has not allowed a run in six of his seven games, including last night when he struck out the side. Drew Smith has a 0.833 WHIP and is averaging a strikeout per inning. Chasen Shreve has yet to allow a hit to 11 LHB and has done better than expected against righties, at least when he keeps the ball in the park. Brad Brach is back.
Adding an effective Hughes to that bullpen mix should allow the team to move Seth Lugo to the rotation. Hughes has been very good. Now it’s just up to the Mets to believe in him and act accordingly. Be ahead of the curve and reap the rewards.