The Decline Of Jared Hughes

Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /

So far, 2016 has been by far the worst season of Jared Hughes‘ career. So, what all has plagued the Pirates’ formerly reliable right-handed relief pitcher?

After being a roller coaster for a majority of the season, the past six weeks the Pittsburgh Pirates’ bullpen has started to settle back into being a strength. However, there are some members of the Pirate bullpen that have struggled all season long. One such member is Jared Hughes.

Since making his Major League debut in 2011, Jared Hughes had been very reliable for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Hughes featured a turbo-power sinker that allowed him to be a huge weapon as a ground ball pitcher. Anytime Pirate manager Clint Hurdle needed a ground ball to get out of a jam, you could guarantee he would hand the ball to Jared Hughes.

Entering the 2016 season Jared Hughes had pitched 250 Major League innings. In those 250 innings Hughes was averaging 5.58 K/9, 2.88 BB/9, 0.61 HR/9, and he had a 1.24 WHIP. Hughes also had a 61.7 percent ground ball rate, 2.77 ERA, 3.95 FIP, and a 3.93 xFIP.

While there may have been reason to expect some regression from Jared Hughes this season, his ERA was outperforming his FIP and xFIP by over a full run after all, the type of collapse that has been seen this season could never have been foreseen. Especially the drop in ground balls and spike in walks from Jared Hughes. So the question becomes, what happened?

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As of this writing, which is being done prior to the Pirates game against the San Diego Padres on Tuesday night, Jared Hughes has pitched 36 2/3 innings for the Pirates this season. In those 36 2/3 innings pitched Hughes has a career low 52.8 percent ground ball rate, to go along with averaging a career low 4.17 K/9. Hughes also has a 1.61 WHIP, the second highest of his career, to go along with a career high 4.66 FIP and 5.27 xFIP. The 3.44 BB/9 that Hughes is averaging is the second highest rate of his career, while the 0.76 HR/9 he is averaging is a new career high.

The first problem with Hughes this year has been control issues. Obviously, when you have the second highest walk rate of your career you are struggling with control. However, it goes deeper than this. Jared Hughes has also missed his spots many times this year leading to meatballs being thrown in the strike zone. This has contributed largely to his career high home run rate.

Jared Hughes’ sinker is simply sinking less, which leads to control issues and bad pitches. Opposing hitters have a .364 wOBA and a 134 wRC+ off of his sinker this season. In 2015 these numbers were .305 and 99, while they were just .275 and 79 in 2014. When you are a ground ball pitcher like Hughes is your sinker is your bread and butter, so Hughes’ entire game has been thrown out of whack due to problems with his sinker this season.

The swing and miss rate on Jared Hughes’ sinker has also declined this season. Even though Hughes has never been a huge strikeout pitcher, the swing and miss rate on his sinker was nearly 10 percent for his career entering the season. In 2016 however, that is down to just 8.5 percent. Even though a 1.5 percent difference may not sound like a huge one, that is the ball being put in play an additional 1.5 percent of the time. This creates an additional 1.5 chances for a hitter to collect a base hit, which comes out to 15-20 extra hits allowed each season.

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The hard contact rate off of Jared Hughes’ pitches have also spiked to an all-time high this season. Through his first five Major League seasons Jared Hughes was allowing a hard contact rate of just 22.5 percent, with his former career high being 28.7 percent in 2014. In 2016 though, this number has jumped all the way to 32.1 percent. So not only is Hughes’ allowing more contact, the contact he has been allowing has not been soft either.

Finally, Hughes has also been abysmal with men on base this season. The former specialty of Jared Hughes, standing base runners and putting out fires, has become a major problem. With men on base this season Hughes has a 13.7 percent walk rate, and he is stranding just 64.3 percent of base runners. With runners in scoring position, his walk rate drops to 13.2 percent but his strand rate also drops to 50 percent.

So far in 2016, Jared Hughes has been awful. Unfortunately, his xFIP indicates things may only get worse. Right now, there is no reason for Hughes to be on the Pirates’ Major League roster. Especially when you take into consideration the fact Hughes has options remaining. Jared Hughes’ issue is that his sinker has lost it’s turbo sink, as a result his control has suffered and he’s allowing more hard contact than ever before. If Hughes does not rediscover his sink, he is not helping the Pittsburgh Pirates at all.