Relievers like Pirates' Hughes relish stranding inherited runners
LOS ANGELES — Jared Hughes can get away with playing in traffic.
When a pitcher talks about traffic, he's referring to runners on base. It's bad enough when a pitcher has to get out of a jam he created. It's even tougher when a reliever enters a game and has to clean up somebody's mess.
“Not only do you want to keep those runs from scoring for your starter, but more importantly, you want to keep them off the board for your team,” Hughes said.
So far this season, no one in the Pirates' bullpen has been better in those situations than Hughes.
Through Friday's series opener against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Hughes was one of 23 relievers in the majors who'd made at least 10 outings and had not allowed an inherited runner to score.
Baltimore's Randy Choate had stranded 13 inherited runners, the most in the big leagues. Hughes and Washington left-hander Jerry Blevins had stranded 12 apiece.
“We've been fortunate here that we've had a number of guys perform very well in that role,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “In 2011, it was amazing the times Chris Resop would come in and get the job done. There were a handful of guys after that. This year, Hughes has been the guy.”
Resop had a 68 percent strand rate in 2011, when he entered 30 of 76 games with runners on base.
He wound up with 15 holds that season.
Hurdle said he believes some pitchers, whether unconsciously or not, ramp up their focus and sharpen their skills when they run in from the bullpen and see traffic on the bases.
“I thought that was the case with Resop,” Hurdle said. “Sometimes, you can tell. Other times, it's very businesslike and they just get it done. I've had a few guys who, when you hand them the ball, they're like, ‘I'm going to get this done.' They look at you, and you know you've made the right move.
“There's got to be no fear. It's not putting extra pressure on yourself. It's like pinch-hitting — do the best you can with what you've got where you are. Make a pitch, then make the next pitch. It sure is fun to watch guys when they get on those rolls. It's a big boost for the team.”
Hughes is used to coming in with runners on base. He said it helps to be mentally prepared by simply being aware of what's going on in the game.
“You kind of know,” Hughes said. “You look at the starter's pitch count, you look at the situation, who's coming up. You just have to be mentally ready because there's a good chance it's going to be you.”
It's not like a pitcher can merely pretend and pitch as if the runners aren't there.
“You have to know where they are and you have to know how many outs,” Hughes said. “It's really good to be competitive and aggressive in the strike zone to get out of a jam.”
Hughes isn't a guy who nibbles around the edges of the strike zone.
He's a sinker-slider pitcher who relies on ground-ball outs — perfect for erasing baserunners and inducing double plays.
Through his first 14 appearances, Hughes had a 3.67 ground ball-to-fly ball ratio.
Hughes has something else going for him, too.
“His demeanor changes when he comes in the game,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. “He's one of the more easygoing, light-hearted guys off the field. But, man, he gets on the mound and he can compete with anybody. He's confident he can get the hitters out and get through the inning without letting the runs in, and he's carried that confidence forward.”
That's a big reason Huntington opted to cut Vin Mazzaro and keep Hughes last week when the Pirates needed to open a roster spot.
“We felt our best club has Jared in the bullpen,” Huntington said.