“When the Mets drafted me, I had a sinker and a decent curveball,” the Astros’ Collin McHugh told me earlier this year. If you wanted to be reductive, he’s still almost all fastball and curveball — those pitches make up 96% of his repertoire this year, after all — but being reductive robs all the nuance out of how McHugh has become who he is today. The Astros’ Game Five starter has learned a lot about his craft as he’s bounced his way around the league, and it will all be on display on a national stage with Houston’s season on the line.
After joining the New York system, McHugh learned that he had to ditch his slider at first. “I had a slider and curveball in college, and the two started to get too close together,” he said of arriving in Kingsport. “I did away with the slider in pro ball. My curveball is my out pitch, and I need to make sure it is where I want it to be.”
The second-biggest curveball in the game.
Only Jose Quintana and Yordano Ventura got more raw whiffs from their curveball this year than McHugh. Even if you turn it into a rate stat, McHugh does well, with a top-15 whiff rate on the pitch among starters who threw the pitch 300 times. With eight inches of cut and eight inches of drop, only Rick Porcello‘s curve matches McHugh’s for movement in both directions among qualified starters. It’s big, and it’s beautiful.
Of course, a curve and a fastball are more than a buck short of 200 innings in the major leagues, so he knew he had to find something to add back in. “Once I’m good with that,” McHugh remembered thinking, “I’ll start working on something else.” So he started taking his fastball, offsetting it a bit, and “throwing it hard as I could.” The result: a cut fastball.
The cutter gave him a second weapon, a hard breaking ball that got almost as many whiffs as a slider. The pitch drops a whopping eleven inches less than his curve, and goes 14 ticks faster, effectively making batters cover in and out horizontally as well as up and down vertically when it came to his secondary pitches.
The cutter that gave McHugh the second out pitch he needed.
Especially lefties, even if the curve was already a weapon. “Anything that breaks plane as much as a slower breaking ball does, that makes hitter from that side of the plate has to respect up and down instead of just in to out, it makes it tougher on them,” McHugh said of using the curve against lefties. Big curves like his traditionally have reverse platoon splits, meaning they are more effective against opposite-handed batters than you’d expect.
The cutter is also effective against lefties, even if proving this in the numbers has been difficult due to the nebulous nature of the cutter. “Is it a breaking ball or a fastball?” agreed McHugh as he laughed.
But McHugh started with a true cut fastball as he approached the big league team in New York. “When I first started throwing it, it was specifically a cutter, it was always a cutter, that’s what I wanted it to be,” McHugh remembered. “To lefties, make it a little flat, and find that spot right at the belt.”
While the curve makes the lefty respect up and down, the cutter keeps them from getting extension and showing their power in another dimension: in and out. “It’s just something to keep guys from getting extension on you, which, as a righty to a lefty hitter, it’s always been our issue, lefty extension, whether it’s extension down here or away there. That’s where power comes from.”
Lefties show power low and in and out over the plate against righties.
Still. Armed with a cutter, a curve, and a sinker, McHugh debuted with the Mets in 2012 and… did poorly. A 7.59 ERA in just over 20 innings that also featured five home runs must have turned the team on his future, as they traded him to Colorado for Eric Young, who had been designated for assignment.
Colorado was a terrible place for a pitcher with a sinker and a curve. “When I got to Colorado, when I first trying to pitch there, I couldn’t get my ball to sink,” sighed McHugh. “That was a challenge.” A challenge that’s been well documented, but a challenge nonetheless.
But pitching there allowed something to crystallize in McHugh that he’d been thinking about when it came to his fastball. His sinker was getting crushed, whether it was at home or away, New York or Colorado. Something was wrong.
He started throwing the four-seam more, and not only because the sinker wasn’t sinking. “Make it look as fast as possible,” he said of his newer fastball philosophy. “Work it up-down. A fastball down, the perceived velocity is slower than a fastball up. A fastball moving, the perceived velocity is slower than a straight fastball. When I’m trying to throw sinkers down, my 89-91 mph looked — especially to a lefty — like 85-87 mph.”
Watching a mediocre sinker, thrown away, lefties got all kinds of a look at the pitch. They could extend on it, and it just looked crushable. So in came the four-seam, and when Houston claimed the pitcher off of waivers from Colorado, they agreed. Astros pitching coach Brent Strom “basically told me, I think you should use your four-seamer more,” laughed McHugh.
The right fastball for McHugh.
Houston wasn’t happy with just throwing it more, though. They wanted the pitcher to elevate it and work on showing more “ride” or “rise” — the riding fastball drops less than you’d expect, given gravity. More fastball spin leads to more rise, and his new team was fluent in this sort of stuff. “They talk about spin rate, in the organization, but not in the way of getting more,” said McHugh. “They talk about how it helps or affects what you do. Like, Vincent Velasquez throws a high-spin-rate fastball, how does that affect what he does?”
The task put in front of McHugh was more simple. Elevate the four-seam. The rise will come. While Curt Schilling said you want to slap the seams for rise, and Sean Doolittle talked about his hands and release points, and Phil Hughes talked about keeping a stiff wrist, McHugh felt that gaining that vertical movement on the fastball was a matter of intention:
The way I started out being able to do it was thinking about long toss. You’re playing long toss with the catcher from 60 feet the same way as if you were out playing long toss at 180 feet. You’re trying to throw the ball through them, you’re not trying to throw the ball down the mound. Get that extension. You can throw the ball 180 feet when you get down into it, as long as you get that backspin. The mound makes you want to get on top of the ball. Some people do an eye level thing. I want to do everything the same but long-toss through the umpire’s mask.
McHugh added over three inches of rise, and a better weapon against same-handed batters. “It’s an out pitch against righties,” admitted McHugh. “Especially to power righties, you want to deny extension, so you throw the four-seamer which acts like a left-handed cutter.” Against righties, McHugh’s rising four-seam gets 56% more whiffs than your average four-seamer. That whiff rate would also put him between Matt Harvey and Clayton Kershaw on the four-seam leaderboard, which is somewhat amazing considering he barely cracks 90 mph on average with it.
If the Mets taught him to focus on the curveball, Colorado told him to ditch the sinker, and Houston coached or coaxed rise out of his four-seamer, it was some combination of the three that helped him refine his cutter. “The more I’ve gotten the feel for it, the more I’ve been able to do both with it,” McHugh said. “To righties, I can make it more of a slider with some depth now.”
McHugh does this by manipulating the cutter’s release and the grip slightly. For the true, flatter cutter, he’ll “really try to get on top of the ball.” For the deeper slider, he’ll pick up the index finger a little bit, and “hook” the fingers a bit more around the seams.
McHugh moves his fingers slightly and changes focus to get more slider movement from his cutter grip.
When asked if these small alterations affected his ability to command the pitch, McHugh shrugged, even as he admitted that it’s been a little tougher to get depth on his slider to righties this year than last year. “It’s just a matter of focus,” the Astro said. “You focus on what you want the pitch to do.”
That’s a bit of a mantra for him. Focus is what helped him continue to develop in the face of bad results and an uncertain future in baseball. Focus helped him incorporate the best advice from each organization he was with. Focus on improving his pitches helped him learn more about how pitches are perceived and how he could best make use of his skillset.
And it was focus that helped him turn two pitches into four — with a rising fastball, a slider, a cutter, and a curveball, he’s much harder to face these days than he was back with the Mets in 2012. “If they can figure out what pitch you are going to throw in what count, they can figure you out,” he thought. “But if you have four pitches you can throw in any count, they aren’t going to figure you out.”