Sunday, March 29, 2020

BYCTOM 100*: Jared Hughes

The Major Leagues will not be generating any new baseball for some time, which makes this an appropriate time to dip into Important Baseball Lore.  The most indispensable baseball writing this offseason for me as been Joe Posnanski's Baseball 100, where he rates his top 100 baseball players of all time and writes essays about each one, and I thought I should shamefully rip that off.  So here's the BYCTOM 100*, a series of essays not on the top 100 baseball players of all time, but of lesser heralded players that have floated through the ether of baseball, the players that David Roth refers to as Guys, the foundation of baseball itself that the giants of the sport can homer off of, do handshakes with, and occasionally get humiliated by because baseball is a weird and cruel game.  The asterisk is of course because there is no way I will do 100 of these, let's face it I'll be shocked if I do five.  If you have a suggestion for someone to be covered in BYCTOM 100*, please send it to me, and I'll consider it.


Jared Hughes toils as a largely anonymous middle relief pitcher for undistinguished teams so if you know him it is probably as the guy who, when brought into a game, absolutely books it like a maniac out of the bullpen.  This is a high-risk maneuver. On the one hand, it offers the type of fame and notoriety that gets him featured on a blogspot website; on the other hand the opportunities for a player who has chosen the Braveheart Charge as his personal relief pitcher schtick to be humiliated are endless.  Any reliever who sprints out of the bullpen with a full-on Tom Cruise run towards the mound runs the risk of eating shit and wiping out in front of tens of thousands of people when he could have just as easily strolled over or, in some cases, taken a golf cart shaped like a catcher's mitt.  The other scenario, the one that unfolds for me in my mind every time I see Jared Hughes summoned from the 'pen, would involve him sprinting in, throwing one pitch that the batter demolishes into subatomic baseball particles, and then sprinting into the dugout before the ball even lands in the stands.  It's a fraught existence for the Sprinting Reliever, and one that makes Hughes one of my favorite relief pitchers that I otherwise would have no reason to remember exists.

Another thing Jared Hughes does is to stare at the camera maniacally during Team Photo Day.

I had assumed, based on the fact that Hughes has moved teams and toiled in middle relief, that he was a middling reliever, but when looking him up for this profile I was mildly surprised that he has been far more effective than I thought.  He has a lifetime 2.88 ERA and ERA+  of 140.  In 2018, with the Reds, he got his ERA down to .194 in a career-high 78.2 innings.  He's a sinkerballer who relies on ground balls and does not get a ton of strikeouts, and so he is far more at the mercy of his defense than the assembly line 96 MPH strikeout relievers.  Still, I was expecting to see the volatile stats of a journeyman reliever who had absolutely horrible years. Instead, he has been consistently good at making a beeline to the mound, throwing that sinker he tosses almost exclusively, and getting outs.  

Perhaps he would be better known if he had spent time on the national stage, but quality setup man for the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds is not a position that leads to baseball notoriety; his only playoff appearance was the 2014 NL Wild Card game when the Pirates ran into Madison Bumgarner, who spent that postseason levitating in the air and glowing.  The next year, the Pirates' season finished in the Wild Card Game at the beard of Jake Arrieta and after two consecutive seasons ending that way, I am surprised by any Pirates fan who has not become a baseball nihilist.

The other notable thing about Jared Hughes is that he is a classic NL Central Guy.  Until he was traded to the Phillies in the middle of the 2019 season, Hughes played for Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, and Cincinnati.  The 2016, 2017, and 2018 seasons were particularly disorienting when he switched teams every year.  As someone who watched a lot of Cubs games in those seasons, it became a spring ritual to turn on a game and see Hughes doing his mad dash in a new uniform like he had a one-man barnstorming operation and traveled the midwest by secreting himself in the luggage compartment in the Cubs team plane. 

I am not sure how common the phenomenon of division guys has become or if there is a reason for it other than random chance and teams getting a good look at their divisional opponents.  A small club of players have managed to play for every single team in the division except in the AL Central and NL East (the member of the NL Central club is Cesar Izturis who knocked out the Cubs, Pirates and Cardinals in 2007-8, and then managed to spend the last legs of his career with the Brewers and Reds.  Izturis won a gold glove in 2004 with the Dodgers, but he must have been a literal anthropomorphic baseball glove; he batted an astounding .254/.293/.332 for his career and only twice managed an OPS+ over 70).  But the Majors, I'm sure, are riddled with journeymen who have played for two or three teams in the same division in a short amount of time, ready to appear at a moment's notice to do some pinch hitting or middle relief work with the shortest possible commute.   

Divisional guys serve an important role in baseball's endless, repetitive ecosystem.  The sheer, overwhelming amount of baseball forms a crucial part of its appeal.  Over the course of a season it is possible to figure out what each player is likely to do in any situation and the surprise and frustration comes from the unexpected.  Baseball games are played in series where opponents become recurring characters, and those that play in the same division become as familiar as unpleasant relatives while the teams play over and over again.  A player who bounces from team to team in the same division appears out of the mist with two important qualities: raising the question wait, how did he get on the Milwaukee Brewers and providing the comforting thought that oh it's him I know that guy and his whole deal.  The fact that Jared Hughes literally bursts onto the field every time amplifies this feeling.

As of publication, Jared Hughes has not yet signed to a major league team.  Any team this season, if it even happens, can engage a good sinkerballer to chug his way onto the mound in the seventh inning and pose for alarming profile photographs.  He got released from spring training by a team on March 19 after a rough spring.  The team he was in camp with?  The Houston Astros, still in the NL Central when he made his major league debut.

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