Everything is bigger and better in Texas, including Collin McHugh

Things are always bigger and better in Texas. If you don’t believe that, you need to take at the Houston Astros’ 27-year-old right-handed pitcher Collin McHugh, because once he set foot on Texas soil, he has been pitching like he’s ten feet tall and bullet proof.

The Astros selected McHugh off waivers from the Colorado Rockies in December 2013, a move that didn’t make cover of Sports Illustrated or even the front page news of the local paper. You would have had to find the transaction in the small print on the back pages, under MLB transactions. Why would it be anywhere else?

When Houston claimed McHugh, they were in the beginning of year two of their rebuilding plan. Granted, the plan was under the watchful eye of general manager Jeff Luhnow, who came to the Astros in 2012. I have known Luhnow since he arrived in St. Louis and have long had confidence in him (other than one first-round draft pick with the Cardinals and the tandem pitching rotations he uses in the minors), but the signing of McHugh, one of the first moves that winter, had to make it look to the average fan like it was going to take Luhnow longer to rebuild the Astros than it did for the Ming Dynasty to build the Great China Wall.

Seventeen months later (it took the Ming Dynasty longer), the Houston Astros have won a franchise record 11 consecutive games in which Collin McHugh has started. During that stretch, McHugh is 9-0 with a 2.54 ERA. McHugh’s current 11-game winning streak is the longest active winning streak in the Majors, is tied for the third-longest in franchise history, and is the longest since RHP Wade Miller tied a franchise record with his 12-win run in decisions from July 7 – September 21, 2002.

Since joining the Astros’ rotation on April 22, 2014, McHugh has gone 15-9 in 31 starts, remarkable considering his Major League stints with the Mets and Rockies from 2012-2013, during which he posted an 0-9 record and a 8.94 ERA (47ER/47.1IP) in 15 games (9 starts).

The Astros’ front office, filled with number-crunching baseball geeks and analysts, must have seen something in McHugh; although taking someone on waivers doesn’t represent a great risk, they must have noticed something in McHugh that no one else had detected to claim him.

At the time, McHugh was known as a control pitcher with a borderline-average fastball between 86-95 MPH at best, and average secondary pitches — a slider that ranges between 75-89 MPH and a slow curve that hovers in the low 70s. Nothing to suggest that McHugh would emerge into one of the best pitchers in the Majors this season.

We knew the Astros had to see something that no one has had seen to warrant the Astros taking a flyer of McHugh, and a few weeks ago we literally got the spin from David Stearns, the Astros 29-year-old assistant general manager. According to Stearns, the Astros’ analysts noticed that McHugh had a world-class curveball. Most curves spin at about 1,500 times per minute; McHugh’s spins 2,000 times. The more spin, the more the ball moves during the pitch, and the more likely batters are to miss it. Houston snapped him up. “We identified him as someone whose surface statistics might not indicate his true value,” said Stearns.

Stearns using the word “might” gives him an out, because if McHugh’s curve ball was spinning 2,000 times before the Astros claimed him, why didn’t he have success before he got to Houston. There are a couple of schools of thought, or variations as to where the credit for the success goes to for McHugh’s turn around and then there is my simple old school way of thinking.

The most common school of thought about McHugh’s success in Houston seems to be that is that he not depending on his fastball as much. The key to good pitching has always been location and the ability to keep the batters off balance and disrupting the timing of the hitter with pitch selection and location. It’s nice to have a 95-MPH fastball, but it isn’t always necessary.

Sportswriter Joe Vasile from SB Nation made an interesting observation last week in his column “Beyond the Boxscore”, in which he wrote, “McHugh uses his slider an astounding 44.6 percent of his pitches, and his curve 22.5 percent of the time. His fastball checks in at only 27.2 percent of his pitches. This pitch selection makes McHugh one of the most unique pitchers in baseball.”

The numbers from Vasile’s report are interesting in that, not only is McHugh is not depending on his fastball as much, but he is using what is arguably his best pitch, his curveball, only 22.5 percent of the time. After all, it was the spin on his curve ball that caught the attention of the Houston Astros. One wonders whether McHugh could be even more effective if he were to use the curveball more, but you cannot argue with success.

But is just changing pitch selection the key to McHugh’s success?

I don’t think so. In addition to the pitch selection, my take is that there are three things basically contributing to McHugh’s accomplishments with the Astros:

  1. Mechanics and Delivery: There are people a lot smarter than me who have noticed McHugh has made some slight adjustments to his mechanics and release point. Yet it is obvious that with the changes, he still doesn’t telegraph his pitches. Basically McHugh has developed into a pitcher, mixing his pitches more, showcasing his slider, getting the most out of his repertoire, by relying more on his secondary pitches than on his fastball. In turn, this makes his fastball more effective when he does use it.
  2. Psychological Factor: He comes to a team that was coming off of three seasons of losing 100+ games, in the rebuilding stage. He was given the opportunity to pitch in the rotation, under little or no pressure, which also gave him the opportunity to experiment and make the adjustments to the way he had pitched in the past without having to worry about failing to succeed. He had nothing to lose, to buy into the Astros plans for him.
  3. Scouting and Game Prep: Finally, the Astros have done an exceptional job working with McHugh, not only on his mechanics, delivery and release point, but their advance scouting reports and the subsequent game plans that they have prepared have given McHugh the opportunity to succeed and success has a way of breeding success. In St. Louis, in the past, it was legendary pitching coach Dave Duncan getting the most out of pitchers, extending their careers; in Houston, it is Brent Storm doing the same type of an extraordinary job as Duncan with the Astros pitching staff.

The Astros pulled off a major coup claiming McHugh off the waiver wire back in 2013, and there is nothing to suggest that McHugh is not going to continue be a major factor in the Astros pursuit of a American League Western Division pennant this season and beyond.

McHugh looks a lot bigger and better in Texas.

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