There were any number of frustrating aspects of last night's 4-3 loss to the Reds, many of which David Manel covered here. I'd like to focus, though, on Clint Hurdle's decision to have Jared Hughes enter in a tie game in the sixth.
That looks like Jared Hughes warming up, which seems like a bad idea.— Bucs Dugout (@BucsDugout) September 10, 2016
There was no reason for Hughes to have pitched. It's September. Rosters have expanded. The Pirates had any number of relievers available, and most of them would have been better than Hughes, who isn't the same pitcher he was in the past.
We've criticized Hughes, and the Pirates' usage of him, a bunch in recaps this year, but I'm not sure I've ever completely explained why. After all, you might look at Hughes' ERA for the season -- still just 3.24 -- and assume there's nothing wrong.
A glance at his peripherals, though, reveals significant problems. Hughes has never been a strikeout pitcher, and strikeouts aren't a huge part of what makes him effective when he's good, but his strikeout rate has continued to fall to just 4.5 batters per nine innings this season. More importantly, his walk rate has risen, to 3.4 batters per nine. Hughes' ERAs have always been better than his peripherals, but this year his xFIP and SIERA are both up a full run, both to around five.
Meanwhile, Hughes' ground-ball rate has dipped from 63.7 percent last season to 55.1 percent this year. 55.1 percent is still a really good ground-ball rate for most guys, but since Hughes never strikes anyone out, he needs ground balls by the bushel to be effective.
More broadly, though, the story Hughes' peripherals tell is that he just doesn't know where his pitches are going anymore. They used to stay down consistently. Now they don't, which is why they're flying out of the yard. He allowed three homers all of last season; this year he has six, and in fewer innings. Six homers in 50 frames wouldn't be the worst problem for some relievers, and the difference between three and six might be a fluke in some cases. But Hughes, with his low-strikeout profile, isn't your standard reliever -- his effectiveness depends to a high degree upon getting ground ball outs and limiting big mistakes. And from watching him, his home-run total seems to reflect a tendency to miss and serve meatballs rather than any sample-size accident.
So, okay, let's return to Hurdle's decision last night. Hughes entered the game in the sixth inning with a 2-2 score. He threw six pitches to leadoff batter Brandon Phillips, running the count to 2-2 ... and then threw a hanging slider.
Hughes missed badly, even more than the picture makes it look, as Francisco Cervelli started with his glove way down and away. Phillips blasted Hughes' pitch to right, and the Reds took a 3-2 lead.
It would obviously be ridiculous to pin a rather complicated loss on Hurdle's call, but there's no way Hughes should have been in the game in that situation. In past years, he was highly valuable because of his ability to enter in tough spots and get ground-ball outs and double plays. Not anymore.
Hughes is currently making $2.175 million in his second year of arbitration eligibility. Due to the way arbitration payouts tend to be structured, he'll make more next season if the Pirates tender him a contract. And maybe they will. The Bucs know their pitchers well, and maybe they think they can turn Hughes around.
If not, though, he doesn't look to be worth the salary he'll be making, and you might even be able to argue that he shouldn't be worth a roster spot (although there's no real reason for the Bucs to make that call now, since rosters have expanded). Hughes is, by every account I've ever heard, a great guy, and he was genuinely productive in both the last two seasons before this one. At this point, though, it might be time for the Pirates to move on.