I wouldn’t say Brandon Hughes flew completely under the radar until last night. The would-be nerds among us had been pointing out for some time that he had the best relief record of any in the upper minors this year, and that trend actually went back almost a full year. We also knew that since he was eligible under Rule 5 after the season, it was very likely that he would move up to the big leagues something point this season.
But I will say that very few expected him to show up so early, and no one reasonably should expect a rookie who can serve just as well as last night. I mean, the guy set records right out of the shaft:
The MLB debut for @Brando_Hugs:
1.2IP, 0H, 0R, 1BB, 5K pic.twitter.com/m3lHZnc6PM
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) May 18, 2022
(since 1974) pic.twitter.com/amtTbZEmjN
— Marquee Sports Network (@WatchMarquee) May 18, 2022
Brandon Hughes from the @cubs is the first modern pitcher to have more than 5 outs in his MLB debut, all of which came via strikeout.
— Stats by STATS (@StatsBySTATS) May 18, 2022
Upon learning what he’d done after the game, Hughes didn’t know what to say (Cubs.com): “I don’t even know how to react to this. It’s kind of wild,” Hughes said. “My stuff worked today. They swung and missed. That’s a wild statistic.”
As most now know, Hughes was an outfielder until just a few years ago, when the Cubs told him his chance at staying in professional baseball would realistically require a move to the hill. He had a decent arm so that part made the transition thinkable, but the combination of a unique arm slot, a passable switch and a devastating slider made him so good.
Chicago Cubs outfielder Brandon Hughes gave an ultimatum back in 2019. He could either pitcher or get fired.
He chose to be a pitcher and now he’s a big league player. https://t.co/TwdzWlUF3a
— Tommy Birch (@TommyBirch) May 17, 2022
More on the data behind Hughes’ success, including big praise for the fastball:
Brandon Hughes was electric last night. Before he came out, I explored his field data@GoCubs49and found that it has a unique profile that gives the Cubs pen a different look.
— Greg Zumach (@IvyFutures) May 18, 2022
In it, you see that Hughes’ fastball — which does not boast elite speed (91-93 mph) — fits into the Cubs’ desire for “extreme” profiles. Compared to similar fastballs, Hughes gets a significant run AND a significant carry, which is really weird! And if you can do something really weird, as we’ve seen, you’re going to have a lot of success.
In just over a week, the latest “new” change to the roster rules will go into effect: Teams will not be allowed to carry more than 13 pitchers. The Cubs currently have 14 and that doesn’t include Marcus Stroman and David Robertson, who should return anytime soon (or Ethan Roberts and Sean Newcomb and Alec Mills, who will eventually return). The crisis is going to be very real, and for all their shortcomings in other areas of the roster, the Cubs will truly have more assists than they can carry at any given time. And since not all of them are optional for the minors, you’ll almost certainly see a guy like Hughes as an option at some point, even if he does well. It’s not going to be a blow to him, it’s just going to be a product of the new realities (the new roster rule and the Cubs’ ever-increasing volume of quality relief pitching).
When Hughes might be selected I don’t know if it will be immediately after Stroman/Robertson returns or the bullpen shrinks to eight because Daniel Norris (Achilles tendon pain) may have to hit the IL and/or because there are some other optional ones guys on the list (e.g. Michael Rucker, Jack Leiter Jr.) and/or because other injury issues always crop up. For now, Hughes should run a little to make a few appearances and show what he’s got (and maybe learn a little more about how he can improve when he makes his next stop at Triple-A). The potential to have an impact reliever for a long time is significant and that will definitely be a focus this year. And hey, if that means he’s already showing that he’s just too good to justify sending him down even when there’s extreme roster pressure, then so be it.
Hughes got the Cubs Productions treatment for his debut alongside Christopher Morel:
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) May 18, 2022