HOUSTON -- First, there’s Collin McHugh’s slider. That’s the one that got 14 swings and misses from the Yankees on Wednesday.
“It’s kind of Astros legend at this point,” McHugh said.
Two years ago, McHugh was searching for a second breaking pitch to make his curve more effective. Along the way, he picked up a slider grip from teammate Brad Peacock.
Peacock had learned it from Astros Minor Leaguer Jordan Jankowski, who had learned it from former Astros reliever Luke Gregerson.
See where this is going? When McHugh and Peacock are done with baseball, they’ll consider that single pitch a big part of their success.
“It’s a big pitch for me,” McHugh said. “It’s another weapon I can go to. Not having to rely so heavily on my curveball takes some pressure off that pitch.”
As everything continues to click for Houston, McHugh’s smooth transition back to the rotation has been an under-the-radar story. He showed off that new slider in allowing two earned runs in six innings, striking out nine and lowering his ERA to 2.65 as the Astros beat the Yankees 8-6 Wednesday at Minute Maid Park.
McHugh had been an absolutely dominant reliever during his 2018 season in the bullpen. Yet the Astros never doubted that he would have even greater value back in the rotation.
“Watching guys' reaction to him was impressive,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said. “He threw a lot of breaking balls to a lot of hitters multiple times through the order. He’s incredibly effective. There were some at-bats where he made some really good right-handed power hitters look like they were in trouble.”
He got 14 of his 16 swings and misses on sliders and eight of his 14 called strikes on the same pitch. He struck out Aaron Judge three times with sliders.
Judge took one for a third strike in the top of the first inning, then whiffed on sliders in the third and fifth inning. Brett Gardner led off the game with a home run for the Yankees, and McHugh worked out of trouble in the second and allowed a run in the fourth. He was in control after that, retiring the final nine Yankees he faced.
“It was definitely a problem for us,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “I think he kept us honest enough with the fastball, but he had a good feel for that slider. He was throwing it short some, he was moving it off the plate away some. It definitely gave us some problems there.”
McHugh went 48-28, including the postseason, as a starter for the Astros between 2014 and '17. His 19-7 season in 2015 was a big reason the Astros returned to the playoffs for the first time in a decade.
But last season, he found himself assigned to the bullpen, which would not have been his first choice.
“You don’t have a choice,” he said. “If you want a spot on this team, you gotta pitch. It would be easy to throw a pity party and say, `Why me?’ At the end of the day, you’ve got 13 arms here that are elite arms. If I can count myself as one of those 13, I consider that a win.”
He didn’t just find success in the bullpen. He found dominance, appearing in 58 games with a dazzling 1.99 ERA. Thank you, slider.
But with Lance McCullers Jr. undergoing Tommy John surgery and Charlie Morton and Dallas Keuchel departing via free agency, the Astros returned McHugh to the role he prefers. In three starts, he's 2-1 with a 2.65 ERA. However, the bullpen experience lingers in a good way.
“It made me more confident, for sure,” he said. “You learn how to pitch in different situations. You pitch in situations you’ve never been in. It gives you a whole new respect for those guys who go out and do it. For me, it was an important learning experience. I considered myself a starter all through the year. Looking back on it, you wouldn’t change.”