How Hughes' mound sprint changed his career

Right-hander signed Minor League deal with invite to Astros' camp

February 26th, 2020

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- After logging hundreds of innings in the Minor Leagues, right-hander thought his career might be at the end of the line before he had even reached the big leagues. Warming up in the bullpen for Triple-A Indianapolis in 2011, he pondered life without baseball.

He was a 26-year-old starter-turned-reliever who didn’t throw particularly hard and hadn’t done much to distinguish himself along the way. It was the middle of summer and Hughes decided he had nothing to lose. At the urging of his catcher, he decided to sprint to the mound when it was his time to come into the game. It changed his career.

Hughes, pitching for Indianapolis against Rochester on July 25, 2011, bolted through the bullpen doors as fast as he could and was on the mound within seconds. He was stunned to discover he was throwing three or four mph harder than ever. The Pirates called him up in September.

“I went to thinking that was it for me to being in the big leagues in two months,” he said.

In the nine years since, Hughes has carved out a solid Major League career with the Pirates, Brewers, Reds and Phillies (2.88 ERA in 524 outings) and signed a Minor League deal with the Astros on Feb. 18 with an invitation to big league Spring Training. Along the way, Hughes hasn’t stopped sprinting to the bullpen, including prior to his outing Tuesday against the Marlins.

“I’ll never forget the feeling I had when I got out there [the first time he sprinted in 2011],” he said. “I was out of breath. I was worried about it, and then I started grunting and throwing as hard as I could. Even though I was in the low 90s, it was just way different and it felt good.”

The site of the 6-foot-7 Hughes running as fast as he can to the mound is unusual, and his sprint speed hasn’t yet been measured on Statcast. Hughes has come up with some science behind why it works for him, though. It all has to do with building up your heart rate.

“When you go lift weights, go in there with a normal heart rate and see how you do,” he said. “But if you elevate it to 120 or above, see how you do then. My guess is you’re going to be able to put more weight up if you’re going to have a higher heart rate. You shouldn’t be like 180 or whatever, but where I pitch is similar to where I train at in the offseason and throughout the entire season. It’s an area I’m comfortable at.”

Hughes wears a heart-rate monitor on his chest when he works out and runs in the offseason, and through experience, he knows his body performs best when his heart rate is 155 beats per minute. The sprint to the mound allows him to get it there.

“I’m in outstanding shape,” he said. “I love running. I love training. But a lot of it, honestly, is how you can think and how you can think clearly when your heart rate is elevated. For me, even doing agility work or training my feet so my feet have to connect to my body when I get that elevated heart rate, I love getting better and training is a good way to do that.”

Some pitchers use the slow walk to the mound to ponder the lineup and how they will attack hitters, but Hughes has already done that homework by the time his name is called. He studies the opposing team’s lineup for three hours prior to each series.

“If their lineup is a language, I speak it fluently,” he said. “So when I get on the mound, I understand exactly what I need to do to every single hitter. The catcher calls a fastball in, I know exactly where in I need to go, because I know the weakness of that hitter and I know my strength. I’ve got it all memorized.”

The sprint to the mound does mean that Hughes has yet to use a walk-out song because there’s simply not enough time to enjoy it. The entertainment value is in the entrance.

“My teammates understand it makes me a better player,” he said. “Overall, when you can be more aggressive and competitive, which is what it makes me do, that’s going to be something everybody wants to see on your side.”