The last time Collin McHugh stepped on the mound at Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark, he simply wanted another opportunity to pitch in the majors.
Three months later, when he starts Tuesday night for the RedHawks, McHugh will pitch knowing he is entrenched in the Houston Astros’ rotation.
In Oklahoma City for a rehab start to assure a split fingernail on his right middle finger is fully healed, McHugh will try to get back to the form that has the former 18th-round pick ranked third in the American League in opponents’ batting average against (.195).
One of Major League Baseball’s surprising turnaround stories this season, McHugh, a 27-year-old right-hander, was cut by the Mets and the Rockies. Entering the season, he owned a career 0-8 record with a 8.94 ERA in 15 previous major league appearances.
“A lot of it is confidence,” said RedHawks manager Tony DeFrancesco. “He’s matured to where he’s figured some things out. Sometimes the first few times you go up it’s difficult to succeed. There’s a lot of pressure. Now, he’s a lot more comfortable, feels like he belongs.”
McHugh enjoyed some success in the minors but struggled every time he was promoted to the majors, posting a 4-8 record with a 3.28 ERA in 14 starts for the Astros.
“It’s kind of weird to know this is my third year, but I’m just now getting the hang of it,” McHugh said. “There’s a big difference with the talent level in the big leagues but in the past I think I tried to do too much.
“I sometimes gave hitters too much credit. It’s as simple as being aggressive. If you get too fine you get behind in counts where you don’t set yourself up for success. You can’t be afraid to throw balls up in the zone.”
The 554th overall draft pick in 2008 out of Berry College (Ga.), McHugh compiled a career 37-28 record with a 3.36 ERA in roughly 650 minor league innings. But every time he received a brief audition in the majors, he was roughed up. Opponents hit .348 against the 6-foot-2 right-hander.
What’s been the difference?
“I’ve been asked that question quite a few times this season,” McHugh said. “Honestly, nothing’s changed. I believe there’s a natural progression, not just in baseball but anything you do. You either struggle until you figure it out or you don’t do it anymore.
“All the coaches have told me to be aggressive in the zone and just see how it plays out. It was a freeing idea. If it worked great; if it didn’t it couldn’t get worse than it was before.”
McHugh’s currently earning the MLB minimum ($500,000), and the Astros can re-sign him for the minimum again next year, but he could be in line for a raise in 2016 if he continues build on his early-season success.
“You just have to take it one pitch at a time, one batter at a time,” McHugh said. “If you think too far ahead it can overwhelm you.”
If the fingernail is fine after 80 pitches, McHugh will rejoin the Astros in Oakland. His ERA has slipped to 4.45 in his last six starts but he still leads the Astros in strikeouts (83) and quality starts.
“He’s got a real good breaking ball, and when he elevates it he has a swing-and-miss fastball even though he doesn’t throw overly hard,” DeFrancesco said. “We’re hoping he can get by this little issue with the fingernail. The numbers he’s put up this season are something he should be very proud of.”
McHugh is a prime example why organizations constantly sign players that no longer fit on another team’s 40-man roster. Sometimes players like McHugh figure it out and have success in the majors.
“The big leagues are full of guys like that,” McHugh said. “The super-talented guys like (Mike) Trout or (George) Springer are different because they’re incredible athletes. But for the vast majority of us, we bounce back and forth (between Triple-A and the majors) until you get another chance, take off and run with it.”