I wouldn’t say Brandon Hughes was flying entirely under the radar until last night. The prospect nerds among us had been pointing out for a while that he had the best relief results of anyone in the upper minors this year, and it was a trend that actually went back almost a full year. We also knew, since he was Rule 5 eligible after the season, it was highly likely that he would come up to the big leagues at some point this season.
But I will say that very few expected him to come up quite this early, and no one should reasonably expect a rookie to pitch as well as he did last night. I mean, the guy was setting records right out of the chute:
The MLB debut for @Brando_Hugs:
1.2 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 5 K. 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 of the @Cubs is the first pitcher in the modern era to get 5+ outs in his MLB debut with all of them coming via strikeout.
— Stats By STATS (@StatsBySTATS) May 18, 2022
When he learned about what he’d done after the game, Hughes was unsure what to say (Cubs.com): “I don’t even know how to react to that. That’s kind of wild,” Hughes said. “My stuff was working today. They were swinging and missing at it. That’s a wild stat.”
As most know by now, Hughes was an outfielder until just a few years ago, when the Cubs told him his chance to stay in professional baseball was, realistically, going to require a shift to the mound. He had a decent arm, so that part made the transition conceivable, but the combination of a unique arm slot, a passable changeup, and a devastating slider is what has made him so good.
Back in 2019, the Chicago Cubs gave outfielder Brandon Hughes an ultimatum. He could either become a pitcher or he could be released.
He chose to become a pitcher and now he's a big leaguer. 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 his outing I explored his pitch data along with @GoCubs49 and found he has a unique profile that provides a different look in the Cubs pen.
Pic by @biest22 https://t.co/CfAPDKyWUQ
— Greg Zumach (@IvyFutures) May 18, 2022
In there, you’ll see that Hughes’ fastball – which does not feature elite velocity (91-93 mph) – fits into the Cubs’ desire for “extreme” profiles. Compared to similar fastballs, Hughes’ gets significant run AND significant carry, which is really weird! And if you can execute something really weird, we’ve seen that you can have a lot of success.
In a little over a week, the last “new” roster rule change kicks in: teams can carry no more than 13 pitchers. The Cubs right now have 14, and that does not include Marcus Stroman and David Robertson, who should be returning soon (or Ethan Roberts and Sean Newcomb and Alec Mills, who will return at some point). The crunch is going to become very real, and for all their flaws on other areas of the roster, the Cubs really are going to have more relievers than they can carry at a given time. And since not all of them are optionable to the minors, you’re almost certainly going to see a guy like Hughes optioned at some point, even if he’s pitching well. It won’t be a knock on him, it’ll just be a product of the new realities (the new roster rule and the Cubs’ ever-increasing volume of quality relief pitching).
As for when Hughes might get optioned, I don’t know that it’ll be immediately upon the Stroman/Robertson returns or the bullpen shrinking to eight, because Daniel Norris (Achilles soreness) might have to hit the IL, and/or because there are some other optionable guys on the roster (Michael Rucker, Mark Leiter Jr., for example), and/or because other injury issues always pop up. For now, Hughes should get a little bit of run to make a handful of appearances, and show what he’s got (and perhaps learn a little more about how he can improve whenever he makes his next stop at Triple-A). The potential there to be an impact reliever for a long time is substantial, and that will definitely be a focus this year. And hey, if that means he shows he’s just too good already to justify sending him down even when there’s an extreme roster squeeze, then so be it.
Hughes got the Cubs Productions treatment for his debut, together with Christopher Morel:
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) May 18, 2022