You won’t spot many pitchers finishing off David McCullough’s heralded 752-page biography of John Adams on their Kindle as they sit by the pool during spring training, but McHugh is unique -- and one of the most interesting players in the major leagues.
“I’m so close to being done, I can smell it,” McHugh said when we chatted earlier this week. “I love history. I’ve always loved history. McCullough is such a great writer. He makes history come alive.”
McHugh reads (he recently finished "The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business" by Charles Duhigg, which inspired the pitcher to change his workout plan). He writes (he and his wife, Ashley, a professional calligrapher, each have blogs). He vacations in Europe (where he stopped at the Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris to read a first edition of Ernest Hemingway’s "For Whom the Bell Tolls.”) He comes up with hashtags like #unleashyourcreative for his Twitter and Instagram pages.
And last year McHugh excelled in his sport to the point where David Schoenfield labeled him a sleeper 2015 Cy Young candidate in an article last week.
The story of McHugh’s 2014 season was book-worthy in itself. Inspired by watching Russell Wilson lead the Seattle Seahawks to a Super Bowl victory, he applied Wilson’s “Why not us?” philosophy to his own big league career.
McHugh was 0-8 with an 8.94 ERA in his first two seasons with the Mets and Rockies, teams that gave up on him. But when he arrived in Houston last spring -- after the Astros claimed him off waivers in December 2013 -- he took then-manager Bo Porter’s “You belong here” comments to heart.
“They said, ‘We believe in you, we have confidence in you, go do your thing,'" McHugh said.
The Astros' front office and coaching staff also told McHugh that the spin rate on his curveball was among the highest of any pitcher in the game and that he should be throwing the curve more. McHugh changed his approach, going from a hurler who was heavily dependent on his fastball to one who was much more unpredictable and used all four of his pitches (the others, a changeup and a slider/cutter).
“Once I started implementing that [suggestion], it played into my favor,” McHugh said.
McHugh struck out 12 batters in 6 2/3 scoreless innings in his Astros debut against the Mariners on April 22, then took a one-hitter into the ninth inning of his next start against the Athletics.
The next two months were a bit of a roller coaster. After starting 2-0, McHugh fell to 4-8 before a finger injury sidelined him for three weeks right around the All-Star break, but he didn’t think he was pitching that badly. McHugh lost his first start after returning from the injury in late July -- then didn’t lose again the rest of the season to finish 11-9.
“It wasn’t the same [struggle] that it was before,” McHugh said. “I had that confidence, that taste of success that you need to run with something and get past some hard times. Once I knew that my finger was healed, it was just going back to what we do best -- go right at guys, be aggressive in the zone and see what happens.”
Armed with the knowledge about his curveball and encouragement from pitching coach Brent Strom -- who noted that McHugh's rate of inducing swings and misses in the strike zone was among the best in baseball -- McHugh started challenging hitters, and throwing his slider/cutter, more frequently.
“I don’t want to compare myself to an artist, but my wife is an artist and she talks about how when an artist goes and puts their brush in the color red, they know that red is going to show up on the canvas,” McHugh said, noting that his wife has made him well-versed in artistic analogies. “As a pitcher, when you reach down and get that cutter, [you have to know] that cutter’s going to be there when you throw it.
“A lot of times in my career, it wasn’t quite that consistent. I didn’t know what I was going to get. But I feel really confident with it now. It’s a pitch that has come along with me.”
Over the final two months of the 2014 season, McHugh made 10 starts and was 7-0 with a 1.77 ERA, 55 strikeouts, seven walks and only three home runs allowed in 66 innings pitched.
He surrendered just one run in seven of those 10 games and gave up more than two runs only once -- to the Mariners in his last start of the season, when he yielded three.
“I got a lot of help from [catchers Jason] Castro and [Carlos] Corporan,” he said. "There were games last year that could have gone really badly if I'd had an inning where it slipped away. We moved forward, got through those and started to realize we can do this.”
McHugh poses a particular challenge for right-handed hitters. Three of the best in the game -- Mike Trout, Jose Abreu and Giancarlo Stanton -- went a combined 0-for-10 with seven strikeouts against him last season. Righties hit .190 against McHugh, the lowest batting average against anyone who threw at least 100 innings last season.
“You can really tell that he does his homework,” said new teammate and former Angels catcher Hank Conger, who went 1-for-5 batting lefty against McHugh last season. “He understands where your hot and cold zones are and he’s very committed to following his game plan, trying to execute [to the] weaknesses of opposing hitters. He always seems like he’s one step ahead.”
McHugh's work has impressed plenty of baseball people. The general perception of him as a pitcher is much different now from what it was two years ago.
"I saw him with Colorado and he would look great for two or three innings, but then he'd get the ball up and get obliterated," said one major league scout. "The guy that showed up last year was amazing. He had four pitches that he could throw for a strike. That curveball has turned into a legitimate out pitch. It's a 60 [on the 20 to 80 scouting scale], but it plays better than that. You wouldn't be embarrassed to call it a 70. And you better be swinging, because he throws it over the plate.
"He's a great example of a guy who has the pitches but didn't use them right [at first]. He pitched better once he figured out who he was and what he was trying to do. I don't see any hiccups in the way of him repeating that. He has great command and a clean delivery."
This spring training has been much different for McHugh from the previous three. Previously he was trying to pitch perfectly, in hopes of just making the roster. Now he’s locked into a spot in the top three of an up-and-coming Astros rotation.
Could things get any better for him?
“A lot of things could get better,” McHugh said. “One -- we make the playoffs. I’ve seen this team in spring training. I’ve seen the talent we have. I’ve seen the flashes of brilliance from the young guys. I think we have a shot, I really do. On top of that, I’m looking to throw 200 innings. (He threw 154 2/3 last season.)
"It’s one of those milestones you want to hit to prove that you can. It’s one of those lines in the sand that separates the workhorses in the league from your midlevel starters. That’s a big deal for me. I’ll need to be injury-free and consistent.”
Both on the page and on the field, McHugh is looking forward to the next chapter.