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Jared Hughes could be a huge upgrade for the Mets’ bullpen

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A weird reliever for a weird season.

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Washington Nationals
Jared Hughes pitches with Cincinnati
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, the Mets’ bullpen was less than stellar. They were downright awful, to put it bluntly. So going into 2020, one of the team’s priorities was to fortify the bullpen. On top of Seth Lugo and Justin Wilson, both coming off good seasons as the only reliable arms in the bullpen, the Mets were hoping for bounce back seasons from Edwin Diaz and Jeurys Familia, for Brad Brach to keep his ERA around where it was with the Mets the second half of last year, and for Gsellman to lower his ERA a little.

In the offseason, the Mets added a big bullpen arm in Dellin Betances, hoping for him to return to his former glory after injuries kept him out for the majority of last season. The last arm was expected to be whichever starting pitcher that didn’t make the rotation, and most people anticipated it to be Michael Wacha based on his incentive-laden contract.

Fast forward to the restart of the season, and Michael Wacha is set to start for the Mets, so the Mets needed another bullpen arm. In years past, the Mets would typically rely on one (or a mix) of their young arms in the minor leagues, someone like Tyler Bashlor, Paul Sewald, or Jacob Rhame. But this year, with the Mets hoping to be in the middle of the playoff race and the stakes being high in every single game, they couldn’t afford to take a shot on one of the young guys and hope they don’t blow it.

So the Mets went and signed Jared Hughes. Jared Hughes is known for being a bit of a lovable weirdo. He takes super bizarre photos on photo day, he sprints out to the mound—and occasionally gives up a three run home run to the Mets immediately after—he challenges Mr. Met to a staring contest as soon as the Mets sign him. But he was also one of the better relievers of the last decade.

Over his nine-season career, Hughes has a 2.88 ERA, 1.220 WHIP, averages 6.07 K/9 and 0.76 HR/9. In those seasons, he threw over 33 innings in seven of them. In those seven, he only once had an ERA over 3.03, which was last year. Just two years ago he had a career year, with an ERA of just 1.94 over 78.2 innings. He had 7 saves that season and was worth 1.3 fWAR. He’s not the kind of guy who gets big strikeouts or is used in super high leverage situations—he only has 12 saves in his whole career. But in terms of a bullpen piece, he’s a clear upgrade over the revolving door of Triple-A arms the Mets have used in recent years.

With Hughes, the concern is what kind of production he will have in a shortened season. In his two seasons that he pitched the number of innings that would be similar to this shortened season, his numbers have not been pretty. In his first season he threw 11 innings over 12 games and had a 4.09 ERA (his FIP was much lower at 3.48, which means he probably just had a bad defense behind him). In his third season he threw 32 innings in 29 games and ended up with a 4.78 ERA and a 4.11 FIP. So his numbers may just have been bad because of who was behind him, but the Mets aren’t particularly known for their defense either, so these are numbers to keep an eye on.

Last season, he didn’t look great any way you cut it. The first part of the season he spent in Cincinnati, he had a 4.10 ERA and a 4.72 FIP, and when he went to Philadelphia his ERA improved slightly to 3.91, but his FIP ballooned to 6.47. So these issues last year can’t be attributed to who was playing defense. In Spring Training with the Astros earlier this year, Hughes had an ERA of 6.35 in just 5.2 innings with a 1.412 WHIP. And in Fangraphs multiple projections, none of them have him with an ERA lower than 4.06 and a FIP below 4.42. There are questions here that could be important for the Mets this season. Was Hughes’ downturn just an off year in an otherwise impressive history, or was it a sign of a pitcher hitting the back part of his career a little hard? Will Hughes be able to recover this season, or will he end up dragging the team down with a poor performance?

Hopefully, the Mets will have the flexibility to maneuver around Hughes if he’s not as great this year as he has been in the past. Lugo and Wilson have had sustained success, so as long as they stay healthy they should anchor the bullpen. If Betances, Diaz and Familia return to form, that helps even more. Brach will hopefully stay on the track he got on after joining the Mets, showing a return to the reliever who impressed with the Orioles. And if that happens it will take the pressure off of Gsellman to pitch as much and will allow the Mets to use Hughes to his best ability, whether that be as an anchor of the bullpen or a mop up guy. And if Drew Smith returns from injury as good as he was in 2018, or Hunter Strickland impresses during Summer Camp, there are other options for the number eight spot if they need to take those measures.

The Jared Hughes signing could be great for the Mets. He’s shown the ability in the past to be a dominant reliever, and even if he’s just good it will be an improvement over the relievers of Mets seasons past. Worse comes to worst, the Mets hopefully will have the options to work around him, and options to replace him.