‘You fall in love with the story’: Brandon Hughes’ unconventional journey to the Cubs and his historic MLB debut
Brandon Hughes was faced with a choice.
Mind you, it wasn’t a particularly difficult choice.
It was spring of 2019. Jaron Madison — the Cubs’ farm director at the time — approached Hughes and told him he could either transition from an outfielder to a pitcher or he would be granted his release.
“I chose to become a pitcher,” Hughes said simply Tuesday afternoon inside the Wrigley Field clubhouse, a few hours before his MLB debut.
Originally drafted in 2017 as an outfielder out of Michigan State University in 2017, Hughes was promoted to the majors for the first time Tuesday when the Cubs sent pitcher Conner Menez down to the minors.
David Ross wasted no time getting Hughes into a game, calling on the rookie southpaw when Cubs reliever Daniel Norris was forced out of the 6th inning with an injury.
Norris had just entered the game, so Hughes wasn’t getting ready in the bullpen. He had to warm up completely on the field, in front of 30,478 fans at Wrigley Field.
“The phone rang and they said ‘Hughes’ and it was just…whoosh. It hit me,” he said. “I’m like, I’m warming up on the mound. I never did that. That was my first time ever doing that. They were all telling me, ‘take it slow. We’re going on your pace. ‘I took their advice. I warmed up and then I went at it.”
And boy did he go “at it.”
Hughes set a modern-day record by getting at least 5 outs in his MLB debut with every out coming via strikeout.
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
He also made Cubs history, becoming the first pitcher to strike out the first 4 batters he faced in his MLB debut (since 1974):
Hughes is from Michigan and had 20-25 friends and family members at Wrigley Field for his debut, including his mom, dad and brother. He was able to celebrate with them on the field after the game and saved the first strikeout ball to give to his mom.
“Brandon was impressive,” Ross said. “Kept the lefties off balance. There’s real deception in there. Not a lot of good swings off of him. I thought it was really impressive what he showed tonight.”
Hughes is a 26-year-old left-handed reliever who has been absolutely dominant since converting to a pitcher full time.
In 10 minor league appearances (16.2 innings) this season between Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa, Hughes did not allow a run. He struck out 22 and permitted only 8 baserunners (5 hits, 3 walks).
Last year, he had a 1.71 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 12.9 K/9 in 26 appearances in Advanced Class-A ball and Double-A.
2019 marked the first full year for Hughes on the mound. He pitched at three different levels in the Cubs system and posted a 3.31 ERA and 0.86 WHIP. Prior to that, he hadn’t pitched since 2015, his freshman year in college.
“That whole switch, it was crazy in the moment,” Hughes said. “Once I had that first full season of pitching under my belt, it was kind of like, ‘I’m a pitcher and I’m no longer an outfielder.'”
When Hughes met with Ross Tuesday, he joked that he could still play the outfield if needed.
The rookie found out about his promotion at about 10 p.m. Monday night when he received a call from Iowa manager Marty Pevey.
“He said I’m gonna be a big leaguer and my heart rate started pumping,” Hughes said. “Kinda went into a little bit of a shock. Hung that up, called my parents — they were ecstatic. I was getting a little emotional on the phone with them for sure. This is a dream.”
Ross can appreciate where Hughes has come from and all he has endured to get to this point.
“This kid owning that positional change, really overcoming a lot of adversity and starting over in a career is really hard to do,” Ross said. “It’s one of those things — like Scott Effross — you fall in love with the story of adversity early on.
“It actually gives you a sense of comfort when they do come up here that the first sense of struggles they might have, they’ve already come out of a lot of that in the minor leagues and overcome a lot. They’re just gonna continue to work and get better and challenge themselves. They know how to compete and those are all things I’ve heard about Brandon.”
Ross mentioned Effross, who shares a bond with Hughes. Effross didn’t transition from position player to pitcher full time but around the same time, he was asked to completely change his delivery and drop down to a sidearm delivery.
Effross and Hughes both spent the early part of 2019 at the Cubs complex in Arizona reinventing themselves. They hung out a lot at the time, golfing every few days when they had time off from the field.
They didn’t realize in those moments that it was a turning point in their respective careers.
“At that point, you really don’t even know any better,” Effross said. “It’s kinda like yeah, we’re doing this. It’s part of baseball. Not really sure how it’s gonna wind up but we’re gonna go try.
“Give a lot of credit to him. Not an arm slot difference but a completely different game. To do it on the fly at a professional level is incredibly impressive. Really, really happy for him. Great dude.”
After a couple of months in Arizona in 2019 to transition to a pitcher full-time, Hughes had a successful first foray into work on the mound.
But then the pandemic hit and he was forced to the sideline for a year during 2020. So he went back home to Michigan and worked with his friend, Dominic Downs.
“I dove in,” Hughes said. “He was Driveline certified and all that. I go up to him and I was basically like, ‘teach me like an 8-year-old. I want to learn everything again.’
“The Cubs didn’t want to switch my mechanics that much. They gave me an objective to gain more velocity, however that was. I go and try to do that on my own and it ended up working. My mechanics have smoothed out — they’re more repeatable now and there’s a little bit more velo in there.”
Hughes now sits between 91-94 mph and can top out at 96-97. He was consistently sitting around 93-94 mph with his fastball during his MLB debut Tuesday night.
But he wasn’t done tweaking his game after the velocity gains. He always felt like he had a good fastball, but knew his offspeed needed work.
Hughes didn’t like the shape or speed of his curveball at the beginning of his pitching days, so they switched it to a slider in 2021. But then over the offseason, he tweaked it again to a “sweeping slider” with more sideways movement.
“The sweeping slider I’ve been loving,” Hughes said. “It’s been a big part of my success. The changeup was always there. I didn’t always used to have a good feel for the changeup but it’s been coming along the last year-and-a-half or so.”
All 5 of his strikeouts Tuesday night came on that slider.
Hughes’ debut certainly wasn’t textbook, coming into a game mid-batter because of an injury.
But then again, his journey to the majors hasn’t been textbook either. And that’s part of what made Ross so confident in the rookie left-hander.
“What I’ve heard about him and his strike-throwing ability,” Ross said. “A little bit about his story tells me he’s got a little resilience.”
Now it’s time to see what the next chapter of Hughes’ story entails.