Collin McHugh’s aggressive mindset leading to success for Braves

PHILADELPHIA — When discussing his aggressive mindset on the mound, Collin McHugh referenced an adage he has heard a lot throughout the game.

“You never know how good you can be until you throw a lot of strikes,” the saying goes.

The point: Attacking hitters is the best way for a pitcher to reach his ceiling. Nibbling around the strike zone will hold him back.

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McHugh is the perfect example of this. The right-hander, who has done it all out of the bullpen for Atlanta, attributes a lot of his success this season to getting ahead early in counts by pounding the zone.

“When you don’t have necessarily overpowering stuff, it becomes all the more important to set yourself up for success,” he said in the visiting clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park. “When you do that by throwing strike one, throwing strike two, it just allows me to use the things I have at my disposal a little bit more aggressively in the count, when you have some margin for error. If you’re 2-1 all the time, if you’re 1-1, if you’re 3-1, you end up having to put the ball in the middle of the zone a bit more, just because you can’t give up free bases, especially in the bullpen.”

Entering Sunday’s series finale in Philadelphia, McHugh had a 2.74 ERA over 65 ⅔ innings. Since the beginning of June, his ERA is 2.12.

A big part of that: His first-pitch strike percentage is 64.6 this year, which is above the league average. It’s the second-highest such mark for any year of a career that began in 2012.

McHugh’s aggressiveness also comes from a philosophy that pitchers don’t need to pitch to super specific parts of the zone. Sure, he said, some hitters require more caution. But pitchers must pitch to their strengths. “You don’t have to throw 102 to get guys out consistently in this league, but you do have to be really rigorous in your execution,” McHugh said.

This clicked for McHugh in 2018, when he went from starting to relieving. He always received the same piece of advice.

“Be as aggressive as you can possibly be,” people told him.

McHugh has done that ever since.

“You can’t really feel your way through a lineup anymore,” he said. “Even if you’re out there throwing two or three innings at a time as a reliever, which I’ve done periodically over my career, you’ve got to go out there as if this is the only time that they’re going to see you, as if this is the only time they’ve ever seen you. Think about it as an 0-2 count from the jump, making pitches that aggressively from the jump.”

Specifics matter, too, McHugh said. Hitters can be aggressive by swinging – or even by taking pitches. It’s a chess match. But pitchers must have an aggressive mindset, McHugh said, before worrying about the finer points of pitching.

McHugh, who is in the first season of a two-year deal, said his time with the Braves – for whom he rooted as a child – has exceeded his expectations. The team is succeeding on the field, but a “fantastic” clubhouse dynamic has made it an even better experience.

This October, the Braves will have an opportunity to win another World Series. McHugh, a consistent weapon out of the bullpen, could be a large part of a potential run.

The Braves were his favorite team growing up, so he understands what this means.

“It’s special, because this is my team,” McHugh said. “This is a part of my childhood, it’s a part of my growing up, it’s a part of my heart.”

Ronald Acuña returns in big way

Ronald Acuña, who is dealing with mid-back tightness, was out of the lineup again Sunday. It marked the fourth straight game he had not started.

But he entered as a pinch hitter late in the game. He then remained in the contest, playing right field. And in the 11th inning, he drove in the go-ahead run with a base hit.

Entering Sunday, the Braves were 76-34 with Acuña in the lineup, including 29-7 in the previous 36 games. They were 18-24 when he missed a game.

Rotation for Washington

The Braves are starting right-hander Bryce Elder on Monday. They have not yet announced a starter for Tuesday’s game (it could be Kyle Muller, who has pitched in Triple-A). Jake Odorizzi will pitch Wednesday.

Atlanta is pushing back Max Fried to the weekend series against the Mets.

“That’s going to be a big series, so we’re going to throw our top three guys that we got right now against them,” manager Brian Snitker said.