Jason Hursh acknowledges being “caught a little off-guard” when his Double-A manager and pitching coach recently sat him down and told him the Braves wanted their former first-round draft pick to begin pitching out of the bullpen.
Hursh had always been a starter, since he began pitching full-time his senior year in high school in Addison, Texas, through his years at Oklahoma State, and after the Braves drafted him 31st overall in 2013. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t see where they’re coming from.
“I look at it as a fresh start, just like, ‘All right, well, the past is the past, now you’re in the ’pen, and you have a different role,” Hursh said. “It’s like a breath of fresh air to me almost.”
Hursh, now in his second season in Double-A, was 2-6 with a 5.63 ERA in 15 starts this season for Mississippi. And often it was the big inning his second or third time through the order that got him. Now he can concentrate his efforts on facing hitters once in an inning or two of work at a time.
“I don’t see this as a negative thing,” Braves assistant director of player development Jonathan Schuerholz said. “He’s hit a spot in his development that it’s almost like the results are telling us this is the time to do it. He’s got the stuff to do it, the makings of a premier back-end-type of an arm in a bullpen.”
Schuerholz said a move like this is something the Braves had been considering, even after Hursh was 11-7 last year in Double-A with a 3.58 ERA. The Braves would like to hone that mid-90s sinking fastball of Hursh’s that is so dynamic, and let him rear back and throw it even harder in an inning or two at a time, without having to worry about being so pinpoint with it.
“When you really digest what he is as a pitcher, it’s like all signs point to the bullpen,” Schuerholz said. “When he’s going out for a five-, six-inning look, he’s throwing 94, 95 mph. A lot of those guys who do that, when you say, ‘Hey listen, you don’t have to leave anything in tank, give me one to two innings of full effort instead of having to pace yourself through the course of the game.’ Now you see that 94, 95 go to 96, 97, maybe 98.”
In Hursh’s first relief appearance, July 10, the Braves recorded him “sitting” at 95 mph and touching 97. And that’s with his sinker — a two-seam fastball that moves. Hursh said he’s tempted to mix in a few more of his four-seam fastballs and see what kind of velocity he can reach with those.
Hursh gave up one run in 2 1/3 innings over his first two relief appearances this past week.
“I think my pitches are sharper,” Hursh said. “The sinker is diving a little bit more, and the slider, I’m throwing it at a higher velocity, and it’s still a good pitch for me and moving pretty well also.”
Hursh said he’s throwing mainly his two-seamer and his slider, though he plans to keep his change-up and curveball in his back pocket for occasional use. Hursh said that while he still loves the starting role, that feeling of having a chance to contribute on any given day is fun for him.
“I’m excited,” Hursh said. “Whatever they feel is the best position for me to get to the big leagues, that’s fine with me, so I’m not arguing. … Once I get out there it all feels the same anyways.”
Schuerholz said it’s a long-running debate whether pitchers projected as relievers should start in the minor leagues to log more innings to hone their skills, or if it’s more important to adjust to the new role. The Braves decided they wanted to give Hursh the chance to make an adjustment while under the tutelage of Mississippi pitching coach Dennis Lewallyn and manager Aaron Holbert.
It also gives Hursh a chance to envision what it might be like to pitch at the back end of the bullpen someday, perhaps eventually as a closer.
“I think I’ve always pitched with a closer’s mentality in the starting role,” Hursh said. “That’s fine with me. That’d be cool. That’d be awesome. I’d love that role.”
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