Collin McHugh: ‘Our Rotation Feeds Off Keuchel’s Energy’

No sport is more numbers-friendly, perhaps, than baseball, and if you’re looking for an interesting number, you’re in luck.

We’ve got one for you.

Houston Astros righty Collin McHugh has thrown a knuckleball on 44.6 percent of his pitches this season – easily the most in the majors. San Diego’s Tyson Ross is second, with 39.7 percent.

“I know I throw it a lot,” McHugh said on CBS Sports Radio’s The Doug Gottlieb Show. “I know I have over the second half of the year on from last year thrown it a lot more often. It’s just become a real versatile pitch for me.”

McHugh also throws a curveball 22 percent of the time, meaning he throws a curveball or slider on two-thirds of his pitches.

So . . . how’s that elbow holding up? Is it getting worn down a bit?

“Nah, truthfully, everybody calls it a slider; it’s really not a true slider,” McHugh said. “It’s more of a cutter. It’s usually somewhere in the high-80s with my fastball playing in the low-90s. I’m not turning it over really at all. I’m not trying to crank on it like a lot of hard-slider guys. It’s just I have the ability to flatten it out when I need to to lefties and get a little more depth to it when I need to to righties. It’s basically just a fastball with a different grip.”

All right, time for a little baseball tutorial. How does a pitcher actually hold a slider?

“Guys hold it different ways,” McHugh said. “But mostly with a true slider, you want to have a lot of seam. Whatever seam you’re going to grip, you want to have a lot of it with your middle finger on the right side of your middle finger.”

With the seams or across it?

“I would go with the seams.” McHugh said. “You’re feeling a seam along your middle finger. You want something you can basically just yank down on. (That’s) a true hard slider.”

And the difference between that and a cutter would be what, exactly?

“The cutter, I take it basically across the seams just like I would a four-seam fastball,” McHugh said. “I just offset it just a little bit with my wrist so that my fingers – instead of staying straight behind the ball – they’re off to the side just a little bit. So basically, I’m throwing one side of the ball – the right side of the ball – a little more than I’m throwing straight through the back of the ball.”

Good stuff.

If you’re not a fan of the knuckleball (or ball grips) don’t worry: Gottlieb and McHugh discussed much more than that – and for good reason. The Astros (18-8) had won 10 straight games before losing to the Rangers, 2-1, on Monday. Still, they have at least a seven-game lead over every other team in the AL West.

McHugh (4-0, 3.41 ERA) has been a big part of that. So has Dallas Keuchel (3-0, 0.80 ERA), who has pitched at least six innings in each of his six starts. Why has Keuchel been so successful this season? Is it the beard?

“It’s got to be the beard, right? That’s got to have something to do with it. Him and James Harden, I don’t know who’s got the better beard in Houston right now,” McHugh joked. “But he is just a competitor. He’s probably the most intense pitcher on the mound that I’ve seen in my career – and that’s saying something. When he gets out there, it’s just – you know that he believes that he’s better than everyone else. And I think his performances tend to reflect that. He’s throwing the ball really well right now. He’s kind of setting the tone for us, for our rotation. All of us are trying to go off and really feed off that and build on what we’re dong.”

McHugh, to his credit, has been one of the best pitchers in the AL West this season. Not bad for a guy who didn’t know which division – or league – he was in when the Astros claimed him off waivers in 2013.

“No, honestly, one of my buddies said, ‘You’re not going to have to hit anymore,’ and I was like, ‘What are you talking about? Of course I’m going to have to hit,’” McHugh recalled. “I realized after I looked it up online that they had moved over to the American League that year – which, if you’ve ever seen my swing, is probably a blessing in disguise for me.”

McHugh, 27, is a career .071 hitter.

There has been much debate in recent years as to whether pitchers should still bat in the National League. McHugh is torn on the issue.

“That’s a real tough question on a lot of levels,” he said. “In a lot of ways, I’m a baseball traditionalist. I love the game. I think it’s perfect the way it is. It’s been played essentially the same way for 100 years. I love that part of it.”

That’s one hand. But then there’s the other.

“I’m not a good hitter,” McHugh said. “And you don’t get prepared coming up through the minor leagues very well to be a good hitter. So unless you’re just a really great athlete and you have that natural ability like a Madison Bumgarner, it really puts you at a disadvantage. Unless you really take time and effort to get good at it, you really kind of are putting yourself in a chance to hurt yourself or to not do yourself any favors, that’s for sure.”

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