It was the middle of another long season in the minor leagues, and in the Altoona, Pa. dugout, Jared Hughes was talking with his catcher Kris Watts.
Hughes was frustrated with his progress in Altoona and was struggling to find answers. Watts decided this was the time to approach his teammate and motivate him to become the fearless pitcher he remembered.
“We’ve got half a season left, let it all out on the table. Don’t worry about mechanics or anything, just have fun, play hard and play any way you want to play so that you don’t have any regrets when you walk away because that’s all we’ve got left,” Watts said to Hughes.
This pep talk got Hughes back on track, and as a result, he was able to pitch his way onto the Major League roster where for two seasons he has been a permanent fixture on the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Both players had a connection since they attended Santa Clara University. Hughes started his collegiate career at Santa Clara before Watts. By the time Watts attended the school, Hughes had transferred to Long Beach State. When the two met in the minor leagues, they compared experiences, and a relationship immediately formed.
Hughes fought his way through the minor league system and after two seasons, was promoted to the Curve, the Pirates Double-A affiliate. He had a tough start while there, posting a 4.94 ERA in 2008, a 1-6 record with the team in 2009 and a 4.48 ERA in 2010.
This led to the struggles Hughes experienced in 2011. He was at a crossroads both in and out of baseball. He was set to be married and at the same time felt that after getting started on the wrong foot in Altoona that he had one more chance to prove himself.
Watts knew he had to approach Hughes, and did so both as a friend and as a teammate.
“At certain times in your minor league career, you’re going to deal with a lot of doubt because it’s just how it goes,” said Watts. “You could be the best player for two months, you could be the worst player for two months, still knowing and telling yourself you’re really even good even when you’re playing badly is tough.”
Watts wanted his pitcher to be a freak on the mound, and show what he had. The results were instantaneous.
“Next time I went out there, I went nuts,” Hughes said. “I was breathing through my mouth and just going crazy and threw as hard as I could and it worked for me. I obviously had it somewhere, I just didn’t use it.”
Hughes continued to use the advice and made 13 appearances with the Curve that season, 11 of which were starts. He would then get the call up to the Pirates Triple-A affiliate Indianapolis Indians. He was used exclusively as a reliever appearing in 35 games before he was called up late in the season.
Pirates fans know the rest of the story as Hughes saw success in 2012 appearing in 66 games and posting a 2.85 ERA. In 2013, Hughes took a step back splitting time with the Major League team and the Indians.
Hughes return to his 2012 form in 2014 posting a 1.96 ERA and seven wins in 63 games.
“Jared is such a hard worker and is dedicated to learning from his mistakes, which ultimately made him a better player,” said Watts.
He has not looked back thus far in 2015, as he ranks among National League leaders with 33 games pitched.
Though Watts never made it to the Major Leagues, he played within the Pirates system from 2006-2011. He split 2012 with the Pirates and the Washington Nationals system, and ended his playing career in 2013. He is currently selling life insurance and doing some investment banking in the Bay Area.
The two still keep in touch and recently met at a game against the San Francisco Giants earlier this season. Hughes reserved tickets for Watts, something that has become a recent tradition.
“I want to support him and support the guys that are still going and got that opportunity,” Watts said. “We’ve been through a lot in the minor leagues. I got to know the guy pretty well. I wish him the best of luck, he has a long career ahead of him. He’s got a lot of people behind him.”
Each time you mentioned the name Kris Watts to Hughes, it brings a smile to his face. After all, Hughes cites Watts as one of the three men that saved his career along with Tom Filer and Dean Treanor the two others. Filer taught Hughes to keep the ball down in the zone and Treanor stayed loyal to Hughes through some difficult times.
Hughes and Watts, however, remain close and consistently keep in touch. Hughes constantly reminds Watts of the “game-changing” advice.
“A lot of times we just crack jokes,” said Hughes. “I told him how thankful I am for giving me that advice. He knows that I’m extremely grateful for him.”