Chih-Wei Hu began the season with the Durham Bulls as a highly regarded starting pitching prospect, made his Major League debut three weeks later and now finds himself back with the Bulls in a new role.
The 23-year-old from Taiwan, having established himself as one of the top starting pitchers in Tampa Bay’s minor league system, is now a full-time relief pitcher.
Hu made his big league debut with Tampa Bay on April 24 with one inning of relief work against Baltimore. On May 4, he pitched an inning against the Miami Marlins. Over 1 ⅔ innings, he allowed one hit and one unearned run with one walk and one strikeout.
The Rays sent him back to the Triple-A Bulls a few days later. But, armed with a four-seam fastball that is consistently in the mid-90s, Hu showed them enough that he’s in Durham with specific instructions to become a bullpen weapon.
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“Which I think will be a good thing for him and us,” Rays manager Kevin Cash told reporters in St. Petersburg, Florida, last week.
Baseball America named Hu a Double-A all-star last season when, as a starter, he compiled a 2.59 ERA to lead the Southern League with Montgomery. He still prefers to be a starter but he’s gladly making this transition because it offers him another track back to the Major Leagues.
“My first thing is, I like starting pitching,” Hu said Monday night. “But the situation may be that I would get back to the big leagues soon, very quickly. I can try. You don’t know what will happen in the future. Maybe I will go back to being a starting pitcher. You have no idea.”
Hu made his return to the Bulls last Sunday, pitching one scoreless inning in relief, with two strikeouts, in a game at Norfolk.
That’s far different than his first three appearances with the Bulls this season. As a starter, Hu was responsible for Durham’s first quality start of the season when, on April 12, he pitched six innings and allowed two runs (one earned) on five hits with five strikeouts and one walk.
But, for now, those days are behind him.
The Rays have a solid plan for his conversion to a relief pitcher that the Bulls staff, led by manager Jared Sandberg and pitching coach Kyle Snyder, are charged with executing.
“It will be kind of scripted here for the first week or two as we show him the ropes, teach him how to prepare, watch the game,” Sandberg said. “There are so many different things that go into going from a starting routine.”
Hu’s first 10 days are scripted with precision as to when he’ll pitch, when he’ll work out and when he’ll throw in between appearances.
His warm-up routine represents a drastic change. Starting pitchers can throw as many as 40 pitches in the bullpen before heading to the mound. As a reliever, that number is cut in half – at least.
“It’s real hard, real hard,” Hu said. “When starting you can throw 25, 30 pitches. Now in the bullpen you can only throw 15 or maybe 10, sometimes. It’s a very quick situation. It’s hard to do that.”
The upside to being a reliever, Hu said, is there’s nothing to hold back. He can go all out on every pitch in the game because his outing is guaranteed to be short.
“When you are starting you can’t go 100 percent every pitch,” Hu said. “When you are relieving, you might only throw 30 pitches. You can throw 100 percent with whatever you throw, fastball, changeup, everything. You throw as hard as you can.”
Sandberg pointed out, and Hu agreed, that monitoring the game is a big part of the adjustment as well. Starters can afford to be casual observers to games where they are not pitching. Relievers have to pay close attention from the first pitch to see how the starter is doing so they have an idea of when they could enter the game.
Around the fifth inning or so, relievers start to stretch in anticipation of possibly getting into the game. That way when they start their quick warm-up process in the bullpen, they can get up to full speed quickly.
After the 10-day period where things are scripted out, Hu will be in the Bulls regular relief pitching group meaning he won’t know when he’ll enter a game. He figures to also be used on back-to-back days because that happens routinely in the Major Leagues.
“As long as he is a reliever, he’s going to have to experience it,” Sandberg said. “Better for him to experience it down here.”
Hu’s short stint in the big leagues gave him a chance to talk with Rays relief pitchers, like Jumbo Diaz, Danny Farquhar and Erasmo Ramirez to name a few, for advice on his switch.
He found a kindred spirit in Alex Colome. Signed as a free agent in 2007 as a 19-year-old out of the Dominican Republic, the hard-throwing Colome was a starting pitcher throughout his climb up the Rays organization.
From 2012-2015, Colome made 34 appearances, all as a starter, with the Durham Bulls. He started 13 games for Tampa Bay as recently as 2015.
But last season, the Rays converted Colome to a relief pitcher and he did so well he became the team’s closer. He recorded 37 saves in 40 chances last season with a sterling 1.91 ERA.
Hu talked to Colome plenty about his experience. He’s ready to tackle this assignment full speed.
“For me, it is good opportunity to go back to the big leagues,” Hu said. “Maybe next year I will go back as a starting pitcher. I will be ready.”