Six weeks into the season, the most valuable player in the Double-A Eastern League has been New Britain’s Luke Hughes. The Twins farmhand is riding a 16-game hitting streak, batting .388/.448/.682 in 146 plate appearances and leading the EL in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging.
His nine home runs also lead the EL, which should come as somewhat of a surprise given that Hughes hit a career-high nine home runs all season last year in 362 plate appearances with New Britain. It was his third year in a full-season league after signing out of Australia in 2002.
“Last year I had an all right year," said Hughes, who hit .283/.356/.438 last year. "I didn’t play every day, but this year I’ve been playing every day and that’s helped out a lot,” Hughes said. “One of the main things that helped out is that I got to play in the off-season, whereas all the American guys don’t get to play. It lets me carry everything into the season.”
Hughes, 23, played for his native Australia in November at the World Cup in Taiwan, then again at the final qualifier in March. Hughes played well, though Australia was unable to qualify for the Beijing Games in August.
“I went to a bit of a different program in the off-season,” Hughes said. “I got into an off-season program with a lot more power-based stuff, a bit more weights and stuff like that. I don’t know how much that has helped out, but it could have contributed to it. I’m squaring more balls up, and that gives you more opportunities to hit more home runs.
“The main thing is just not missing pitches over the plate. You kind of get lucky every now and then. Getting a little bit older, you get a little bit stronger. I remember one hitting coach I had who told me not to worry about hitting home runs, that it will come when you get older, when you’re 24 and 25. I always thought he was full of it, but you know, it’s worked out.”
The hitting streak is active but on hold for now after Hughes had to leave Wednesday’s game against Bowie with a tweaked right hamstring, which Hughes said should only keep him out of the lineup for a few games. Hughes’ manager has appreciated the versatility that he brings, both at the plate and in the field.
“Since spring training, I think that young man has been doing everything possible to get himself ready for the season,” New Britain manager Bobby Cuellar said. “He can hit a home run, but he can also drag bunt and put the ball in play. His swing stays pretty solid, pretty short, and every now and then he pops one out o the yard.
“He plays everywhere—second, third, left, center, right—and he could probably play shortstop or first base, too.”
Hughes’s willingness to play multiple positions has increased his utility, particularly for a New Britain team that has been hit with a few injuries. He has played mostly third base for the Rock Cats, but he has also played second base, center field and left field.
“I only started playing outfield last year,” Hughes said. “I played mostly second base, some third base as well in the (high Class A) Florida State League, and then last year our manager Ricardo Ingram asked if I could play outfield one day. I said yeah—I’d never played there before, but I did OK. Now I’ve turned into a bit more of a utility guy and become a bit more versatile, which I think is a good thing."