Dakota Hudson and the Wasteland

When the Nolan Arenado to St. Louis trade rumors started swirling, Dakota Hudson was mentioned as a potential centerpiece for the Rockies. Hudson, fresh off an up-and-down season, was either Very Good (if your taste is for ERA and pitcher wins) or Very Bad (if you like WAR and FIP). There’s a sentiment that Hudson might be a FIP-beater due to his high ground ball rate, but FIP-beating isn’t really a predictable or repeatable skill. If Hudson is going to last as a capable major leaguer, he’ll need to improve his ability to miss bats while managing the amount of walks and home runs he allows.

I mostly try to avoid too much in-depth analysis regarding Dakota Hudson, because I’m almost certain I won’t like what I find. With his name in the news, however, I decided to play around, and I ran across a June 16th start against the New York Mets. In that start, Dakota Hudson pitched six innings and gave up three runs, allowed three walks, recorded three strikeouts, and faced Dominic Smith three times. Here’s how Mr. Hudson greeted Mr. Smith in each of those three appearances:

Three first pitches and three first pitch balls. At the time (and maybe even now!) there wasn’t much reason for these at-bats or pitches to stick out. Dominic Smith was a terrible hitter in the midst of a terrific season. First pitch balls are bad, but I was used to watching Hudson start ~40% of batters with a ball. There were eight hitters between each of Smith’s at-bats to help me forget about those first pitches to Dominic Smith, and Hudson started half of the hitters in between Smith’s appearances with a ball. Each of Hudson's pitches to Smith were particularly bad being located in the Waste Zone (i.e. so far off the plate that no major leaguer in his right mind would swing), but they were hardly memorable.

And yet, you just watched history: this was the only time all year that a Cardinals pitcher threw three or more first pitches in the Waste Zone to the same hitter in one game, and one of only fourteen times any MLB starter “accomplished” the feat in 2019.

The first I remember noticing Hudson’s penchant to throw pitches in the Waste Zones was in an article or tweet from Joe Schwarz. Unfortunately, I can’t find that link. I can, however, put data to Joe’s anecdote: Dakota Hudson was in the “top” 15 among starters in terms of how frequently he threw pitches in the waste zone.

Throwing pitches in the Waste Zone isn’t necessarily a bad thing. No Rays fans are complaining that Blake Snell wastes too many pitches, after all. There are good reasons to throw balls that aren’t anywhere near the zone. Snell threw a ton of pitches in the waste zones when he was ahead in the count to try to get hitters to swing and miss. When he was even or behind, he threw significantly fewer waste pitches. For Dakota Hudson, there doesn’t appear to be the same rhyme or reason.

Take those first pitches to Dominic Smith from the gif sequence. The count is 0-0. Hudson repertoire includes four pitches that move a little, but they don’t have devastating downward break or sideways run. On the first pitch to a bad hitter, Hudson should be in or near the zone. Against almost any hitter, Hudson should be attacking near the zone on the first pitch. Getting ahead is good for the pitcher!

If that’s a good theory, though, it’s not being put into practice. Dakota Hudson had the fourth highest rate of first pitches in the waste zone last year. He wasted a lot of first pitch fastballs, and he wasted the most first pitch breaking balls (despite that inefficacy, he was one of only 25 pitchers to toss 250+ first pitch breaking balls). When Hudson wasted pitches, it looked something like this:

I haven’t broken out the ruler and Pythagorean Theorem for this one, and I’m less familiar with the metric system than I should be. But it’s safe to say that Hudson missed his spot on all four of these pitches by A– F^?¥*&G–LOT. Look at the spot where the catcher's glove starts and where the ball ends - those two spots are not close.

The heatmaps show Hudson’s favorite spots to miss when he really misses, and these all fit right in. We have an overthrown fastball drilled into the left-handed batter’s box. We have an overthrown curveball that almost nails Tony Kemp’s front foot. On another, Hudson spins his slider a little too soon and nearly hits Brian Dozier. Then he flies open, airmailing a heater and almost killing Aledmys Diaz, who definitely didn’t see that fastball coming (this was a road game for the Astros, after all). The ump wasn’t too fond of this one:

Last night, I thought the umpire was heading over to warn the dugout. Today I'm less sure of the ump's intentons, but either way he looks less than pleased with Hudson's pitching antics. Little does he know, however, that Hudson just can’t help it. Sometimes, the Cardinals hurler just doesn’t know where the ball is going to fly. Here he is giving Stephen Piscotty the Aledmys Treatment:

Plunked. Piscotty took it well, though, right off the tricep and apparently with minimal pain. In an ironic and cruel twist of fate, this was actually the first of two times in the series that Piscotty would be hit near his head by a member of his former team (the second came the next day courtesy of Adam Wainwright). Piscotty was hit one other time all year. Twice by his former team, and once by everyone else combined.

For some players, getting drilled high-and-tight by their former team might make the bad blood boil. Luckily, Stephen Piscotty understood that Hudson didn’t mean any harm, and that he probably just couldn’t control where he was throwing the ball.

Credit to Baseball Savant for the data used in this post, and @cardinalsgifs for his incredible work on the photos, gifs, and sorting through rounds and rounds of iterative DMs.