When Dakota Hudson arrived on the scene in St. Louis last year it didn’t take him long to impress the coaching staff and work his way into high leverage situations. There were a lot of things to like about him, particularly in light of the fact that the bullpen just wasn’t very good in 2018. He had a low ERA, created by a high ground ball rate (60.8%) and in 27 innings he gave up exactly 0 home runs. The longstanding, tried-and-true approach from the mound has been “throw strikes, make them put the ball in play, hit the ball on the ground, give up singles rather than home runs, and make them get 3 hits to score a run.” Over the years it’s worked for a lot of pitchers.
It wasn’t just the results numbers that looked good, however; a lot of the process numbers looked good as well. Statcast shows us that he allowed just an 83.3 average exit velocity on balls in play last season and the average launch angle was just 2.6 degrees. Batters weren’t hitting the ball hard and they were hitting it into the ground. His expected wOBA was just .289 and his hard hit rate was just 20%. Hudson allowed just 1 barrel in his 27 innings in the big leagues. Soft contact beaten into the ground will get a pitcher a lot of outs.
Still, when it became clear that the Cardinals intended to give Hudson a chance to stick in the rotation this season, I wasn’t convinced. For one thing, last season Hudson had a hard time throwing strikes at the big league level. Out of 313 relievers who threw at least 20 innings at the major league level in 2018, Hudson’s strikeout rate of just 16.1% placed him placed him at #278, in the 11th percentile. Out of those same 313 pitchers, Hudson’s walk rate of 15.3% was the 8th highest, which puts him in the 3rd percentile. (For those for whom stats was a long time ago, the 50th percentile would be average.) So he had among the highest walk rates and lowest K rates of any pitcher in the big leagues who threw 20+ innings last season. It won’t surprise you to find out that his K-BB% was 7th worst out of those 313 pitchers. Not good.
Hudson is basically a sinker-slider pitcher. He throws those 2 pitches 78% of the time. He does have a curve that he throws to lefties which wasn’t a bad pitch for him last year. He threw just 3 to righties all of last season, however. This season he’s tried mixing in some 4-seam fastballs and a little changeup that so far this season (extremely small sample) has been pounded. Out of the pen last season his fastball averaged about 96 mph -- you can see why Shildt and Maddux would like that – but as a starter this season that average has fallen to a still-good 93.9 mph. It’s pretty common for pitcher velocity to play up out of the pen so there’s nothing worrisome about that 2 mph drop from the rotation for Hudson. His slider, however, has fallen off by 5 mph from the rotation this season – down from 91.3 mph last season to an average of 86.5 this season. It’s early, though, and it’s still his best pitch so there’s probably not a lot to be worried about there.
Nevertheless, you’ve got a fastball-slider righty who has trouble throwing strikes and the idea is to put him in the rotation rather than leaving him in the pen where his innings and the batters he faces can be better managed. Seemed like a strange idea to me at the time. Fastball-slider righties are notorious for being extremely vulnerable to left-handed batters because they don’t really have anything that works as an out-pitch against them. Those sliders are going to move down and in toward the left-handed batter and often ends up being mashed for extra base hits. Knowing this, those fastball-slider righties are often afraid to throw too many sliders to good left-handed hitters which turns them into 1-pitch (fastball) pitchers that are predictable and vulnerable. This is obviously why he’s trying to throw more curves and changeups this season.
A quick glance at Hudson’s splits page could tell anyone this was likely to be a problem going forward. Fastball-slider righties are often death on right-handed hitters – especially true for Hudson because of his outstanding slider – but very vulnerable to lefties and so you often see very prominent splits from these pitchers. This was the case for Hudson in 2018.
This is not a recipe for success. As I suggested, in the pen guys with splits like that can be managed better than starters can. Shildt can bring Hudson in to face tough righties and avoid tough lefties and have a lot of success out of the pen. As a starter, it’s much more difficult to avoid Christian Yelich, Joey Votto, Anthony Rizzo, Cody Bellinger, Bryce Harper, Freddie Freeman, etc. There are lots of really good left-handed hitters in the National League.
So we’ve got a guy who walks a lot of guys, doesn’t strike out very many, and has a terrible time getting left-handed hitters out and this is the guy we need to move from the bullpen to the rotation? It didn’t make much sense at the time (despite his excellent spring numbers) and, after seeing how his 1st 3 starts of the season have gone, it makes even less sense now.
Granted, we’re not very far into the season and we’re dealing with extremely small samples but so far this season lefties have smashed their way to a .485/.585/1.000 line against Hudson. That’s a wOBA of .628. Bonds in his prime had a .537 wOBA. Mike Trout’s best in a season has been .447 (though he’s at .507 so far in 2019!). Yes, his ground ball rate is still high and his strikeout rate is up but the beating that Hudson has taken has led to an ERA over 6 and a FIP over 8. Only 2 pitchers out of 185 this season who have thrown more than 10 innings have a worse FIP than Dakota Hudson.
Hudson gave up 0 HR’s in 2018; he’s given up 5 already in 2019, all to left-handed hitters. Lefties are destroying Hudson’s fastball – they’re slugging 1.179 against it – because they don’t fear any of his other pitches. He’s walked 8 of the 41 left-handed batters he’s faced in 2019; 16 more have hit their way on base. All told, he’s faced 41 lefty hitters so far in 2019 and 24 of them have reached base safely.
The thing is that this was all predictable. Hudson’s not really any different this year than he was last year. It’s just that out of the pen Shildt and Maddux could better select the batters he would face, avoiding those really good, lefty batters who were more likely to be successful. What makes relievers better than starters is that their stuff plays up out of the pen and they can be utilized in spots where they’re likely to be successful. It takes special stuff to be a successful starter in the major leagues. Without a solid 3rd pitch, Hudson isn’t that guy…at least not yet. Shildt and Maddux should have known this. Mozeliak should have known this. Maybe the amount of abuse Hudson has taken this year is surprising, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone that he’s been abused.
What’s really maddening is that Luke Weaver has been fantastic for the Diamondbacks so far in 2019. He wasn’t nearly as bad as his results suggested last season and the Cards sold low on him in the Goldschmidt deal. Fine. You’ve got to give up something to get something. Whatever. Did the Cardinals explore including Hudson instead? He’s been consistently rated in Baseball America’s top-100 prospects and probably has the makings of at least a really good reliever and has 1 more year of team control. It doesn’t matter now but there were reports that the D-backs at least asked about Hudson.
What is clear is that Hudson needs to be moved back to the bullpen where he belongs. This surely isn’t controversial as awful as he’s been so far. It’s also clear that the Cardinals should have prepared for the probability that Hudson wouldn’t be good as a starter and should have prepared someone else to start for the team this season. Now I guess Gant should go to the starting rotation but he’s probably more suited to the pen as well and with Martinez on the IL, the team seems to have few options to replace Hudson. Maybe Austin Gomber?
Hudson is set to start again Sunday against the Mets and Noah Syndergaard. Unfortunately, 2 of the Mets’ best hitters – Michael Conforto and Brandon Nimmo – bat from the left side of the plate. What is Hudson going to use to go after those guys? Moving him to the pen would allow him to work on that 3rd offering – whether it’s the curve or the changeup – to improve it while still putting him in situations to be successful but since the team evidently didn’t plan for this, their options for replacing Hudson in the rotation are few.
Thanks to the great @nchill17 for the cover art.
Stats come courtesy of fangraphs and baseball savant.
Thanks to you all for reading.