In the third and sixteenth games of the 2019 season, Dakota Hudson and the St. Louis Cardinals faced off against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park in Milwaukee. In those two games, Hudson went a combined 8 innings, or getting just 24 outs. He gave up 15 hits, 10 runs (9 earned), walked 5, and gave up 5 home runs. He threw 167 pitches to get those 24 outs.
In those two games, his first and third starts of the 2019 season, Hudson threw 80 sinkers, 47 sliders, 18 four-seam fastballs, 17 curves, and 5 change ups. For the entire 2019 season, Dakota Hudson threw five different pitches. While he was predominantly a sinker (48.7%) - slider (25.7%) pitcher, Hudson also had a four-seamer (13%), curve (10%), and change up (2.6%). The full-season percentages basically match up perfectly with those combined two games against the Brewers.
Here's where those pitches ended up in his first two starts vs. the Brewers. You're first looking at each individual pitch (colored by pitch type) and then it morphing into a heat map of all pitches by location. (This style will be a recurring theme within the article.)
Notice in the next animation that the swings the Brewers took in the March and April games were at pitches located basically in the same areas as the overall pitches Hudson threw. They weren't on their heels in one area of the strike zone just wailing away at the ball waiting for that pitch. The pitch set swung at was quite representative of the entire pitch set as a whole.
Don't those look very similar?
Here's the interesting one to me. The Brewers absolutely crushed pitches in one certain zone.
Doesn't this stand out in total contrast to the other two? When Hudson worked the arm side (right side from the mound view, left side from the plate view) in those two games, he got dominated!
Coming right out of the gate on the 2019 season, Hudson got obliterated by the Brewers throwing basically the same pitch set that he was set up to throw all year long. In fact, if you take those two Brewers games out of his stat line, his hits per 9 innings drops by nearly 1/2, his HR/9 drops by 20%, and his ERA drops from a very good 3.35 to just 3.02!
What's funny is in between those two starts against the Brewers, Hudson threw two other times. He relieved in game 6 of the season while starting game 11. In those two games he threw 5 1/3 innings of scoreless ball, dropping his ERA from 6.23 after game 1 vs the Brewers to just 2.79 entering game 2 vs the Brewers - in which his ERA ballooned back up to 6.08. So it's not as if Hudson was just throwing terribly at the beginning of the year the whole time and then all of a sudden was better later in the year.
When was he better for sure, though? On my sister's birthday, August 19th, 2019, Dakota Hudson faced the Milwaukee Brewers for a third time. Hudson was able to get 20 outs in this one outing alone in August - lasting 6 2/3 innings against the Brewers lineup facing them for the first time in 4 months. In fact, he allowed ZERO hits in those 6 2/3, but got up to 111 pitches due to 7 strikeouts and 4 walks. We're going to look at a similar version to those first two .gifs from the first set of games against the Brewers, but for this August start against Milwaukee.
Again, it seems to me that the Brewers mostly swung at a representative sample of the total pitches that Hudson threw at them that day. So what in the world could have been different to get the stellar results that he got in August compared to those March and April starts?
The first thing that I noticed was different was his location. In the first two outings, Hudson was much more out over the middle of the plate...from middle-in against righties (where he got hit hardest) to the middle of the plate to middle-out to low and away. In this outing, he was much more selective in where he targeted pitches, it seems. Look at the change in location!
His repertoire was different in the August game as well. He threw:
37% sinkers (much lower!)
27% sliders (about normal)
17% four-seam fastballs (much higher!)
11% curves (about normal)
8% change ups (his highest total of the season in any game)
What stands out to me there, and one reason I even took a look into this game after seeing the results comparisons, is that change up usage listed above. Incredibly though, the change up was almost a non-factor in the game. He threw it 9 times total; 8 times it was taken for a ball, twice for a walk. In fact, four of the eight balls had to be blocked by the catcher to not be a wild pitch or passed ball. The other change up was a good one, to Orlando Arcia getting a ground out on a 1-1 pitch (link), but it took Arcia taking a pitch outside of the zone in order to not be 100% balls thrown by Hudson on change ups that game. He definitely used this as a show pitch or a change of pace pitch, not an out pitch...and not even really an effective pitch. Obviously, this article didn't go how I was expecting to start with! Now onto the other standout change in the repertoire - and furthermore the one I really want to look into and stress quite a bit.
Hudson threw four-seam fastballs nearly twice as often as he typically did on the season in the August 19th outing. Also, he ONLY threw them to lefties! He threw zero four-seam fastballs to right-handed hitters that day. Hudson got 5 outs on those 19 pitches, on 4 ground outs and one called third strike. (Also, in typical Hudson fashion, he threw 8 of the 19 pitches for balls - and while one of those likely should have been called a strike, 6 of them either bounced or nearly hit someone.)
Needless to say (but I will anyway), Hudson's wOBA against on four-seam fastballs that day was .000. He was perfect (results-wise) on that pitch. It was his best pitch of the day (along with the curve, as that was the only other pitch with which Hudson did not give up a walk).
Interestingly, in the March and April starts, Hudson identically had a .000 wOBA against on the four-seamer! So *light bulb* the game plan in August seemed to be to throw them more often! He threw 18 four-seamers in two starts in March/April, but threw 19 in the one start on August 19th. He threw 58 less pitches overall, but one more four-seamer.
In the early season starts, his wOBA against on the sinker was over .700! He gave up 12 hits in 21 at bats when throwing a sinker; *light bulb* his usage of that pitch went down by 11% of his pitches. That's a great call by Hudson, catcher Yadier Molina, and pitching coach Mike Maddux.
Looking Back to Move Forward
Throwing more four-seamers and less sinkers is a bit of a trend for Dakota Hudson now. When being utilized as a reliever in 2018, Hudson threw 58.2% sinkers and 3% four-seamers. In 2019, when being utilized as a starter, Hudson threw 48.7% sinkers and 13% four-seamers. That's almost a perfect inverse correlation, there.
Considering his sinker only broke 50% usage in one of the six months of the 2019 season, it seems as though this was a plan brought about in the offseason, not just a one-game stint in August. (see first image below) You can see in the second image below that his usage of the sinker reverted back to 2018 percentages in the one game he was thrown in as a reliever - with my emphasis showing that game on April 3rd.
While the usage of the sinker and four-seamer are not completely steady throughout the course of the season when looking at a game-by-game scenario, when you have 5 pitches that's probably a good thing as your game plan should change a bit depending on (a lot of factors like) what pitch you're feeling that day, what you have command of, and what the opponents typically do against pitches like yours.
In any case, I believe the mix of a lower number of sinkers and higher percentage of four-seamers (or even other pitches) might be the key to getting Hudson even better, more consistently. In the four games in which Hudson had the lowest percentage of sinkers this season, he had the following results:
24 2/3 innings 17 hits 7 (all earned) runs good for a 2.55 ERA 14 BB 22 K
That's not otherworldly, but better than his overall season line. It would be a small change to his pitch usage for the second straight season, but that might just be the difference between him continuing to start at a high level (repeating his ERA rather than his rather pedestrian or worse FIP) and him reverting to a back-end starter or swing starter for the next phase of his career.
Thank you to baseball savant and baseball-reference for their data and search features!
Thank you to Nick Childress for the light bulb cover art and .gif!