On August 9th, 2019, against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Dakota Hudson was pulled after just 4 innings and 49 pitches. He had given up 6 hits and 2 runs (both earned runs). However, his spot in the batting order came up with a 2-2 tie and 2 outs in the bottom of the fourth. Kolten Wong was on second and Matt Wieters was on first against Pirates' pitcher Chris Archer and the Manager of the Year called upon Jose Martinez to pinch hit to try to drive in the run(s) and take the lead, counting on the bullpen to help finish the game out. Well, the manager was one for two in that regard. Martinez struck out swinging to end the inning - something Hudson could quite easily have done himself - but the Cardinals still held on to win the game 6-2, getting 5 solid innings from the pen.
Why is that date important, you might ask? Well, I'm not going to pretend to know some psychological happenings in Hudson's head - nor have I heard rumors of any. I'm not going to pretend this isn't a completely arbitrary endpoint on my part. However, from March 30th to August 9th, Dakota Hudson had thrown 5.25 innings per game started (23 games) of 4.01 ERA ball while allowing a .283/.365/.456/.821 batting line and a 1.57 WHIP. His FIP in those games was up at 5.32. In addition to that, he had only struck out 93 while walking 57 (a 1.63 K:BB). Thank goodness his 10-6 record, with one save in his other 2/3 of an inning pitched in relief (with the team going 16-8 overall), helped cover up that mess of a line. He might have been out of the rotation. Because what came next was brilliance.
Over Hudson's final 9 starts, he threw 5.93 innings per start. His ERA was a divine 1.86 and while Hudson was 6-1, the team was 7-2 in those starts. His K:BB actually dropped to 1.48, but his batting line dropped to .146/.268/.264/.532 with a 1.03 WHIP. His FIP in those games was down to 4.02. In 5 of the 9 games, he reeled off at least 5 innings of no run ball and he had 7 quality starts, while giving up 4 earned runs in 7 2/3 innings of a win in the other game - the first game of a double header, so they left him in to throw a bit longer (112 pitches) in order to save the bullpen a bit.
So what changed from the first 23 games started to the last 9 games started? Can it help lead us to some answers as to what we might see out of Hudson in 2020? I have no idea and neither did John LaRue from VEB when he looked (by the way, always read John LaRue if you can) back in August, but I'm gonna try to find out. I'm writing this as I research, so I apologize if this is at all clunky.
Did Dakota Hudson majorly change what he was doing?
I think the answer to this question is decidedly NO. His percentage of four-seam fastballs, change ups, curveballs, and sliders each changed by less than 1%. His percentage of sinkers dropped from 49.2% to 47.5%. His repertoire was basically the same. To delve further into that, his 4-seam, sinker, and change up all actually lost velocity as the season went on and their spin rates dropped as well. The curve was thrown equally fast/slow in the first 23 starts as it was in the last 9, while the spin rate dropped slightly. The slider got 0.1 mph faster, while it's spin rate stayed relatively the same.
Did Dakota Hudson simply have better pitches in that time?
You'd like to think so. However, that's a split verdict in my mind.
Let's start with what Dakota Hudson throws the most often. He threw his sinker nearly half the time all season long, He actually got whiffs on it less often in the second half than the first half. Whether that played to his advantage or not I'll let you decide. The average exit velocity off of the bat in the second half dropped from 91.4 to 87 mph leading to a hard hit percentage drop from 47% of the time to just over 1/3 of the time. In the first 23 starts, he walked more than he struck out on the sinker, but in the second half he flipped that script.
When throwing the slider, Hudson's second most oft used pitch, his second half numbers were split there as well. He got whiffs more often (40.6% to 46.7%) and allowed less loud contact (31% hard hit rate compared to 20%). However, the slider was hit an average of 20 feet further and while striking out more, his BB rate jumped on the slider from 10% to 18%.
Hudson's four-seam fastball was hit harder more often (although less hard overall), made contact with MUCH more often, but hit much more on the ground than it had been. Another mixed bag type.
In his last 9 starts, Hudson's curve was hit more softly overall, whiffed on a lot more often, but was hit nearly twice as far as the first 23 games. Not only that, but a pitch that was whiffed on in nearly 40% of the swings taken against it in the first 23 games led to zero swings and misses in the last 9 games. LITERALLY ZERO. That's, um.... #notgood.
Lastly, he rarely throws the change up. However, it's worth noting that the change up was whiffed on less in the second time frame, but absolutely pounded into the dirt.
Did Dakota Hudson have better command in that time period?
Well, we know from above that his K:BB did not improve as the year went on. The opposite occurred. His BB/9 innings went from 4.23 in the first 23 starts to a final 9 starts mark of 4.89 BB/9. That's worse as well.
Taking this one step further, Hudson threw 41.4% of his pitches in the shadow of the strike zone in the first 23 starts of the season. He threw 25.6% in the heart of the plate and 7.5% in the zone marked "middle-middle." You don't want pitches there.
In the final 9 starts of the season, Dakota Hudson threw only 24% of his pitches over the heart of the plate and only 6.3% of pitches "middle-middle." In addition, Hudson threw only 39.9% of his pitches in the shadow of the zone, however. That means more pitches had to be in the categories called "chase" or "waste" pitches.
Hudson's "chase" pitch percentage rose from 23.0% (21.8% of which were strikes) to 24.2% (22.2% of which were strikes) in the two separate time frames. While those are both rises in percentage, I don't feel like there's anything there that would cause him to be that much better in the second half.
In conclusion, I'm not sure that I know why Dakota Hudson was so much better in his final 9 games of the season than he was in the first 23 starts of the season, but it may simply be attributed to luck - at least from what I could find.
I am sure someone out there could find something to it, but at first pass (and maybe second or third pass) I'm simply not finding it.
Thank you to Nicholas Childress for the cover art, and to Fangraphs, Baseball Savant, and Baseball-Reference for all of the statistics for this article.