Before the season started, we had the Astros projected for the worst starting rotation in baseball, by a good margin. It was simultaneously embarrassing and expected, as one Scott Feldman can do only so much. Yet, as I write this, the Astros’ rotation ranks ninth in baseball in WAR, having been more of a strength than a weakness. A lot of this has to do with the development of Dallas Keuchel, who Mike Petriello wrote about. Out of nowhere, Keuchel has blossomed into a possible no. 1, and recently there was a little controversy when Lloyd McClendon spoke in less-than-glowing terms after watching his team get shut down.
After the Astros [and Keuchel] beat the Mariners 4-1, McClendon said: “I saw average stuff. We didn’t swing the bats very good. At some point you’ve got to stop giving credit to average pitchers.”
Now I get to check this off the list of sentences I never thought I’d write: it’s not all about Keuchel, though, as his success has overshadowed the similarly surprising success of an unheralded teammate. ZiPS projected Dallas Keuchel for a 5.02 ERA. It projected Collin McHugh for a 5.25 ERA. Both have instead been absolutely phenomenal, and if you want to stretch the comparison further, let’s go back to the end of April:
After the Astros took their second in a row from the A’s on Sunday – the teams split a four-game series – A’s third baseman Josh Donaldson suggested that McHugh wasn’t flashing elite stuff.
“Stuff-wise, I thought he was OK,” said Donaldson, who went 0-for-3 with a walk. “I don’t think it was anything special. But he changed speeds well and pitched to his game plan.”
Keuchel doesn’t blow people away, but he’s blown people away. McHugh doesn’t blow people away, but he’s blown people away. In a world in which Dallas Keuchel is attracting positive attention, it’s time to divert some of that to another guy, who might be even more of a shock.
One of the things about McHugh: the Astros wanted him before they got him. They tried to pick him up a couple times last year, but didn’t try hard enough. Members of the front office liked what McHugh had done in the minors, and what’s suggested is that the Astros knew there might be some upside.
Another one of the things about McHugh: the Astros didn’t want him badly enough last year to get him. They ultimately grabbed him off waivers after the Rockies let him go to make room for Boone Logan, and when McHugh was promoted to the bigs in April, the Astros assumed he’d be little more than a stopgap. Maybe the Astros saw more upside in McHugh than other teams, but even the Astros are surprised by this. I should tell you a little more about what “this” is, as McHugh has completed seven starts as of Tuesday.
Additionally, McHugh presently ranks 14th in FIP-, between Stephen Strasburg and Keuchel.
There are the best strikeout pitchers in baseball, and there is Collin McHugh, pitching a little like old Justin Verlander with Verlander pitching something like old Collin McHugh. Before this year, McHugh had more big-league runs allowed than innings pitched. His peripherals, also, were garbage. Now McHugh has one quarter of one season of pitching like an ace, and as much as he’s presumably not an ace, it’s hard to fake this. It’s pretty easy to fake a low ERA, all things considered. It’s harder to fake domination of the world’s most talented bats.
When a pitcher changes his performance, you look for changes in his pitching. McHugh, absolutely, has made some changes, because the old status quo wasn’t cutting it. When McHugh first arrived with the Astros, he was throwing a lot of his sinker, over and over and over again. He’s since all but ditched the pitch, throwing more of a full complement of four-seamers. He always had a curve, a cutter, and a changeup, but the sinker’s basically gone, and it’s worth noting McHugh’s groundball rate is actually up. McHugh never did get a hang of the pitch; he threw almost half of his sinkers for balls.
Another tweak is that McHugh moved over on the rubber, as seems to be a common theme with pitchers these days. A graph taken from Brooks Baseball, showing McHugh’s horizontal release point relative to the center of the mound:
McHugh is more toward the first-base side now, and that might help to explain some trends. He’s thrown 25% of pitches inside to righties, after throwing 39% of pitches inside to righties before. He’s also increased his rate of inside pitches to lefties, suggesting that the shift gives McHugh more of an even angle. Some of this is position on the mound, and some of this is just the result of the change in McHugh’s repertoire.
Yet perhaps things are as simple as this. Average pitch velocities, taken from Brooks Baseball:
McHugh, now, is just throwing harder, even though some of his previous track record included time in relief. His straight fastball is up more than two ticks. His curveball is up almost three ticks, and his change and cutter have also moved forward. I don’t know how to explain McHugh’s velocity gains. It might be something subtle and mechanical. But the What is more important than the Why, and of course throwing harder makes a hittable pitcher better. McHugh has been good in the minors before, with his old repertoire. Maybe the key to translating that to the majors was gaining a couple miles of strength.
Where, before, McHugh threw 27% of his pitches with two strikes, this season that’s up to 30%. But that isn’t the big change. Before, 13% of those two-strike pitches resulted in strikeouts. This season, that’s up to 24%. He’s almost doubled his two-strike strikeout efficiency, and when you combine that with an increased ability to get to two strikes in the first place, you can see how this is happening. The following .gif sequence won’t capture McHugh in a nutshell, because no pitcher is as good as a three-pitch strikeout, but here’s a sense of things, featuring Omar Infante in Tuesday’s first inning:
McHugh has a functional high fastball, and it’s made his low breaking stuff lethal. Over his first two years, McHugh got 83 swings at pitches down below the zone, and hitters whiffed 24% of the time. This year, he’s gotten 63 swings at pitches down below the zone, and hitters have whiffed 59% of the time. Little has changed about McHugh’s zone rate. Little has changed about his zone swing rate, or his out-of-zone swing rate, or his zone contact rate. The huge change is in out-of-zone contact rate, as hitters have been punished for chasing. The better velocity, and the better fastball, have improved everything, and now McHugh pitches like a strikeout pitcher with a power curve. It resembles a power curve to the eye, and to this point McHugh’s curveball has been one of the most effective individual pitches in the league.
McHugh’s getting surprising results — results surprising even his own employer. Behind the results are changes in approach and changes in stuff, and maybe it’s as simple as saying that McHugh just throws harder now than before. Whatever the causes, McHugh has come out of nowhere to be one of the best, a lot like his teammate. And where all surprises need to be regressed as you look toward the future, McHugh has an awful long way to fall before he’d get to be the kind of pitcher you don’t want to start. A couple months ago, Collin McHugh didn’t make the starting rotation of the Houston Astros. Now one can’t imagine McHugh being removed. Secret organizational Astros genius? Maybe. Or maybe pitching is just the weirdest damned thing.
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