After returning from Tommy John surgery last September, Tim Hudson picked up right where he left off. The undersized righty logged 42.1 innings pitched for the Atlanta Braves, striking out 6.38 batters per nine, issuing 2.76 BB/9 and getting ground balls at a characteristically strong clip (62.2 GB%). Hudson’s xFIP was 3.47. Convinced that the former Auburn star was none the worse for wear after going under the knife, the Braves signed Hudson to a three-year, $28 million contract extension, with a $9 million club option for the 2013 season.
So far in 2010, the 35-year-old has pitched relatively well, if not quite up to his usual standards. His strikeout and walk rates aren’t as sharp, as he’s got 4.47 K/9 and 3.2 BB/9 in 135 frames. That punch out rate is the lowest of Hudson’s career, due in large part to a 6.8 percent swinging strike rate (9.2 percent average for Huddy since 2002) and an 83.9 percent contact rate that’s several ticks above his 80 percent mark dating back to ’02. Hudson has also placed fewer pitches within the strike zone than the MLB average for the first time since 2005, and his 53.4 percent first pitch strike percentage doesn’t come close to his 59.7 percent average since ’02.
But, Hudson’s scorched earth policy has been in full effect — his 66% ground ball rate leads all qualified starting pitchers by a wide margin. The next closest competitors are Justin Masterson (64%) and teammate Derek Lowe (57.9%). With those extreme ground ball tendencies, Hudson has still managed to post a 4.22 xFIP despite the downturn in K’s and increase in walks.
If you just focused on Hudson’s ERA, however, you’d be convinced that he’s experiencing a career year. His ERA currently sits at a sparkling 2.47. The 1.75 run discrepancy between his xFIP and ERA is the third-largest among qualified starters — only Jason Vargas and Johan Santana have larger splits between their peripheral stats and their actual ERAs. Hudson is stranding far more base runners than usual, with an 83.2 LOB% that exceeds his career 74.1% left on base rate. And, he’s also getting some fantastic bounces on balls put in play. Hudson has a .231 BABIP, compared to a career .286 average.
According to Baseball-Reference, his BABIP on grounders is just .190. For comparison, the 2010 NL average is .238, and Hudson’s career BABIP on ground balls is .209. Dave Allen has kindly provided a pair of Pitch F/X graphs that shed further light on Hudson’s ground balls. The top image shows the frequency of Hudson’s grounders by direction of the ball put in play, compared to the 2010 average for right-handed pitchers. The bottom image shows Hudson’s BABIP on ground balls by the direction of the ball put in play. The labels (3B, 2B, 1B) are the location of the bases, not the fielders.
A large portion of Hudson’s grounders have been hit right where the second baseman is typically positioned. As you can see, the BABIP on grounders hit to that spot, both for Hudson and the average RHP, is very low. Also, Hudson’s BABIP on ground balls hit down the first base line is much lower than the average righty. Here’s what Allen had to say about Hudson’s high rate of grounders hit toward the player manning the keystone spot: “I don’t think there is any reason to think that Hudson can magically throw pitches that turn into grounders straight to the second basemen, and it looks like tons of luck.”
Whether it’s a trend or just a coincidence, Hudson’s strikeout rate has climbed to about five whiffs per nine since June, and his walk rate has decreased every month of the season. Those are good signs for Hudson if he doesn’t want to see his ERA regress into the fours from this point forward, as he likely won’t get as many outs on worm burners in the months to come.
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