As a general rule, giving multi-year contracts to 38-year-old pitchers coming off major ankle injuries is not a good idea. Yet Brian Sabean and the San Francisco Giants did just that, inking Tim Hudson to a two-year, $23M contract this off-season, and thus far have come out smelling like roses.
While Hudson has been a reliable and at times masterful starter during his long career, he is en route to his best overall year since 2003. The data further suggests that he is pitching better now than he has at any other point.
Examining Hudson’s career statistics suggest that his current pace, while not completely sustainable, is not a mirage by any means. The one stat that jumps off the page is his BB/9, which is a paltry 0.77. Of course that rate is bound to rise, but it’s certainly reasonable to expect it to stay in the low 2s. Hudson’s career low BB/9 is 2.10, and he hasn’t had a rate above 2.91 since 2006.
This season, Hudson’s strikeout rate—5.63—is actually lower than his career rate of 6.05. But he has never been a strikeout pitcher; his highest K/9 (8.71) came in 1999, his rookie season, when he also walked 4.09 batters per nine. He hasn’t had a strikeout rate above 6.51 since 2001.
What Hudson is now doing better than he has at any time in his career is limiting baserunners and stranding those that do manage to reach. His miniscule 0.88 WHIP is far off from his career total of 1.22, but it’s by no means a complete anomaly. As recently as 2011, Hudson has had a WHIP as low as 1.14; in 2003 he posted a career best of 1.08. While his current rate is likely to regress closer to the mean, he has proven capable of keeping batters from reaching base at an impressive rate.
When the WHIP does rise, it will likely be a result of an increased BB/9 and BABIP. Against Hudson in 2014, hitters have a BABIP of .243, a number well below his career mark of .278. But Hudson has posted similar rates in the past. In 2010, a year in which he pitched 228.2 innings, he held opposing hitters to a .249 BABIP. He hasn’t allowed a BABIP above .300 in a full season since 1999, though he threw just 136.1 innings that year.
Further, Hudson has stranded 80.8% of his baserunners thus far in 2014, his highest rate since 2010 (81.2). His groundball rate—60.7%—is a big reason why, as is his refusal to allow home runs. His HR/9 is a measly 0.51, a number he’s only bettered twice in his career (0.38 in 2004, 0.40 in 2007). While pitching in the friendly confines of AT&T park has helped, his FIP- of 83 is relatively close to his career mark of 88. In 2007, pitching half his games at Turner Field, Hudson posted a FIP- of 77.
So how is Hudson doing it? Besides the absurdly low walk rate, what has made him so effective this year?
Thus far, he is throwing his split/changeup and cutter with more frequency than his career rates from 1999-2013. His split/change—which he throws 14.60% of the time—has been especially effective this season, garnering a whiff/swing rate of 36.84. Before this season, the pitch amassed a whiff/swing rate of 27.94. His cutter, while getting slightly less whiffs this season (16.67%) than in years past (17.12% from 1999-2013), is forcing more ground balls (11.26 compared to 9.05).
Hudson’s curveball has also been a more valuable weapon this season than it has been in the past. While he’s throwing it at a rate that is almost identical to his career line, it gets him more whiffs (17.19%) than any of his other pitches besides the split/change (20.14). Before, batters whiffed at Hudson’s curve just 11.74% of the time.
When batters do put the ball in play, they aren’t hitting it very hard. Hudson’s LD% of 15.9 is the second lowest number he’s posted in his career, and a decent chunk below of his career mark of 18.0. In 2010, he had a career best 13.6%. This has resulted in Hudson throwing strikes at a higher rate than he ever has in his career. In 2014, 68.2% of the pitches he has thrown have been strikes, compared to a career rate of 63.7%.
As amazing as Hudson has been through 10 starts this season, the data suggests that, for the most part, his rates are legitimate and sustainable. Besides the infinitesimal walk rate, which translates to a low WHIP, and improved whiff rates on two of his pitches, Hudson isn’t doing anything that he hasn’t proven able to do in the past.
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