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Breaking Down Dan Hudson

Since the summer of 2008, righty Daniel Hudson has navigated his way from fifth-round draft pick to ace of the Arizona Diamondbacks’ staff (though Ian Kennedy might quibble with that designation). Granted, in a post-Dan Haren rotation that may include the likes of Joe Saunders, Zach Duke and Armando Galarraga, that’s like saying "fastest Molina brother" or "smartest Kardashian." But after the D-Backs acquired Hudson from the White Sox at last year's trade deadline, the Old Dominion product dominated.

Entering 2011, Hudson has fantasy helium — according to MockDraftCentral, he ranks 34th among starting pitchers and 130th overall in Average Draft Position (ADP), placing him alongside pitchers such as Wandy Rodriguez, Brandon Morrow, Ricky Romero and Brett Anderson. How good can Hudson be? Let’s break it down.

Hudson’s greatest skill is his ability to make hitters come up empty. Armed with a low-90s fastball, a mid-80s slider and a low-80s changeup, Hudson whiffed 10.6 batters per nine innings in the minors, including 10.1 K/9 at the AAA level. With a pitching motion Baseball America described as “a three-quarters arm slot with a crossfire delivery, a la Jered Weaver,” Hudson had little trouble translating that bat-evading ability to the highest level.

According to Pitch F/X data from Texasleaguers.com, Hudson’s fastball got a whiff 7.8% of the time that he threw it (6% MLB average). His slider had an above-average whiff rate, too (16.1%, 13.6% MLB average), but it his change that was downright devastating. Hudson’s tumbler got a whiff 23.4%, dusting the 12.6% big league average.

With that three-pitch mix, he induced swinging strikes 12 percent of the time, way above the 8.5% MLB average. Among starters throwing at least 90 innings, Hudson’s swinging strike rate trailed just that of Francisco Liriano. Hudson punched out 7.93 per nine innings last year.

The 6-4, 220 pound righty also showed decent control on the farm, issuing 2.5 BB/9 (3.1 BB/9 at AAA). In the majors last season, Hudson placed 48.2 percent of his pitches within the strike zone (46.5% MLB average). That led to a tidy 2.55 walks per nine frames.

Hudson has quality stuff, a sparkling minor league track record and a half-season of top-of-the-rotation production in the majors to his name. But, before you look at Hudson’s 2.45 ERA in 2010 and start salivating, a few words of caution.

Good as Hudson’s pitching was last season, it would be misguided to just assume that’s his true talent level, take his numbers in 95.1 IP and extrapolate them over a full year. The projection systems agree that he’ll continue to strike out his fair share of hitters — Oliver forecasts 7.7 K/9, ZiPS has 7.9 K/9 and PECOTA 8.5 K/9 — but Hudson’s minor league stats suggest he won’t be as fine with his control. Oliver thinks he’ll walk 3.2 batters per nine next year, ZiPS says 3 BB/9 and PECOTA 3.3 BB/9.

Also due for regression — the trifecta of batting average on balls in play, strand rate, and home runs per fly ball hit.

Hudson’s BABIP last year was .241, fourth-lowest among pitchers with 90+ IP. As a pitcher who gives up a lot of fly balls, perhaps Hudson can sustain a slightly lower than average BABIP (fly balls, though much more damaging overall, have a lower BABIP than grounders). But even if that’s the case, he’s not going to be as lucky next year when hitters put the ball in play.

His rate of stranding runners on base last year was 83.1%, second-highest in the majors. The MLB average tends to hover around 70-72%, and it’s not as though he pitched better with men on base. He struck out fewer and walked more, but played Houdini with an ultra-low BABIP:

Hudson also gave up homers on just seven percent of his fly balls, well below the 10-11% MLB average. Considering that Hudson rarely gets grounders (35.2% last year in the majors, around 40% of the time in AA and AAA) and that Chase Field pumps up home run production for lefties (114 park factor, per StatCorner) and righties (102), it’s hard to believe that as many flies will die innocuously at the track in 2011.

While Hudson surrendered 0.76 HR/9 in 2010, ZiPS projects 0.9 HR/9, PECOTA 1.1 HR/9, and Oliver 1.4 HR/9. I’d bet on something in between those latter two forecasts. If you frequent that pool beyond the right-center field fence at Chase, you’re going to want to pay attention when Hudson’s pitching.

Overall, Hudson is a promising fantasy option who should whiff plenty of hitters while keeping his walks relatively in check. But his fly ball proclivities and unforgiving home ball park make him a better bet for an ERA around four next season.