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Dakota Hudson is an Enigma

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Year One of Dakota Hudson, Starting Pitcher™ has been a Rorschach test

St Louis Cardinals v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Monday night, Dakota Hudson put together a masterpiece in a critical showdown with the division rival Brewers. He pitched 6.2 no-hit innings, struck out seven, and his 79 game score was easily his best of the season. It was also the sixth best game score for a Cardinals starter this year (unrelated fun fact: the top three all belong to Jack Flaherty in August). To date, it was his crowning moment.

Look deeper at his line on the night and it gets slightly murky. The seven strikeouts are good, but he also walked four. Of the 20 hitters he faced who didn’t walk, 13 put the ball in play. Two of those stung him for 94+ mph exit velocity. He gave up another solid contact flare to Ben Gamel in the second inning, though it landed in Matt Carpenter’s glove at third base. For the most part, he pitched very well but he escaped a little loud contact and none of the other contact managed to find outfield grass. It’s a microcosm for his whole season, a perfect illustration of the enigmatic Hudson.

Looking at Hudson’s 2019 to date is a Rorschach test. The perception is in the eye of the beholder. Traditionalists can point to his league-leading groundball rate, power sinker (ninth best sinker velo. in the league for starting pitchers), pedigree as one of Baseball America’s Top 100 prospects entering the season, and 3.63 ERA (117 ERA+) as a sign of a talented young pitcher finding his footing. The quality start stat is nearly as useless as nipples on a boar hog, but he’s doing well in that realm, too- 29th in baseball, tied for the team lead through Tuesday.

Those more inclined to look at advanced metrics see one of the league’s worst strikeout percentages among starters accompanied by one of the league’s worst walk percentages among starters, and a HR/FB% that is- you guessed it- one of the league’s worst. If FIP is your jam, he’s in the bottom quartile there which makes perfect sense given the strikeout, walk, and homerun issues. Only Cleveland’s Zach Plesac has an ERA beating his FIP by more than Hudson. His xwOBA allowed is tied for 26th highest.

Advanced metrics on his sinker yield more enigmatic behavior. Pitchers throwing sinkers in his velocity and spin range (93-95 mph, 2100-2200 RPM) allow a .334 wOBA on the pitch, significantly better than the .366 on all sinkers league-wide. That’s good! However, league-wide wOBA on all pitches (via Statcast) is .325, so his best pitch is still worse than league average. That’s bad! He’s tunneling his sinker off of his cutter better than anyone in baseball this year (yes, with caveats). That’s good! Hudson’s wOBA allowed on sinkers is .385, worse than even an average sinker and much worse than one featuring his power dynamics. That’s bad! Maybe his sinker is dusted in potassium benzoate.

The statistical whiplash continues with plate discipline. His 27.1% o-swing%- his chase rate- is seventh worst among starting pitchers. However, when hitters do chase, they’re making contact 56.5% of the time, tied for 19th lowest (out of 124). Hitters rarely chase on him, but when they do, they miss.

He’s a pitcher with a contact-heavy profile, so surely he comes right after hitters with first pitch strikes using his power sinker, right? That’s a negatory, good buddy- his first strike percentage is one of the worst in the league. His overall strike percentage is third worst in baseball. For the record, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just part of a larger picture of Hudson as a mystery.

What about the homeruns? His 23.2 HR/FB% is high by any standard, but especially for groundball pitchers. Among starters with 50% or more groundballs, Hudson is one of just two with a HR/FB% over 20%. Admittedly, by yielding fewer flyballs, it leaves his HR/FB rate prone to loud variation in small samples, particularly if four or five flyballs just barely leave the yard. Is that the case?

Dakota Hudson homeruns allowed, spray chart, through 8/21/2019

It’s subjective but I don’t see a lot of wall-scrapers there. The handful that were hit closest to the fence were all hit to the deepest part of the ballpark. All 19 of his homeruns allowed were barreled up by BaseballSavant’s definition. In other words, most of these homeruns are earned. We can also look at xwOBA-wOBA on flyballs and line drives. It’s a .684 OBA and a .665 xwOBA. Hitters have stung him a little more than they should, but it’s minor.

There’s another component to all of this. Specifically, Hudson is pitching in front of one of the best defensive teams in baseball. He’s an extreme groundball pitcher with the luxury of Kolten Wong and Paul DeJong supporting him in the infield. That fact has translated to a .176 wOBA on groundballs, one of the best in the game and .030 lower than his xwOBA. Whatever issues Hudson has, he’s uniquely qualified to succeed more for the 2019 Cardinals than he is almost any other team.

Who’s Right?

Who’s right about Hudson– the traditionalists or the analytically-inclined? Both groups are right. All of these things can be true at the same time. His grounder-heavy profile makes him prone to wild swings of effectiveness for most teams, but this team is an ideal support group to help him minimize it. His sinker is liable to be more effective moving forward. It’s too good of a pitch not to be. If you’re worried about his inability to miss bats and his high walk totals, you might think of Dakota Hudson as a Marcus Stroman Starter Kit. Better yet, you can also soothe some of your concerns with the fact that his three most similar pitchers by speed and movement are Lance Lynn, German Marquez, and 2019 Tigers revelation Spencer Turnbull, a trio collectively worth 11.1 fWAR this year. He has the kind of raw stuff that plays.

On the other hand, he must start missing more bats, allowing fewer homeruns, and walking fewer hitters to unlock his potential. If you use xFIP, you’d regress his HR/FB% to league average, a process that gets you Hudson with a 4.49 xFIP compared to 4.53 across the league, and that doesn’t even include the prospect of more strikeouts and/or fewer walks. His ERA is still lower than his xFIP, but it’s less concerning to think of him as a true talent pitcher that’s just a tick above average.

If this is the best he ever does, you’re going to see a pitching equivalent of Randal Grichuk, Kolten Wong, or Stephen Piscotty- other talented Cardinals whose value could or would have exploded if they could only improve one component of their game. There’s nothing wrong with that sort of average-ish performance, even if it is unsatisfying.

If Dakota Hudson gets the homeruns in check or starts missing bats, watch out. At that point, the only people who will see him as enigmatic will be hitters trying to squeeze runs across the plate against him.