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Dakota Hudson, Huh?

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What you think about Hudson says a lot about what you think about pitching.

MLB: San Francisco Giants at St. Louis Cardinals Joe Puetz-USA TODAY Sports

I’ll be honest with you -- I wasn’t planning on writing this article. I had a lead to investigate. Do Cardinals pitchers get too cute after 0-2 counts, wasting pitches while letting batters back into at-bats? The queries were half-done, the mildly funny jokes and pop-culture-you-probably-don’t-care-about references haphazardly chosen. Then fate intervened — both in the form of me getting sidetracked mid-project and with yet another effective Dakota Hudson start. 0-2 counts can wait — let’s talk Hudson.

In flummoxing the Giants on Thursday, Hudson produced a microcosm of his season. He struck out only two in six innings while also walking a pair. He got 64.7% groundballs, though, and allowed only a single hit despite the lack of punchouts. It was his fifth straight start of six innings or more, all wins (if you’re into that kind of thing) and four of the five scoreless. This hot stretch has people coming up with decent-but-not-great nicknames like Jack and Dak and talking about the Cardinals’ new duo of young aces.

Those last five starts have been great. The previous five? They produced ERA’s of 4.5, 7.36, 11.25,4.26, and 5.40. Competition had a lot to do with it — the last five have been against four poor-hitting teams and the Brewers, while the previous set included the Astros, the A’s, and two with the totally-acceptable-hitting Pirates. More than that, though, streakiness has always defined Hudson’s career. With so few strikeouts, he relies on the random Plinko of batted ball outcomes, which can lead to all number of crazy results, be it 6 one-hit innings or a short, baserunner-filled nightmare.

What you think of that style is probably a referendum on how you feel about pitching statistics. In one school, ERA is king. What happens on the field, the runs you allow or don’t allow, are what matters. That’s not a crazy view, of course — that’s what makes the team win or lose in general, so why wouldn’t it be the focus? Hudson has a 3.4 ERA in the year of infinite offense. He’s a stud, the 40th-best pitcher in baseball by RA9-WAR, which looks at both earned and unearned runs to calculate value.

In another school, ERA is a construct. What matters, truly matters, is the parts of performance that a pitcher can control. Hudson strikes out almost no one and walks a ton of batters. By FIP, he’s been worth less than 1 WAR this year, and even controlling for his crazy-high home run rate, his xFIP comes in at 4.49, roughly league average after adjusting for ballparks. He strikes out fewer batters than average, walks more than average, and gets by with the highest groundball rate in the league. That’s decent third or fourth starter territory, but the other shoe will drop sometime.

It probably won’t surprise you, given that I’m writing this article, that I think the answer is somewhere in between. There’s a lot to like, and a lot to be skeptical about, floating around underneath the surface. For one, those strikeouts. Striking out 17.4% of the batters you face isn’t what you want to see in this day and age.

Under the surface, though, it’s not quite as bad as it seems. Low strikeout rates go hand-in-hand with high groundball rates, because sinkers don’t get a ton of whiffs. Hudson’s sinker is about average at missing bats for a sinker, and one of the best in the game at generating grounders. If you want the good part of Hudson’s profile, you have to live with the depressed strikeout rate.

His main secondary pitch, a cutter/slider thing that pitch classification systems can’t decide on, is excellent at missing bats. It’s also a surprisingly good groundball pitch for a breaking ball, the best of both worlds. His backup breaking ball, either a slider or a curve depending on what you want to call the first one, isn’t as sharp, but it’s serviceable as a change of pace. Even his four-seam fastball, certainly not the first thing you think of when you think of Dakota Hudson, plays — by some classifications, it’s actually his most effective pitch, catching batters sitting two-seam off guard.

Mike Soroka, the Braves rookie, is a good comparison. Soroka is having a tremendous year despite a low strikeout rate, and he does it with a ton of grounders and a good breaking ball to keep hitters honest. That profile plays whether you want to look at FIP or ERA — no valuation system thinks that Soroka hasn’t been a star this year.

About that profile, though — Soroka doesn’t have Hudson’s walk issues. He’s walking 5.7% of his opponents, a far cry from Hudson’s 10.5% clip. He gets ahead in the count (or allows a first-pitch ball in play) 65% of the time, while Hudson is down at 56.3%. That makes it easier to get chases, which he does almost 35% of the time, as compared to Hudson’s 27.6%. Overall, Soroka is just better at pitching to get ahead and then taking advantage of that to generate weak contact and avoid walks.

Hudson’s first-pitch choices are interesting. He goes to one of his two breaking balls 36% of the time, slightly more often than he uses them overall. This is nothing like how most pitchers operate — Soroka throws changeups or sliders, his two secondary pitches, 36% of the time overall but only 28% of the time on the first pitch of an at-bat.

When Hudson ventures outside the strike zone on the first pitch of an at-bat, which he’s done 319 times this year, he never gets swings. His 11.6% first-pitch chase rate is well below the league average of 15%, and a lot of that comes down to the fact that he misses wildly on many first pitches. He’s thrown about 10% of his first pitches in what Baseball Savant defines as the ‘waste’ zone, an area where batters almost never swing.

That’s not as bad as it sounds — the league overall is at a robust 6.8% of first pitches wasted — but it’s not great either. Some of that will never be fixed, as evidenced by the fact that Hudson has wasted 27 fastballs and Soroka 25. Sometimes you just spike your fastball, and that’s life. But Hudson laps Soroka in wasted secondary pitches, and putting a slider in the dirt on 0-0 is a sure way to fall behind in the count. Hudson has thrown 36 such pitches this year, getting 36 balls for his trouble. For someone who doesn’t fear contact, this approach is tremendously counterproductive.

Some of this is a problem without solution. Hudson wastes 15.9% of his breaking balls overall. He’s just going to miss with some of them, no way around that. The real issue is that he throws them so often on 0-0 counts, and doesn’t take something off to get them over the plate more often.

It’s not even particularly clear why Hudson throws so many breaking balls to start at-bats. He doesn’t have a first-pitch problem; batters swing at a pretty normal rate of his in-zone fastballs. When batters put the ball in play, they generate a middling .394 wOBA on contact, well below the league average for first-pitch contact. Heck, Hudson gets whiffs on a quarter of swings at his fastball on 0-0 and foul balls on another 40%. Why not challenge hitters more?

That extra challenge would pay off immensely, because if he can fix the walks a little, Hudson would go from being good to excellent pretty quickly. If he keeps his current count-based splits but starts getting first strikes at the same rate as Soroka, his wOBA allowed would drop ten points immediately. That 10 points is no joke — if you want to think of it in terms of current Cardinals, it’s how much better Hudson has been this year than Adam Wainwright, or John Brebbia versus John Gant.

Without doing anything aside from just throwing more fastballs on 0-0, Hudson could become significantly better immediately. That doesn’t get into the possibility of tinkering with his pitches, as Joe Schwarz has frequently talked about when it comes to slider spin axis, or sharpening up his pitch selection a bit when ahead in the count, or the fact that he’s gotten unlucky on fly balls all year.

The reason Hudson can be good now and potentially great in the future without overpowering strikeout numbers is simple: it’s the grounders. Think of it this way: it’s reasonably clear that pitchers have some control over what type of batted ball they allow. It’s far less clear how many pitchers have control over how hard they get hit. Let’s ignore that, then, and just credit each batted ball type with league-average production. Here’s a list of the ten best pitchers in baseball by wOBA allowed on contact, assuming that every grounder in all of baseball is created equal, as are all line drives, and so on:

Best Contact Suppression, Starters

Player wOBA by Contact LD%
Player wOBA by Contact LD%
Luis Castillo 0.343 17.5%
Sonny Gray 0.349 17.2%
Andrew Cashner 0.351 16.6%
Marcus Stroman 0.351 19.5%
Dakota Hudson 0.352 22.1%
Brett Anderson 0.352 20.2%
Wade Miley 0.355 18.8%
Patrick Corbin 0.356 17.8%
Noah Syndergaard 0.358 18.5%
Cole Hamels 0.358 18.6%

Yeah, that’ll do. Other than Stroman, the pitchers in front of Hudson are all doing it with fluky line drive suppression, which is the batted ball type pitchers have least control over. In essence, Hudson can handle having more balls put in play because almost no one in all of baseball is as good as he is at avoiding high-value batted ball types.

So what should we make of Dakota Hudson? As surprising as it might be, I think the ERA take might be closer to the truth. Dakota Hudson has been really good at preventing runs this year. Some of that might be luck, some of it is a synthesis of his groundball rate and an infield defense that ranks among the best in baseball, and some of it simply comes down to how hard he is to square up.

If you want to predict the future, though, FIP just isn’t going to cut it for a pitcher like Hudson. He’s weird, a walking corner case that estimators have trouble with. He’s also pitching suboptimally, leading on bad breaking balls too many times, and that seems like something he’ll be able to iron out. I came into this article expecting to say that Dakota Hudson was, basically, bad but lucky. Joke’s on me, as well as opposing hitters — turns out he’s good and lucky.