Editor’s note: Blake Newberry is the newest writer here at VEB. Blake is very excited to get started, and we are happy to have him! - J.C.
Dakota Hudson has established himself as a dependable starter for the Cardinals this season, especially as the hunt for playoff baseball heats up each day.
The sinkerballing-Hudson posted a 2.38 ERA in July and tossed six scoreless innings in his first start in September. This has dropped his season ERA to 3.40, which is 24th-best in the league among qualified starters. However, what is weird about Hudson is that he has posted a 4.94 FIP and a 4.49 xFIP which suggests that his success is deceiving. It is not just this year that he has outperformed his peripheral statistics, however.
Last season, Hudson, a former first-round pick maintained a 2.63 ERA in 27 1/3 big league innings. Despite this success, his FIP of 3.86 and his xFIP of 4.76 tempered expectations for this season, seemingly with the promise of regression. While Hudson has not put up an ERA quite as good as last year, he has still shown himself to be a much-needed success in the Cardinals rotation that has not seriously regressed. This modest decline in numbers is likely due to the fact that Hudson transitioned to the rotation this year after pitching out of the bullpen last season.
This seems like a weird statistical trend, but he has yet to reach 200 career innings, so maybe Hudson will eventually regress to the mean. This seems reasonable - except for the fact that Hudson showed the same trend in the minors. He made 19 starts in AAA in 2018. His ERA in Memphis was 2.50. His FIP? 3.54. His xFIP? 4.35. Going even further back, Hudson started 18 games at AA Springfield in 2017 and posted a 2.53 ERA to go with a 3.64 FIP and a 3.83 xFIP. Even in 9 1/3 innings in his full season debut at A+ Palm Beach in 2016 his 0.96 ERA was still vastly better than his 3.36 FIP and 3.44 xFIP. This begs the question: Is Dakota Hudson long overdue for regression or has he found a way to circumvent his apparent limitations?
Clearly, Hudson is not a pitcher that is completely overwhelming. His strikeout rate of 6.79 K/9 this season demonstrates that. He also is not particularly great at controlling his pitches as he has a walk rate of 4.10 BB/9. He does not even generate weak contact at a high rate (17.0%). Usually it is difficult to be successful with numbers such as those which is why he has such a high FIP (4.94) and SIERA (4.99). However, the one thing that Hudson does very well is generate groundballs, and he does it at an elite rate. His 57.3% groundball rate ranks first in the majors among qualified starters by almost 2%. This creates a perfect counter to the modern hitter.
As we have seen in the launch angle revolution, hitters attempt to hit the ball in the air more because it leads to better results. Therefore, it makes sense that pitchers should try to keep the ball on the ground, as it is the worst statistical outcome of a ball put in play, other than a pop up. This works even better with an excellent infield defense behind the pitcher and likely contributes to Hudson having an above-average BABIP (.279).
The Cardinals infield defense contains three legitimately elite defenders in Paul Goldschmidt, Kolten Wong, and Paul DeJong, with an average defender at third in Matt Carpenter or Tommy Edman. This is crucial for Hudson’s success as a sinkerballer and when combined with his 57.3% groundball rate is likely why Hudson has been able to pitch at such a high level.
Interestingly, Hudson is not the only groundball pitcher that is outproducing his FIP and xFIP this season. Luis Castillo generates groundballs at a rate of 55.6%, good for second in the league, behind Hudson. His ERA is 3.25 while his FIP is 3.71 and his xFIP is 3.43. Working in his favor is the reds infield defense. The three regular starters, Joey Votto, Eugenio Suarez, and Jose Iglesias have combined for 8.7 defensive runs saved with an average UZR/150 of 2.9. Second Base was a revolving door for the Reds until they claimed Freddy Galvis off waivers recently; however, over the course of the season they have received average to above average defensive production at second base whether it be from Galvis, Jose Peraza, Josh VanMeter, Derek Dietrich, or Scooter Gennett.
The pitcher with the third highest groundball percentage among qualified starters this season is Brett Anderson at 54.4%. Much like Hudson and Castillo, Anderson has been the beneficiary of an above-average defensive infield. The defensive maestro Matt Chapman has tallied a whopping 17 DRS to go with a UZR/150 of 10.9. Matt Olson has also been spectacular at first base with 10 DRS and a 5.5 UZR/150 to give the A’s arguably the best corner infield defense in the MLB. However, regular second baseman Jurickson Profar has struggled mightily, and Marcus Semien has only been slightly above average at short. However, a combined 17 defensive runs saved and an average UZR/150 of 5.2 in the infield illustrates a formidable and advantageous defense that has certainly helped Anderson.
FIP tries to isolate all of the outcomes that a pitcher can control and use that to determine success or the level of success that a pitcher “should” be having. However, a pitcher’s ERA can be dependent on his defense, which can help some pitchers a lot more than other. So, while FIP is still a very useful statistic, it is important to note that it does not always tell the whole story. Even though it is generally a very good statistic that gives a more accurate representation of the level of success that a pitcher is having, there could be a small minority of pitchers that are not as accurately represented by their FIP as others.
At the very least, this is an interesting trend shown by Hudson and it will be interesting to watch for the rest of this season and in the future. It is still possible that Hudson will regress down the stretch; anyone can. Nonetheless, if Hudson can keep generating groundballs at a notable rate and the infield defense remains wall-like, he just might have a way to prevent the regression that his peripheral stats suggest is coming.