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Free Agent Profile: Collin McHugh

The righty reliever is under the radar but makes a lot of sense for the Cardinals

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MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Whenever baseball starts moving again after the lockout ends, we know that the St. Louis Cardinals are likely to spend their time sprucing up the roster with maintenance moves. The most obvious area where they’ll need help is the bullpen. I covered Joe Kelly as an option back before Christmas. That article cited a Derrick Goold article, and subsequent tweet, in which he specified a few potential bullpen targets. One such name is today’s topic- Collin McHugh.

Before going too far, it’s important to rehash an important point from my Joe Kelly article. Specifically, spending big on free agent relievers is always risky business and that goes double for the Cardinals over the last five years or so. Before that point makes you walk away already, McHugh is not projected for a contract anywhere near the top of the reliever market. The median of his crowdsourced contract is one year for $5M. The average was 1.5 years at $5.5M AAV, and Ben Clemens projected 2 years at $6M AAV.

Those versions of a McHugh contract would be lower than three of their four biggest free agent reliever failures (Andrew Miller, Greg Holland, and Brett Cecil), and is almost exactly what the fourth (Luke Gregerson) got. In other words, if you don’t want the Cardinals to spend big on a free agent reliever, good news! McHugh’s likely contract is much lower than the top end of the reliever market.

FanGraphs crowdsourcing has been on the short side this cycle with most contracts so far. Their predictions have been anywhere from 60 to 80% of the actual AAV that most relievers have gotten. Applying that principle here, a deal for McHugh is more likely in the $7.5-8.5M AAV range, but the Cardinals love guaranteeing an extra year to get the AAV down. A successful McHugh-to-the-Cardinals contract would probably be 2 years at an average annual value of $6.5M to $7M.

Why McHugh?

In the Kelly article, I used Stuff+, a stat that Eno Sarris loves to use at The Athletic, to compare Kelly to other reliever possibilities. Kelly (108.1) outpaces Archie Bradley (91.4) and Ryan Tepera (101.1)... but Collin McHugh bested Kelly at 114.1, along with better command by Command+ than everyone. By stuff and command, McHugh is the best reliever on the free agent market. He was the second best on the market when the off-season began, trailing only Raisel Iglesias (who signed early with the Angels).

He achieved that in 2021 by altering his repertoire. He threw about 20% fewer four-seamers and 8% fewer curveballs and change-ups. He turned those into about 20% more cutters and 10% more sliders, and he’d already boosted his slider usage from 23% in 2018 to 43% in 2019. By 2021, over half (52.9%) of his pitches were sliders. That’s significant because, as Eno Sarris points out in his most recent article, it’s one of the 10 best sliders in the game and it can make a hitter look a fool, both swinging and taking.

If the esoteric stats don’t convince you, maybe his 2021 performance will. Here’s where McHugh ranks among qualified relievers in 2021:

  • FIP: 4th out of 144
  • ERA: 7th
  • K-BB%: 15th
  • CSW% (Called + Swinging Strikes): 10th
  • WPA (Win Probability Added): 42nd
  • WPA/LI (Win Probability Divided by Leverage Index): 44th of 144

It’s worth noting that this only includes his time as a reliever and omits his seven “opener” starts. He didn’t allow a run in any of those appearances- 12 innings, a 26.8% K-BB, a 1.42 FIP... In other words, if we add his Opener innings in there, his ranks in those categories climb even higher. He was one of the best relievers in the game, and he had the stuff and command to back it up. It wasn’t a fluke. It’s made all the more impressive by the fact that he’s 34 and has a fastball that only averages 90 mph.

Does he fit?

Yes! It’s important to have context here for how the Rays used him. First, 26 of his 37 appearances came with more than 2 days rest. They monitored his overuse. That’s because he wasn’t a traditional reliever. In 11 of his outings, he faced 9 hitters or more. In 14 more, he faced 6 to 8 hitters. If you’d rather think of it in terms of innings, he threw 2 innings or more in 21 of his 37 outings.

When he was pitching was also noteworthy. He was frequently entering in the middle innings. In 14 of 30 relief appearances, he got the call in the 4th, 5th, or 6th innings. He was an opener seven other times.

Put it together and McHugh was a multi-inning piggyback/bridge for the Rays, going through the lineup (or most of it) one time. His work protected Rays starters from the standard decline that happens a third time through the order. He was perfect for that role as a former starting pitcher, albeit one without the queso to go a full five innings or more. He perfectly fit the magical realm in between “starting pitcher” and “right-handed relief specialist.”

He wasn’t your typical piggyback, though. On a lot of teams, that role is filled with a sloppy shock absorber that may or may not actually be effective. Recent Cardinals to fill that role would include Tyson Ross, Mike Mayers, and Daniel Ponce de Leon- all pitchers with far less effectiveness than McHugh’s splendid 2021.

In case you haven’t noticed, the Cardinals are carrying a lot of risk in their rotation. Both Dakota Hudson and Miles Mikolas have missed a lot of time the last two years with injuries. Adam Wainwright is 40. Newcomer Steven Matz averages around five innings per start. Even the amazing Jack Flaherty had injury woes in 2021, though most of it was due to his oblique injury and not arm-related. While there’s depth to cover injuries (Matthew Liberatore, Johan Oviedo, Jake Woodford) and a willingness to use Jordan Hicks and Alex Reyes in more creative ways, another bridge would be helpful. They need quality innings, particularly in the middle innings.

There’s talk and hope that new skipper Ollie Marmol will be more creative in the way he uses the roster. Giving him someone like McHugh to deploy would be a perfect option.