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Choose Your Own Adventure: Dakota Hudson, 2022 Edition

Stats suggest Cardinals Starter Dakota Hudson is Great/Terrible. You choose! (Part 2.)

Back in January 2020, when the world was young, I wrote a post here at VEB about Dakota Hudson that harkened back to my youth. Remember those “Choose Your Own Adventure” novels from the 1980s? Like the legendary literature masterpiece, You Are a Shark?

Dakota Hudson – and the fan narrative around him – reminded me of those books. He was young, having just completed a rookie year as a starter with mixed results, and there were so many possible paths for his future! Was he good? Was he terrible? Was he heading to the Rockies in a deal for Nolan Arenado? You could pick your own Dakota Hudson adventure!

I was a young writer, just trying to prove I belonged around here. So, I pretended I had time and I put lots of effort into these posts – including impressive charts and unique Photoshops for each article. Oh, and editing. Ha! What a young fool, I was. Anyway, the result was a metaphor piece with some humor and more stats than you can stomach – Choose Your Own Adventure: Dakota Hudson.

Well, I’m older and wiser and openly admit my busyness now. So, you get fewer charts from me but more natural personality. (That’s writer-speak for limited editing for content). You’re also stuck with the first moderately interesting lead art I can find in the Getty search on the SBNation dashboard. My Photoshoping days are over. It’s time for a second edition reprint of the article and a recycle of what was my best cover image.

What path of adventure has Dakota Hudson chosen?

Of course, the path he’s followed so far is not one I included in the original article but one I should have since it’s the same path every young pitcher (and old pitcher and in-between-aged pitcher) finds: injury.

During the COVID-shortened 2020, after throwing 39 solid innings out of the rotation, Hudson came down with elbow pain and missed nearly all of 2021 recovering from Tommy John.

It takes around 12 months to return to the mound for competitive action following TJ. Since Hudson went down before the ’20 season ended, he was able to return briefly at the end of 2021. He threw 8 quality innings last year, looked healthy if a bit rusty (velocity was a tad down), and was able to have a very normal offseason. There were no issues reported from Spring Training. Hudson is healthy and ready to enter his second full season as a starter. What should we expect from him now?

The key to Hudson’s game has been and remains his sinking fastball. In 2019, Hudson carried a 2.67 ground ball to fly ball ratio. That led baseball among qualified starters by a notable gap. Second in line was Atlanta’s Max Fried at 2.41. Only 6 qualified starters carried a GB/FB rate above 2.0 that season.

That same ground ball rate would have held up as the best in 2021 among starters. The Reds’ Luis Castillo had a 2.30, followed by Dallas Keuchel at 2.18. Only 3 qualified arms were above 2.0 last season.

For his career – which includes his relief outings in 2018 and his short stints in ’20 and ’21 – Hudson has an impressive 2.55 ground ball to fly ball ratio. That would rank 23rd all-time if he managed to keep it up, just ahead of shoulda-been-a-Cardinal Marcus Stroman.

How does he generate such elite rates of ground ball production? His sinker has extreme downward movement. In 2019 – the last notable sample we have from him – Hudson generated 23.6 inches of downward action on his sinker. That’s 2.6 inches above average; among the best in the league.

His slider, which he threw over a quarter of the time in ’19, was similarly ranked. It had 34.9 inches of downward break, 1.7 inches above average.

The problem is that his primary pitches, which he throws 74.4% of the time, both share a similar movement profile. While Hudson is well above average in downward break, he is well below average in horizontal movement.

The result is a sinker/slider repertoire with similar break planes, which is not uncommon for pitchers like Hudson. Yes, they can sink their ball with multiple pitches. But their pitch path is a bit more predictable than hurlers who can mix a sinker with breaking or offspeed pitches with more horizontal movement. The more predictable a pitchers’ ball path, the better chance the hitters have of getting their bats onto the ball.

I generally subscribe to the “more contact bad/less contact good” laws of pitching, but that doesn’t necessarily fit with the approach of extreme sinker ballers. Hudson and his ilk want hitters to swing aggressively and connect with their downward-moving stuff.

Why would a pitcher want a batter to make more contact?

The simple answer is physics. If a ball is breaking downward, it’s more difficult to make it move back upward. A good sinker (or slider) with late downward action (beyond gravity), is hard to center in the barrel. At 93-95 mph, a batter has to pick his swing path early, anticipating the movement of the ball. While major leaguers are really good at doing this, a few extra centimeters of downward action + downward momentum through spin can make a huge difference in the launch angle of the resulting contact.

The result, as we’ve seen above, is a high rate of ground balls and a low rate of fly balls. But also a high rate of contact and a low rate of whiffs.

A sinkerball’s success, then, is dependent on how well they can walk the narrow tightrope between the law of “more contact bad/less contact good” and the law of “high launch angle bad/low launch angle good”.

That tightrope is narrow because not every sinker or slider thrown with downward action breaks at the same high spin rate. If Hudson hangs a slider or doesn’t spin the fastball just right, those extra centimeters of late break disappear.

If a 94-mph sinker doesn’t sink very much, it’s not likely to find itself jauntily skipping through the infield grass to Nolan Arenado’s waiting glove. It’s more likely to find itself soaring majestically into the glove of the church-league softball player who is holding his beer and baby from the nosebleed seats of Big Mac Land.

(Don’t ask how someone is holding a glove, a beer, and a baby and still able to catch a homer in this imagined fantasy I’ve constructed. That’s just the way things work in the genius literary genre that is Choose Your Own Adventure!)

We saw all of this from Hudson in 2019. His whiff% – the rate at which hitters swung at his pitches and missed – was 37 percent. Below average. His contact rate on pitches thrown in the zone was high – 85.2%. His HARD HIT% was also below average at 29%.

That’s the blessing and the curse of the sinkerballer. Lots of contact. Not a lot of whiffs. Lots of hard-hit balls, particularly on pitches left in the zone. Lots of those hard-hit balls become grounders and harmless outs. Some of those hard-hit balls become liners and fly balls and very not-harmless “Ball in play (runs scored)”.

That reality impacts the way that Hudson has to throw his sinker/slider combo:

To right-handed hitters, Hudson prefers to bust his sinking fastball inside and in the bottom half of the zone. When he gets it in there, on the edge, or just off the plate, the results are very positive. His low whiff rate on his fastball climbs a bit – 28% – and damage against him drops – he generates a solid .310 wOBA. Even if he misses with location and his sinker drifts back into the zone, the results are still acceptable. His whiff rate virtually disappears, but he can still survive the contact he allows, with a .325 wOBA against from that quadrant.

Hudson does a good job of working his slider to the opposite side of the plate, away from righties. So hitters can’t just sit on the low, inside fastball. Batters struggle to make contact with his slider when located correctly. His whiff rate climbs to 32% in the lower right quadrant, and all the way to 68% if he can break it just out of the zone.

If you read all that carefully, you might be able to identify Hudson’s main problem. He is most effective dropping sinkers inside and low on righties and sliders low and away. That’s awesome… if you can get Major League hitters with Major League batting eyes to swing at balls out of the zone.

That doesn’t happen as much as Hudson would like, which is why he had a high 11.4% walk rate in 2019.

Now’s when you get to Choose Your Own Adventure for Dakota Hudson.

Adventure 1: If you are a fan of FIP, who prefers high whiff and K rates, diverse pitch movement, and low BB rates, then turn to the chapter entitled “Dakota Hudson is terrible and shouldn’t be a starter”. Here you’ll see that Hudson’s FIP was well below average at 4.93 in 2019 and he produced just .9 Fangraphs WAR (which is based on FIP).

Adventure 2: If you are a fan of ERA, who accepts high contact rates from sinkerballers, appreciates a league-leading GB/FB ratio, and trusts the Cardinals’ defense, then turn to the chapter entitled “Dakota Hudson is tailor-made to succeed in St. Louis.” Here you’ll see that Hudson’s ERA was well above average at 3.35 in 2019 and he produced a 2.1 Baseball Reference WAR (which is based on ERA).

I won’t leave you there. I’ll make my selection, too.

I choose adventure 2: Dakota Hudson is tailor-made to succeed in St. Louis.

What Hudson did as a 24-year-old rookie does not necessarily define him for his entire career. As with any pitcher, we would and should expect some refinement in his game as he matures, even with relatively limited innings since his last full season. We should also readily acknowledge the sample size issues in one season of starts.

Simply put, two of the key elements that contribute to Hudson’s poor FIP – high walk and HR rates – are significantly higher than they should be based on his minor league performance.

In his long stop at AA, at age 22, Hudson had just a 7.0% walk rate and a .39 HR/9 rate. Both are excellent.

In his long stop at AAA, age 23, Hudson had a comparable 8.0% walk rate and a non-existent .08 HR/9 rate. In all of 2018 – between the minors and the majors – Hudson only allowed 1 homer. (That’s with playing in the offensive playground that was the old Pacific Coast League!)

The next year was his first as an MLB starter, age 24, and suddenly both stats ballooned. He had an 11.4% walk rate and a ridiculous 1.13 HR/9 rate.

You can take that first full year of MLB starts for Hudson and claim that’s who he is. Many, many fans have done just that. However, to do so, you have to throw out his entire minor league career and scouting profile (at least in terms of limiting walks and homers).

Or you can recognize an extremely common reality: a rookie starter trying to survive their first full season in a rotation struggled with uncharacteristically poor command and control and heartless professional hitters made him pay more often than was likely.

Or it’s some combination of both of these.

Because MLB hitters are MLB hitters, I don’t know that Hudson can stay on the edges of the zone and replicate the same walk rate he did against AA bats. That’s just not realistic. Same with his non-existent HR rate against more mature AAA hitters and in the MLB bullpen, where his velocity played up. He’s going to allow more than 1 HR this season.

At the same time, there’s no way that Hudson gets hammered again for a 19.8% HR/FB rate. That just doesn’t happen at Busch 3. (The median HR/FB rate for Cards starters since 2015 eyeballs at around 13%.)

If you start splitting the difference, you end up pretty much right where ZiPS does. Szymborski’s Skynet thinks Hudson’s walk rate is likely to drop (9.7%) from ‘19 and his HR rate will plummet to 0.9 per 9.

That alone drops his FIP projection to just-better-than-league-average. Now, factor in things the computer tends to ignore: like Busch Stadium’s ability to swat down would-be home runs and the Cardinals’ elite and healthy defense. FIP doesn’t care about those things. ERA does. And it would land Hudson right back in the mid 3’s.

Sorry, but I just can’t consider that kind of pitcher bad. That’s a darn good starter, even if he breaks some of the modern rules of pitcher analysis to get there.

I’m writing this on Tuesday afternoon. I’m sure Hudson will go out tonight and prove me to be a genius/idiot and this article will either be awesome/trash. Well… choose your own adventure! As for me, I’m in for the long story with Hudson and the hoped-for satisfying ending.

Update: Caught the second inning of yesterday’s game and it’s a great illustration of what I’m talking about with Hudson.

Here’s Salvy’s HR. Look at the pitch location. The heat maps above are from the hitter’s view. Obviously, the camera is pitcher’s view. This is a sinker left up in quadrant 6 (outside center for the hitter). Terrible location and it’s crushed.

Hudson then leaves a slider somewhere between zone 5 and 7 — almost center center, I would have to check Baseball Savant — to Michael Taylor. Hang a slider and it finds the seats. Not at all what he wanted to do.

However, through three innings, Hudson’s whiff rate and K’s were up. He hasn’t walked anyone at this point in the game. That’s a huge positive.

It’s almost like a few innings aren’t a good sample size to evaluate a starting pitcher...