We’re going to deal with a hypothetical here. The St. Louis Cardinals are reported to be in on more than a few starters on the market. Frankie Montas is off the market but Tyler Mahle, and Carlos Rodon are higher end both options. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Cards chase some cheaper options like Jake Odorizzi or Noah Syndergaard either.
It seems likely that the team will be upgrading the rotation. When that happens, the team may need to choose between Andre Pallante and Dakota Hudson for the final rotation spot. This is immediately applicable if the team brings in two starters but it’s also an open question if Steven Matz or Jack Flaherty are able to return later in the season.
So, with reinforcements potentially on the way, should Hudson or Pallante have the edge in the rotation? That’s the question I’ll try to answer here.
Editor’s Note: Literally five minutes after I wrote the last word of this article, the Cardinals traded for Jose Quintana. Had they made the move earlier in the day, this article may have been an analysis of Quintana. Regardless, this piece is still relevant, and perhaps more relevant now. I’ll discuss the Quintana move in the upcoming podcast, which should be posted on Wednesday.
The Case for Hudson
Hudson hasn’t been great this season. He has a 4.10 ERA and a 4.63 FIP with even worse expected numbers (5.46 xERA and 4.89 xFIP). That’s not super promising. The funny thing is that Hudson’s FIP is actually a hair below his career average, it’s just that his ERA wizardry has not continued to the same extent this year.
Hudson’s worst full season ERA is 3.35. That was back in 2019 when he also had a 4.93 FIP. This year, his 4.10 ERA this season is a career low by far. And that’s where Hudson’s case really rests. His case is based on past performance.
He has a career ERA of 3.41 and that’s being pulled upward by his ERA this season. Because of that, the Cardinals may want to keep Hudson in the rotation with the hope that he returns to his past effectiveness.
One of the main problems for Hudson this year is that his strikeout rate has cratered. Now, he’s never been a swing-and-miss guy but his 12.8% strikeout rate is low. Even for him. In 2019, he fanned 18% of hitters. In 2020, that rose to just above 20% in 29 innings. In his first MLB season in 2018, he was at 16.1%. That’s not even good but it’s miles better than where he is right now.
That begs the question – what happened? Can a K-rate rebound be expected or has Hudson’s stuff or command gotten notably worse? Let’s find out.
The first thing that stands out is that Hudson is actually throwing fewer sinkers than ever. You might think that throwing a contact oriented pitch less would actually help, but that’s obviously not been the case.
A big reason why is because his slider seems to have gotten worse. Or at least worse at getting whiffs. The pitch has lost 5 1⁄2 inches of drop and 1 1⁄2 inches of run since 2019 and it’s hard to tell why that’s the case. 2019 was really the only year that year that it had that much movement. Maybe Hudson made an intentional choice to get less but sharper movement. That might be the case since it’s gained a full tick of velocity since then, but the pitch is giving up harder contact this season and getting fewer whiffs.
Here’s a look at his slider this season.
And here’s a look at his slider in 2019.
Notice the cutting action in the second video. It’s not that much but it’s there. The first video shows very little cutting action. It’s basically just straight drop. That’s the change that Hudson has made.
In 2019 (the last time Hudson threw more than 40 innings in a season), he had a 41.8% whiff rate with the pitch. This year it’s down to just 24.3%. The wOBAs are practically the same in the two seasons, but in 2022 the pitch is being hit 3 mph harder on average.
That’s his go-to breaking pitch. It’s not a great sign that it’s results aren’t as good and the fact that the pitch has a different movement profile may be behind it.
The next issue for Hudson has been a decline in his groundball rate. This is perhaps more concerning because he’s supposed to make his living by keeping the ball on the ground. A 52.2% rate is pretty solid, but it’s not enough considering how low his strikeout rate is. Also, he’s never finished a season with a groundball rate below 56%.
Maybe his groundball rates return to normal. Maybe they don’t. When I wrote about Hudson in my sinker series, I didn’t express a ton of confidence in him and my mind hasn’t changed. His sinker isn’t getting great results, as emphasized by the .374 wOBA and .406 xwOBA allowed against the pitch, and that’s not good for a bread-and-butter offering.
Hudson also doesn’t get great movement on any of pitches except for his sinker. And even then, that’s only in the vertical direction. So, while I can’t say for sure one way or the other about whether his groundball rate will recover, I don’t have a ton of confidence in Hudson to close the year.
He’s always outperformed his peripherals, but his profile on Baseball Savant isn’t promising.
Hudson’s profile usually has a ton of blue, but it’s never been this much. That’s definitely concerning. So is the fact that his sinker velocity has dropped by 1 1⁄2 mph since 2019. I can’t imagine that’s helping the pitch.
Pallante’s case is much easier to make because he’s simply been a better pitcher. His ERA is better both overall (3.18) and as a starter (3.98). His FIP is better too (4.02 as a starter, 3.97 overall). He’s also getting more strikeouts, fewer walks, more groundballs, and making longer starts than Hudson. It’s tough to argue with that.
His numbers have been boosted by his 8-inning gem against Washington, but if we’re going by numbers, then he’s the best choice.
For the sake of argument, let’s take a deeper look. Can Pallante sustain these numbers?
My immediate answer is yes. His numbers are a bit worse in the rotation, but they’re more than adequate for a back-end starter. And he’s made some improvement in the rotation as well. For instance, his strikeout rate is higher as a starter (17.5% compared to 16.1%) and his walk rate is lower (7.0% as compared to 9.3%).
He managed to keep a groundball rate above 60% too. Those are all positive developments for Pallante. It seems that he’s matured over the course of the season, which makes sense considering how little professional experience he had before this year. I mean, he’s thrown just 217 innings in his entire professional career. He’s nowhere near a finished project.
With that being said, he had a 4.66 ERA as a starter before his last outing. That’s not great. So, was it just one great start or is he a sub-4.00 ERA starter? That’s the real question.
There are plenty of red flags. For starts, he can only throw two pitches for strikes consistently. His high spin curveball is nasty, but he really doesn’t command it well, either missing the plate entirely or catching way too much of it.
Here’s what I mean. He throws the pitch in the zone just under 35% of the time but has also surrendered three home runs. Let me put that in perspective. He’s given up 8 home runs total, which means that 37.5% of the home runs he’s allowed have come on a pitch that makes up just 17.2% of his arsenal.
This is why.
That is what we call leaving a pitch up. In the next video, he does it again. He did get the pitch outside a bit but he didn’t finish it down and he got punished for it.
This next video shows Austin Riley, the new $200 million man, punishing him for a middle-middle curveball.
It doesn’t get much worse than that for Pallante. This pitch is the key for him. He’s been punished a few times for leaving it up, but his wOBA is still .347. I know that’s high but for a third pitch with under 20% usage, a few big hits can create an inflated number. That wOBA needs to come down, but his xwOBA is much more encouraging at .234.
He has a spin rate close to 3000 with the pitch and it drops over 8 inches more than the average curveball. That’s a great foundation to build on. It all comes down to command for him. If he can start commanding that pitch then he’s golden.
He’s already good at putting his four-seamer and slider in the zone and both pitches have gotten solid results. He’s really a controlled curveball away from being an effective starter.
His fastball isn’t perfect and he likes to work up in the zone a bit much for a pitch that doesn’t have any kind of rising effect, but it’s still been a decent pitch. I would expect it to get better if he threw it less and countered with more sliders and curveballs.
Those aren’t exactly easy changes to make. My guess is that he throws so many fastballs because his curveball command is still a work in progress. You can’t just tell a pitcher to throw more strikes and expect that to fix the problem.
Right now the curveball is just a teaser. He’s really a fastball/slider guy with a teasing curveball that misses the zone more often than not and is only thrown 17% of the time. Even his fourth pitch, a sinker, isn’t thrown in the zone very often (35.8% zone percentage).
Until he can throw all of his pitches for strikes inconsistency should be the expectation. He’s going to have games like he did against Washington, but he’s also going to have games when he can’t finish 5 innings (3 instances).
Look at Pallante’s last outing. He threw 16 curveballs. He got 8 swings (5 whiffs) and 2 called strikes. That’s 10 strikes. That’s what he needs to do more consistently. When he can locate the pitch well, he can induce whiffs, but if he’s putting the pitch in the dirt and not coming close to the zone then he’s not going to get swings.
So, who should start if one of these two must move to the ‘pen? My answer is Pallante but it’s a lot closer than you might think.
I like both of Pallante’s breaking balls a lot. I think his curveball could be a really effective pitch and he’s already showing great feel for his slider. His fastball also sits above 95 mph on average. That’s a good arsenal and he showed how dominant it could be in his last outing.
I am concerned by the fact that he can really only throw two pitches for strikes consistently. He needs better feel of his curveball, so while it’s a promising pitch, promise doesn’t win games right now. I can say that the pitch looks really good and that it’s numbers are infalted because of a few mistakes, but the problem is that he makes mistakes too often with the pitch.
In the long term, I feel really good about it, but he needs to clean up the pitch. With that being said, I still think he’s effective enough with his fastball and slider taking some of the pressure off his big breaker.
Hudson has past production to lean on. There’s also the fact that he can throw three pitches for strikes. His curveball is his fourth pitch and still lands in the zone slightly more often than Pallante’s.
Hudson simply lives too close to the edge for me to give him the advantage. His strikeout rate and his walk rate are dangerously close to one another and I just don’t have enough faith in his arsenal to put him over Pallante.
After looking at both of these options, I think the Cardinals would be much better off if they got two reliable starters before the deadline. I would be nervous about having one of these arms in the rotation, much less two.
Don’t get me wrong, I think very highly of Pallante and I’m especially encouraged by his last start. I think he would make a decent fifth starter right now and could potentially move up into four starter territory by the end of the season. I’m just not yet ready to say that he’s someone the Cardinals should be relying on to stabilize a rotation in desperate need of reinforcements.
If the Cards don’t land Soto, I would love to see them pursue Carlos Rodon and a lower-tier option. If they do land Soto, then perhaps they can still bring in a pair of lower end starters.
I don’t think they should stop with just one pitcher. Bringing in two would allow Pallante to work out of the fifth spot in the rotation and would move Hudson to the ‘pen. Perhaps an uptick in velocity would help Hudson’s sinker be more effective.
At least, that’s what I would do. Maybe the Cardinals feel differently. Maybe you do too. Feel free to debate my choice. I would love to hear all of your perspectives.