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Can Collin McHugh Save the Day?

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The Astros have lost three three of their top five starting pitchers. Is Collin McHugh good enough to fill part of the void?

The 2018 MLB Winter Meetings concluded last week in Las Vegas, and if you haven’t heard, the Astros might as well just forfeit next season. After all, in the wake of a humiliating loss to the Boston Red Sox in the ALCS, the Astros are set to lose three of their five starting pitchers in 2019, and at the Winter Meetings they failed to address this crisis. If the Astros couldn’t get to the World Series with All Stars like Charlie Morton and Dallas Keuchel, or wonder-boy Lance McCullers, what chance do they have without them? Meanwhile, top free agents like Patrick Corbin, Nathan Eovaldi, James Paxton and J. A. Happ slipped right through the clumsy fingers of GM Jeff Luhnow, as he screechingly fiddles while Houston burns.

Is there any hope for the Astros and their long-suffering fans? Can anyone help our team in its time of dire need?

Yes!

Here he comes to save the day.

It’s Collin (Mighty) McHugh.

OK, I know to many dear fans out there, Collin McHugh is more mouse than mighty, certainly no replacement for Charlie Freakin Morton, All Star and World Series hero, and future Tampa Bay Ray.

Hear me out.

In some of the recent comment threads I noticed some rather vigorous debate concerning Collin; is he a back of rotation guy, or more like a #2 type guy? If so, maybe its OK that the Astros let Charlie Morton walk.

I’m here to say he is a #2 type guy on most teams and that by moving from the bullpen he may very well fill the void created by the departure of Charlie Morton.

Of course, McHugh was the Astros #2 from 2014-2016, and even won a playoff game in 2015. But he seemed to decline in 2016, in 2017 he was injured most of the season, and in 2018, with such a stacked rotation, McHugh was relegated to the bullpen, where he was, however, among the best relievers in baseball. Some say that’s where he belongs, and that his great season was due to his new role.

So let’s take a look at his career, which I think is underrated, but let us also look at the 2018 McHugh, which I think gives us reason to think that the best McHugh is yet to come...as a starter.

Here is McHugh’s auspicious debut with the Astros, a 6 23, 12 K shutout against the Mariners.

Of course readers of this blog know the story of Collin McHugh, basically an abject failure in the big leagues before being taken off the garbage heap by what was before then the worst team in baseball, the Astros. In the following three years as the Astros’ #2 pitcher, he was 43-26 in 523 innings, 23rd in MLB in WAR at 9.8 (just a few notches behind Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole), 33rd in FIP, 34th in SIERA and 39th in xFIP among qualified starters. In a league with thirty teams, definitely a #2 starter on many if not most teams.

McHugh’s a Two

Here’s some more comparatives for McHugh during his heyday as a Houston starter. The following chart comes from Baseball Prospectus and uses their version of WAR, WARP, and their main analytical tool DRA. It is correlated to ERA. DRA- compares a pitchers DRA to league average, the lesser the number below 100 the better the pitcher. A number 70 would be 30% better than league average. Here goes.

Collin McHugh DRA and WARP as starter, 2014-2016

Year WARP DRA DRA- ERA
Year WARP DRA DRA- ERA
2014 4 2.75 67.5 2.73
2015 4.3 3.3 77.1 3.89
2016 3.3 3.81 84.3 4.34

If you average McHugh’s DRA- for the three years it was 76.3, or nearly 25% better than league average.

Here’s some comparatives from Statcast. Following is McHugh’s WOBA and xWOBA for 2015 and 2016. Unfortunately there is no data for 2014.

McHugh WOBA, xWOBA and league rank minimum 600 PA

Year WOBA xWOBA/rank
Year WOBA xWOBA/rank
2015 0.308 .286 18th/97
2016 0.338 .293 17th/92

xWOBA predicts what a pitcher’s weighted batting average against should be based on the Statcast batted ball profile. The 2014 season was McHugh’s best year by other measures but it is not in this chart. But in both years listed above, even his worst, 2016, McHugh was in the top 20% of qualifying pitchers. In 2015 he was within a few points of Corey Kluber and David Price, and a few points better than Cole Hamels and Sonny Gray (back when they were good), just for comparison’s sake. In 2016 he was equal to Chris Sale, Johnny Cueto, Masahiro Tanaka and Jose Quintana.

Again, by this measure McHugh pitched well enough to rate as a #2 on most teams.

Is McHugh a Morton?

But the 2019 Astros are not asking McHugh to be a #2, they just need him to replace Charlie Morton as a #3. Let’s compare McHugh’s production in his years as an Astros starter (2014-2016) to Morton’s in 2017-2018. The following chart averages Fangraphs statistics of the two pitchers for the years in question.

Collin McHugh vs. Charlie Morton

Pitcher ERA FIP xFIP SIERA avg WAR/year
Pitcher ERA FIP xFIP SIERA avg WAR/year
Morton 3.36 3.53 3.49 3.61 3.15
McHugh 3.71 3.56 3.74 3.74 3.37

There’s not a significant difference here. Morton has McHugh beat in ERA and xFIP by about a third of a run, but in FIP and SIERA, considered by Fangraphs as their most accurate measure of pitcher effectiveness, there is almost no difference.

Let’s revisit the Baseball Prospectus ratings comparing the two pitcher’s DRA’s. We’ve already seen that McHugh’s DRA’s from 2014-2016 were 2.75, 3.30 and 3.81 respectively. Morton in 2017 had a DRA of 3.92, and in 2018 of 3.68. In other words, Morton’s best year barely beat McHugh’s worst.

By xWOBA McHugh’s two measured years of .286 and .293 compare to Morton’s .298 (2017) and .282 (2018). For both pitchers it averages out to .290.

I Object Your Honor

Let me anticipate two objections before I move on. First, that McHugh had a downward trajectory from 2014-2016, with 2016 being an especially mediocre year. It is on that basis, I believe, that many today consider him a 5th starter type pitcher.

True, his ERA was a pedestrian 4.34, but a closer look shows he was pitching into some bad luck. His FIP was a somewhat more respectable 3.95, or 6% below league average. His BABIP was way out of line at .338.

Statcast validates this luck factor in 2016. His WOBA at .338 was .045 greater than his xWOBA. This was the greatest differential among pitchers with 600 PA’s that year.

The other objection is that I have failed to consider McHugh’s mediocre 2017 season in my calculations. McHugh was not terrible in 2017, sporting a 3.55 ERA, but his peripherals were considerably worse. But 2017 was almost a lost year for Collin. He missed Spring Training with a “dead arm” and did not pitch in a big league game until July 22nd. He had to overcome arm problems, develop the feel for his pitches, and stretch himself out as a starter all at the same time during the regular season for a team at the time desperate for starting pitching. On top of that he was experimenting with a new pitch. (More on that later) You would count 2017 against McHugh only if you just don’t like him. But 2017 is another reason why some people under appreciate McHugh.

2018: McHugh’s Best

Another common objection to McHugh as a third starter behind Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole is that he only found his true gift pitching in the bullpen. As a reliever McHugh posted an all time best ERA at 1.99, and struck out more than 3 batters per nine innings more than his career average, whiffing 11.7/9 in 2018.

Peripherals however were not quite as kind, with McHugh posting a 2.72 FIP, a 3.26 xFIP, and a 2.62 SIERA. Still, even allowing that these peripheral numbers would translate roughly .4 higher if McHugh were a starter, these numbers are by far the best of his career.

So shouldn’t McHugh stay where his value is highest and his performance is best, in the bullpen?

First, if 2016 was McHugh’s unlucky year, in 2018 lady luck rolled a lot of sevens for Collin. His BABIP was a ridiculous .248, and his xWOBA, at a very respectable .272, was still .029 higher than his WOBA. But even with all that taken into account and the statistical advantages that accrue to being a reliever, it was McHugh’s best season.

The Real Difference

Which brings us to the real reason McHugh can save the day by returning to the rotation. He should return to the rotation because he really is the third best starter on the team and as sure a replacement of 2018 Charlie Morton as Charlie himself would have been. He has a versatile and effective arsenal of pitches and he can withstand 150+ innings per year. And what made him so effective in 2018 was not that he has some special affinity for the bullpen, it was his new pitch, the difference maker, the slider

In the middle of last season I wrote an article about McHugh’s new pitch and the difference it made. Without going into that level of detail here, Collin McHugh, since 2014 known as one of the best curve ballers around, this year has developed the league’s seventh best slider among pitchers with 50+ innings, Fangraphs giving it a 3.33 pitch value. This to go with his curve, rated 79th, his fastball rated 70th (yes, equal to Aroldis Chapman if you can believe that), and an average cutter.

So, while pitching out of the bullpen, and a little luck, may have played a part in McHugh’s success this last year, a large part was that he was simply better than in the past. Adding one of the league’s best sliders to his already crafty arsenal has made Collin McHugh an even more dangerous weapon than he was when he and Dallas Keuchel led the 2015 Astros into the playoffs.

He’s needed in the rotation again. And Mighty McHugh will be there to save the day.

Poll

What is McHugh’s situation when the season begins?

This poll is closed

  • 49%
    Third starter
    (249 votes)
  • 44%
    Fourth starter
    (220 votes)
  • 3%
    Fifth starter
    (15 votes)
  • 2%
    Bullpen
    (13 votes)
  • 0%
    Traded
    (2 votes)
499 votes total Vote Now