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How has Collin McHugh Adjusted to his Role in the Astros Bullpen?

Although we’re just getting started in 2018, trends are already starting to form in McHugh’s performance out of the bullpen.

Apr 18, 2018; Seattle, WA, USA; Houston Astros relief pitcher Collin McHugh (31) greets catcher Brian McCann (16) following a 7-1 victory against the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports
Joe Nicholson - USA TODAY Sports

Heading into the 2018 season, one of the biggest question marks on the Houston Astros roster involved Collin McHugh and what his role would become with five starters bumped ahead of him. The former starter has been moved to the bullpen where he has excelled. McHugh is one of the few members of the squad that has seemingly been around for a while. Let’s take a look at how he got here and what is making him so successful in his new role.

When McHugh arrived in Houston in 2014 he was a struggling starter just looking for another shot. He spent the prior two years with the Mets and Rockies compiling an 8.94 ERA in 47.1 innings.

However, through advanced analytics the Astros saw something in his repertoire that was encouraging. McHugh had one of the highest spin rates on his curveball in baseball. Working with Astros pitching coach Brent Strom, he immediately got to work and made changes.

McHugh also used the Astros hitting approach against them. Strom made the suggestion that McHugh’s sinker plays right into the uppercut swing that was being taught by most teams, and that if he elevated a four-seam it would lead to better results. By swapping his sinker for a four-seam fastball and throwing his curveball more, the veteran righty has provided the Astros with 606.1 innings and a 3.70 era (through 2017). Really productive stuff.

McHugh has continued these pitch patterns into the 2018 season with his move to the bullpen. He has been highly productive thus far. In his first 12 appearances, he has thrown 14.2 innings and compiled a 0.62 ERA.

Additionally, McHugh’s impressive K% of 33.9%, although through a small sample size of less than 20 innings, puts him in the top 30 of all major league pitchers for that category. His hot start has been a huge reason why the Astros bullpen has been much improved over last season.

It is also important to note that McHugh’s average fastball velocity has jumped significantly, from 90.7 MPH to 92.6 MPH. With this sudden velocity spike, some would expect to see McHugh to maybe have issues controlling his new and improved fastball and give up more free passes. This is a fair assumption, but throughout his career McHugh has never been a pitcher who walks a lot of opposing hitters. So far in 2018, McHugh’s walk rate, or BB%, is at 6.2% which is right around where he has been throughout his six-year major league career.

In 2018, McHugh, has been dominating hitters with his four-seam fastball throwing it 54% of the time and mainly up in the zone. This has led to him only giving up 3 barrels and no solid contact thus far. With his curveball, he has yet to give up a batted ball to the outfield. Below are heat maps of where the right-hander throws his fastball and where his curve ball has been hit.

Fastball Heat Map from Baseball Savant
Baseball Savant
McHugh’s Curve
Baseball Savant

With his success out of the bullpen, McHugh is probably not a trade piece right now, unless it was in a package deal to get a power reliever or he becomes unhappy with his bullpen role. So far, the Astros have shown no signs of desire for another reliever and there has been no reported unhappiness from McHugh, so he should be on the roster the whole year despite some preseason trade rumors. With production like this, McHugh is extremely valuable anyway.

Although the Houston Astros starting pitching is the main reason the bullpen has been improved this year, McHugh and other guys stepping up have been key. It’s impossible for McHugh to keep this pace going, but even with some regression factored in I would look for him to have a good year. He will likely be our spot starter when needed and should be successful in that role.