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The New Kid in Town: Collin McHugh

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Same old face, but a whole other pitcher

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Houston Astros Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

New kid? He’s one of veterans of the Astros Dark Ages, Astros alumnus since 2014. Before Springer, before Correa, before that first playoff run. When the World Champions were bad.

But he’s a kid again. He’s a New McHugh, a whole new approach, a whole new level of success in a new role.

Maybe we should call this Collin McHugh the New, New McHugh, because the Collin McHugh, who was so outstanding for the Astros in 2014 and 2015, was not the same McHugh that Jeff Luhnow picked up off the waiver wire trash heap in December 2013. Famously, the Astros’ analytics department saw something special in his spin rate, and McHugh was transformed into one of the most vicious curve ball twirlers in MLB.

So the Old New McHugh, like fellow surprising over-achiever Dallas Keuchel, emerged in 2014, winning 11 games with a sparkling 2.73 ERA. In 2015 he won 19, plus one playoff game, with a 3.89 ERA. By 2016 the Old New McHugh was getting to be just the Tired Same Old McHugh, sliding to a mediocre 4.34 ERA.

Nonetheless, from 2014-2016 McHugh had a combined record of 48-28, with a 3.70 ERA. That’s at least middle of rotation type performance. Not too shabby for a waiver wire pick up.

But last year McHugh missed more than half the season with arm troubles. When he returned he was relegated to fifth starter status, and yet, despite having to regain command during his team’s pennant race, and having to get his stamina stretched out in order to resume a starter’s role, we could already see the embryo that would emerge this year as the New McHugh. In 63 innings McHugh’s ERA stopped the upward trend and dipped to 3.55, his lowest since 2014.

With the additions of starters Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton, and the continued good health of veteran Astros like Lance McCullers and Dallas Keuchel, McHugh has been relegated to the bullpen in 2018. And what a year in relief he is having. He is near the top of the pitcher leaderboards in most meaningful categories for all pitchers over 30 innings pitched: ERA-1.03, ranked 5th. WHIP-0.83, ranked 8th. K/9-12.34, ranked 13th. WOBA against-.222, ranked 11th. FIP-2.05, ranked 11th. SIERA-2.13, ranked 7th.

Just for context, McHugh’s ERA is lower than wonder boy Josh Hader’s, and in all these statistics except K/9 he is outperforming the highly coveted Brad Hand.

So is this really a New McHugh, or is he just having statistical improvements owing to moving to the bullpen?

Well obviously as a starter he would not be sporting a one run per game ERA. Starters have to face the same lineup three times, and relievers can let go a little more with their heat. McHugh’s velocity is up about one mph this year over career averages.

But this IS a New McHugh. And what’s new is simple. In 2017 McHugh began experimenting with the slider. This year his slider has become one of the most potent weapons in baseball. Here’s another leaderboard statistic and the key to all the others. Fangraphs rates McHugh’s slider as providing 4.26 runs/100 pitches. It is the fourth highest rated slider in baseball.

But why this makes McHugh such a potent new weapon is not so simple. It’s not just that he is getting people out with his new pitch, but also how this pitch, due to the way it slots with his fastball, has transformed the fastball from a minus offering, to a positive one for the first time in his career. The slider is a two for one. It is a killer and it has turned the fastball into a major weapon. And McHugh still has his great curve, rated 42nd in baseball, behind only Gerrit Cole on the Astros, just ahead of Justin Verlander and Charlie Morton.

Let’s take a deeper dive into the evolution of Collin McHugh’s pitching profile and look at how it has led to a New McHugh. Below are two charts showing the effectiveness of McHugh’s pitches, the first a compilation of the seasons 2014-2016, and the second what he is doing this year

Pitch Effectiveness, 2014-2016

Pitch count BAA SLG
Pitch count BAA SLG
4 seam 3098 0.294 0.468
Curve 2298 0.177 0.289
Cutter 3037 0.277 0.415

Below is the pitch effectiveness chart for McHugh in 2018. Notice the new pitch.

Pitch Effectiveness Chart, 2018

Pitch count BAA SLG
Pitch count BAA SLG
4 seam 289 0.194 0.339
Curve 125 0.13 0.13
Cutter 53 0.333 0.444
Slider 114 0.103 0.103

A cursory comparison of the two charts shows that McHugh is getting much better results this year with his curveball and fastball, but that his best pitch is the new offering (since 2017), his slider. He has less effectiveness with his cutter, and he is using it a lesser percentage of the time.

These charts correlate with the Fangraph ratings for these pitches. I will compare 2016 to 2018.

Runs per 100 pitches for each pitch type, 2016 and 2018

Year wFB/100 wCT/100 wCB/100 wSL/100
Year wFB/100 wCT/100 wCB/100 wSL/100
2016 -0.84 0.18 -0.02 N/A
2018 0.85 -1.36 1.29 4.26

McHugh’s fastball was a minus offering in 2016 and every year of his career until 2017, the year he introduced the slider to his arsenal. He had no slider to speak of in 2016 or before, but the cutter was an effective third pitch. Not so much in 2018. The slider in 2017 (not pictured) itself was not nearly as potent as it is this year, and his curve in 2017 was actually a negative offering, and yet McHugh still had his best year, in limited innings, since 2014, even without his supposedly best pitch working. An average slider, a 91 MPH fastball and decent cutter got him through in 2017, a transitional year.

What is making 2018 so special for McHugh is that his fastball has never been more effective, his curveball has not only returned but also has never been so effective, and, as I will try to show, the slider is itself not only slaying batters, but the way McHugh throws it, it is setting up his other pitches, especially the fastball.

Below are charts which show the velocity, trajectory and release points of McHugh’s various pitches, 2014-2016 and 2018.

McHugh Velocity Trajectory and Release point, 2014-2016

pitch Velocity Hor mov Ver mov Hor Rel Ver Rel
pitch Velocity Hor mov Ver mov Hor Rel Ver Rel
4 seam 91.53 -5.12 9.27 -1.54 5.88
Curve 73.46 8.22 -8.05 -1.15 6.06
Cutter 87.27 2.18 3.81 -1.48 5.88

Here is the same data for 2018 including the slider.

McHugh Velocity, Trajectory, and Release Point 2018

pitch Velocity Hor mov Ver mov Hor Rel Ver Rel
pitch Velocity Hor mov Ver mov Hor Rel Ver Rel
4 seam 92.57 -4.59 9.09 -1.75 5.77
Curve 76.31 7.73 -8.58 -1.45 5.92
Cutter 88.05 2.7 2.96 -1.87 5.73
Slider 80.52 9.37 -1.99 -1.78 5.62

Here are the main takeaways. First, there is a slight uptick in velocity, probably owing to McHugh’s new role as a reliever. The curve is actually 3 MPH faster while maintaining about the same trajectory.

The trajectory of these pitches before and after don’t show any great variations, but there are two significant points to be made about the release points.

First, and this began in 2018, not 2017, on all the pitches McHugh’s horizontal release point is about 2 inches further from his body than in the past. How this improves his performance you’ll have to ask pitching coach Brent Strom, but my conjecture is that the ball approaches the plate at a slightly more acute angle than before.

But my main point in showing these charts is to compare the release point of the slider and fastball. As stated earlier, McHugh’s fastball didn’t become a plus pitch until he introduced the slider. Now we can see why. The fastball and slider come from the nearly identical release points, with the cutter just another inch out. The three pitches are released from within an inch radius of one another. Coming out of the hand the batter doesn’t know if he is getting a fastball, a slider, or maybe a cutter.

He probably knows when a curve is coming at him as it leaves the hand, the challenge is to project its trajectory.

Before the slider, when batters saw a non-curveball coming out of McHugh’s hand, the batter had only to guess fastball or cutter. Now that same slot can produce a 92 mph fastball that moves right on a right hander, a cutter that is slightly slower and moves a little bit down and away, or a slider that has radical down and away motion. When batters see that arm slot they have to be prepared for three very different pitches with three different velocities and very different trajectories. It wasn’t quite as hard for hitters to guess fastball and adjust to the cutter in mid flight. Now when the batter notices the ball spinning and adjusts, he has to guess cutter or slider. And there’s still the wild trajectory of that curve torturing his memory, causing even more confusion.

Just another conjecture here, but I think the reason why the cutter is less effective now is it is the safest guess of the the choice between slider and cutter. If it has to be one or the other, the batter hopes for the cutter, and when he gets it he’s happy. Of course without the cutter in the arsenal, the slider would probably be less effective.

It’s also possible that the cutter doesn’t tunnel as effectively at the decision point, although a more advanced researcher than me would be needed to analyze the tunneling qualities of these three pitches. But just based on how dramatically McHugh’s fastball has improved since he has added the slider and how similar the release points are, I believe it highly likely that these two pitches at least tunnel very effectively.

Bottom line, mild mannered Collin New McHugh, with the addition of his slider, has become a very baffling pitcher.

Let’s look at Fangraph plate discipline statistics to shed further light on that.

Batters are swinging at pitches outside the strike zone (O swing%) at a slightly elevated rate of 33.8% (31.7% career avg.) On the other hand batters are failing to swing at pitches inside the zone at a noticeably higher rate. The Z swing % is 60.49%, career avg 65.8%.

Batters are making less contact on the New McHugh that than they did before. The contact% is 72%, career avg., 77.1% His swing and miss rate is at an all time high for him, 12.8%, up from a career average of 10.8%. Batters are flailing at balls outside the strike zone, the O contact rate is 51.9%, career average 63.9%.

Is there regression in the future of McHugh? Probably some. His BABIP is the lowest of his career at .257 and well below league average. Statcast expects his WOBA (xWOBA) to be .287, 70th in MLB out of 353 and 6th best on the Astros, but well higher than his current .222. Fangraphs tends to agree. McHugh’s hard hit rate, although a respectable 36.8%, is near a career high.

Just for grins, this is a chart of the Astros best pitchers rated according to WOBA. After that the same chart will rate them according to xWOBA. McHugh is first in WOBA, but only sixth in xWOBA, but ahead of such luminaries as Charlie Morton, Dallas Keuchel, Will Harris, Lance McCullers and Ken Giles. Hmmmm.

Here is Astros ranked by xWOBA. In the words of Garrison Keillor, all are above league average.

So if you prefer to project future performance based on present performance, Collin McHugh is and will be the best pitcher on the Astros. If you prefer to project future performance on present batted ball data and try to extract luck from the equation, Collin McHugh is still the 6th best pitcher on the Astros going forward according to Statcast, almost indistinguishable from Gerrit Cole, and far ahead of Lance McCullers and Dallas Keuchel.

Should our grizzled veteran, former #2 during the Times of Trouble, yet made new again Collin McHugh, get a shot at the starting rotation? Hasn’t he paid his dues, both past and present? Why is he being treated like the New Kid in Town?

Lest you think all is perfect with Astros pitching, in the last thirty days, some of the shine has come off the starting rotation, with an ERA of 3.53, 8th in MLB, and over a run worse than the Yankees.

Of one thing I am sure. He is a vastly underutilized and undervalued resource having a rare career year that no one seems to notice.