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Alternative point of view on Collin McHugh

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MLB: Kansas City Royals at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

So you may have seen Bill - my editor - wrote an article, It’s time to move on from Collin McHugh, a very well written article covering McHugh’s recent woes and working towards some conclusions based on the small sample size data set. I figured why not argue with my boss!

I’m an avid believer in McHugh, possibly to a fault, but there was some discussions about McHugh both in the thread and behind the scenes with the writers from TCB. It’s a great thread with tons of discussion, which is one of the main aspects we focus on when we try to generate content for TCB - provide statistical analysis and engage our community in discussion.

With all of that said, then why am I writing this article?

Well, for a few reasons, I do believe there are some elements of luck that have not been in McHugh’s favor, which I will do a quick highlight on, but truthfully I’m going to give my honest speculation on what the issue is and how I believe Strom/McHugh should fix it.

First to highlight on the luck:

  • LOB% - McHugh has stranded a mere 56.9% of batters. This has been proven to be an element largely outside of a pitchers control, with pitchers that have a high strikeout rate (like McHugh) generally being able to slightly improve from the league average of 70-72%.
  • HR/FB - Fangraphs does a good job describing this, but largely the percentage of flyballs that become home runs is outside of a pitchers control, with basically every pitcher in baseball coming in 8-12% and league average being roughly 10%. Bill commented and said that the home runs could be from him grooving pitches and thus being hit harder. Statcast finds his exit velocity on hits within line with his career average, and his hard hit % actually lower than at any point in his career (27%)
  • xWOBA - Utilizing the actual batted ball data, McHugh has been unlucky with a .341 wOBA in comparison to the expected results of .319
  • SIERA/xFIP - So what does all the above mean? Well, there are calculators that work to take the “luck” factors into account, and if these stats (and other factors) normalized, McHugh looks significantly better with a 4.24 xFIP and 4.18 SIERA. Neither of these are phenomenal numbers, Though both are significantly better than Wade Miley who comes in at 4.89 SIERA and 4.72 xFIP.

So I do think there are some over reactions to what has occurred so far this season. McHugh still ranks as great in hard hit %, spin rates, and just better than league average across the board in expected results. His SIERA would rank him at #42 in the majors of all qualified pitchers, which isn’t inspiring but not bad for a #3 starter.

How to “Fix” McHugh

One of our commenters, Klily, coined the term “Fools gold slider”. A catchy name, and it did lead me to wonder about the pitch. So I started digging and found out the pitch is not only gold, it’s a diamond! Collin has thrown this pitch 42.6% of the time, which makes it one of the highest usages of a non-fastball pitch in baseball. It’s been absolutely devastating. The expected batting average on it? .162 (.165 actual) , the expected slugging on it? .304 (.380 actual), the xWOBA? .226 (.251 actual). It has a 42.1% Whiff % and an exit velocity of only 83.6 mph when players actually do it hit it!!!

So what is the problem? The pitch is that devastating, hitter’s can’t touch it. Even Sports Illustrated wrote an article about it with a quote from Brent Strom that talked about how batters KNEW the pitch was coming and still couldn’t hit it. They knew because his release point was so different, he drops down and throws from 3-7” lower. Their quote “When he drops down, it’s always a slider.”

Them knowing the Slider is coming to me, is EXACTLY the problem, but not for the reasons you may think. Currently McHugh throws the slider 42.6% of the time. Of the remaining 57.4%, McHugh throws the fastball a nearly an identical amount as the Slider - 41.9% of the time, with the remainder being Curveballs (10.3%) and Change Ups (5.1%).

If you are hitter, you now know when the slider is NOT coming, and can sit on his fastball. McHugh utilizes 2 fastballs a 4-Seamer (thrown 29%) and a Cutter (12.9%). ***Technically Statcast shows a Sinker which was thrown 0.1% of the time (1 this year, 6 last year) but I’m more likely to believe those are incorrectly classified***.

Regardless, both pitches have not been anything particularly special, both coming in below average, which is not surprising due to the lack of velocity (89.9 mph 4-Seamer / 86.5 mph Cutter). I don’t see McHugh being able to gain a few mph or major change to make his fastballs themselves a more dominant pitch.

They could try to bring the release points of the pitches together, which could produce some ideal results, but large mechanical changes to a pitcher mid-season are generally not in the cards. So how does he change his results?

https://jerseybarn.com/products/mens-houston-astros-collin-mchugh-snap-dragon-2-orange-players-weekend-jersey

The Return of the Snap Dragon

My solution? Have McHugh start throwing the Curveball significantly more. At 10.3% McHugh is throwing the Curveball at the lowest percent in his career by a large margin. (In 2016, he threw the Curveball more than any other pitch).

So why throw the pitch more often? Largely due to the release point, thus reducing the number of batters sitting on the fastball. It changes their timing and puts them back to guessing on the pitch.

Not only that, but the Curveball has still been very effective. His average spin rate of 2,783 (40th best in baseball 8 rpm behind Verlander) is the second best it’s been in a season since Statcast started releasing public data (2015). Batters are still whiffing at the ball 22.2% of the time (compared to 9.1 for his cutter). The Curve has an xWOBA of .304 showing it still has been an effective pitch and the speed differential is not insignificant (74.4 mph) compared to his fastball.

My belief is that as his usage of this pitch increases, it removes the batters ability to simply sit on the fastball and HAMMER it. (Which they’ve done to a .492 xWOBA on his 4-Seamer).

As of today, McHugh isn’t the worst option as a continued back-end starter. I do think that with some minor tweaks to the usage of his pitches and he can still easily be one of the better starters in baseball.

Summary

There’s a lot to digest in this article, but if I was to summarize it all into a few sentences:

  • McHugh has had some poor luck leading to worse results than what would be expected
  • McHugh’s slider has been as good as advertised
  • My theory is that since batters can recognize the slider by the differential in release point, they are simply sitting on his fastball as the majority of pitches that are not Sliders have been a below average fastball.
  • My “solution” is to have McHugh return to utilizing his curveball, which still has all the makings of a dominant pitch in itself. The release point being closer to the fastball increases the value of both pitches.

**UPDATED - GIFS GALORE!!

Slider
Curve
Fastball

So a couple of notes, my apologies on the gif’s - it was the best I could do- tried to slow down the wind up and pause at the release point. Obviously, these are not the best gifs as it is three different days on three different mounds, with slightly different camera angles etc. I tried to find a Fastball and Slider with a similar location at the end, didn’t have as much luck on the Curve, I do think it being middle instead of outside may make it a bit more upright as well (but that’s pure speculation on my part)

It does look like his arm slot is lower and the pitch is slung more across his body which does result in a lower release point.

It does amaze me that batters would be able to pick up on this though, even in slow motion it seems surprising to me - although it’s insane to me that batters are able to pick up on movement and hit a 90+ mph pitch.