What adjustments to the Pirates need to make Daniel Hudson a decent reliever again
— 2010 will be the year
If the goal is to make him a decent reliever, they may already be there. He had a disastrous month of April, with a 9.90 ERA. Opponents battered him for a slash line of 362/412/543. The rest of the year, those numbers were 3.31 and 215/338/375.
The big issue I see with Hudson is that he’s only a decent reliever. I’m not sure it’s reasonable to expect anything more, given his history. After struggling with injuries from 2012-14, he converted to relief and put in two full seasons with Arizona. In 2015, he had a 3.86 ERA and 3.61 xFIP. In 2016, his ERA was 5.22, thanks to a somewhat high BABIP (.331) and a low strand rate (61.7%). His xFIP of 4.12 shows that he was better than the ERA, but not especially good. There’s really nothing in here to show that he’s better than the pitcher the Pirates saw for the last five months of 2017.
Obviously, that calls into question the decision to give him the contract they did. It’s hard not to think that he was simply a veteran reliever they could afford and could sign without having to bid against anybody else if they acted quickly. Hudson himself said the Pirates were the only team with a strong interest that early; he signed on December 19. This is the same strategy the Pirates used to sign Clint Barmes, who signed on December 12. Some players don’t want to risk waiting out the market when they have an offer in hand. Of course, that limits your choices.
There was one big difference between 2015-16 Hudson and 2017 Hudson: His BB/9 shot up from 3.3 in 2015-16 to 4.8 in 2017. It wasn’t because he was throwing fewer strikes, either. His percentage of pitches in the strike zone, according to Fangraphs, was 46.2% in 2015, 44.0% in 2016, and 47.6% in 2017. What also changed was that hitters chased fewer of his pitches, roughly 4% fewer than the previous two years.
According to Brooks Baseball, Hudson threw a lot more sliders and a lot fewer changeups in 2017, as compared to 2016 and especially 2015, which was his best season. The changeup accounted for a lot of the difference in hitters offering at fewer of his pitches; they swung at it 55% of the time in 2015 and only 41% in 2017. According to both Brooks and Fangraphs, the change went from being Hudson’s best pitch in 2015 to ineffective in 2017. Brooks, for instance, has opponents batting .157 off the pitch in 2015 and .304 in 2017. His slider, on the other hand, was nearly unhittable in 2017.
There’s probably some tinkering the Pirates can do with Hudson, maybe either trying to get his change back to where it was or just having him scrap it. He certainly needs to get the walks under control. I’m skeptical, though, whether he’s likely to be anything more than a pretty good middle reliever. Considering their budget and what they’ve committed to him, they need him to be a late inning guy and I just don’t see that happening.