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Drew Hutchison’s fastball issues

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MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

With Tyler Glasnow striking out six of seven batters in his first spring outing, the hype train is already rolling for the top prospect to take the fifth spot in the Bucs’ rotation. Meanwhile, one of Glasnow’s key rivals, Drew Hutchison, is off to an inauspicious start, giving up a homer to Manny Machado and failing to strike out any batters over two innings of work. Nevertheless, it’s still going to take a full spring of Glasnow dominating and gaining confidence in his revamped changeup and his two-seamer if he wants to break camp with the team.

Given the likelihood of Glasnow winding up in Triple-A, let’s see what Hutchison needs to do to end up in the Bucs’ rotation. Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review recently interviewed both Hutchison and Ray Searage to discuss potential adjustments Hutchison is working on.

At about the 44-second mark, Searage elaborates on the primary mechanical change Hutchison needs. Essentially, he was swinging out his back foot too much rather than bringing it directly to his landing spot, causing his upper body to rotate and his elbow to drop, so they’ve worked to find consistency in a more direct stride. If you didn’t watch the video, here is the gist of Searage’s feelings about the process and the end goal:

“We're not out of the woods yet, but we're in a really good spot and we're building. ... He feels comfortable. It puts his arm in the best position to maximize his (velocity). With that adjustment to his delivery, he's able to get the fastball down and away (instead of) over the middle of the plate.”

In light of coaching staff’s insights, let’s explore the numbers underlying some of the perceived issues with Hutchison’s fastball.

Fastball issues

Season Pitch Pitches BB% K% HR/FB SLG wOBA wRC+
Season Pitch Pitches BB% K% HR/FB SLG wOBA wRC+
2012 FA 678 8.6% 17.9% 10.8% 0.437 0.350 131
2014 FA 1813 9.6% 21.0% 7.4% 0.407 0.322 117
2015 FA 1633 7.4% 17.4% 17.3% 0.515 0.379 154
2016 FA 252 10.7% 14.3% 28.6% 0.66 0.457 202
Total FA 4376 8.7% 18.8% 12.3% 0.466 0.355 137

If a pitcher elects to utilize a particular pitch roughly two-thirds of the time, it’s crucial that he have success with it. Unfortunately, Hutchison was unable to justify that level of usage in the 2015 season after getting absolutely crushed by opposing hitters.

It’s not that the pitch was ever truly dominant to begin with, but at least the 2014 numbers were palatable, thanks to a solid strikeout ratio and above-average ability to keep the ball in the park. In 2015, Hutchison struggled in both areas, and his line drive rate that skyrocketed to more than 30 percent.

Velocity

Searage referenced maximizing Hutchison’s velocity as a motivation for the mechanical adjustment, but there hasn’t been a drastic shift in his velocity in his recent performances, as you can see below.

Fastball velocity by year

Season Pitch Pitches minVel maxVel Vel
Season Pitch Pitches minVel maxVel Vel
2012 FA 678 85.3 95.3 91.4
2014 FA 1813 85.7 96.2 92.2
2015 FA 1633 87.1 96.1 92.4
2016 FA 252 88.3 95 92
Total FA 4376 85.3 96.2 92.1

Perhaps Searage was referring to Hutchison losing a tick in 2016, but there wasn’t a large differential between 2014 (when Hutchison was modestly successful) and 2015 (when he struggled). However, the contracting range over the past two seasons could affect Hutchison’s ability to give batters a different look on the fastball. He has few other pitches in his arsenal to keep a batter off-balance, so the more an opposing lineup sees a fastball at a consistent speed, the easier it will be for it to time its swings.

Movement

There was also a change in the typical movement of Hutchison’s four-seamer. The average fastball for right-handed pitchers in 2015 had -4.2 inches of horizontal movement and 8.9 of vertical movement, and Hutchison has typically demonstrated an ability to gain more horizontal movement on his average fastball with the exception of 2015.

Horizontal and vertical movement

Season Pitch xMov zMov Mov
Season Pitch xMov zMov Mov
2012 FA -4.7 6.1 8.6
2014 FA -5.5 8.6 10.4
2015 FA -4.9 9.2 10.7
2016 FA -5.4 8.3 10.1
Total FA -5.2 8.4 10.2

In his most successful season, Hutchison displayed fairly standard vertical movement, but some heavy horizontal break that ran in on right-handed hitters about as well as anyone. It may not seem like a drastic shift in 2015, but there is a difference that needs to be noted. His fastball gained more vertical movement, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; however, it also featured less horizontal movement, so it basically hummed more directly while simultaneously hanging longer as it approached the plate.

Coincidentally, it wasn’t all that different in movement from Juan Nicasio’s fastball in 2016, but Nicasio had the ability to dial it up over 98, so he fared better thanks to prodigious strikeout rates even if the wOBA for the pitch was a bit high.

If Hutchison experienced an uptick in velocity or larger range, the fastball could possibly still been used effectively, but somewhere between making the pitch more direct in trajectory along with a compressed velocity that isn’t elite, Hutchison enabled hitters to pounce on it. And, undeterred by their success, Hutchison just continued chucking it.

Location

Also, in Searage’s comments, there’s mention of bad location, with Hutchison hanging his fastball over the middle of the plate. On the whole, his swing rate in and out of the zone were both elevated in 2015, suggesting hitters felt more apt to swing with less movement. Maybe the mechanical adjustments help repair that and keep ball down and away, but lets delve deeper into this notion by looking at his zone profile.

Hutchison didn’t exactly throw a higher percentage up and in the zone, but there is a noticeable increase just above the strike zone and in the middle to lower right of the zone. On its own, it doesn’t explain a lot about what Searage is getting at unless he either thinks it’s been a trend throughout Hutchison’s entire career or that the fastball rising up above the zone is the result of the increased vertical movement.

In a lot of the sections in the zone, Hutchison’s surprisingly saw an increase in whiffs, but that was likely more indicative of how badly hitters wanted to attack the pitch than being fooled. Check out his slugging percentage per section:

The seismic shift in slugging percentage in the upper two-thirds of the zone, especially in the two most inside sections, is alarming. So when Searage says Hutchison needs to get it down in the zone, it’s not because Hutchison attacked the zone differently in 2015 but because the decreasing velocity range and movement has opposing hitters destroying his primary option up in the zone.

Final thoughts

The good news is that the wonders the team did with the underachieving J.A. Happ, who boasted one of the top fastballs in the league in 2016, provides some confidence in an improved Drew Hutchison, but it doesn’t always work out so well (e.g. Jon Niese). Regardless, it’s worth noting that Hutchison has a very different fastball than Happ when he arrived on the team.

First of all, Happ is a lefty, so he has a slight advantage that makes up for the slower fastball. His fastball also has a lot of movement. Happ had slightly more vertical movement than Hutchison, but the real difference maker was the 1.5 inches more horizontal movement that pushed away from both right handed batters and the zone (because a fastball is supposed to break towards the arm-side of the pitcher). He also had a lot separation between his sinker and four-seamer, which is not a luxury Hutchison currently has.

Yet, if Searage and company’s direction help restore Hutchison’s velocity range and movement, there’s no reason he can’t put up 2014-type numbers, giving the team a reasonable option at the tail end of their rotation. That would, at least, make him a decent placeholder.