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The Breaking of Daniel Hudson

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Daniel Hudson is having among the worst months ever by a Diamondbacks pitcher. Considering how good he was to that point, it's a real surprise.

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Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

It's easy to point to a specific date when Daniel Hudson "broke": June 22. Here are his figures before and since that point.

G IP H R ER BB SO HR ERA OPS BABIP
Through June 21 30 29.0 13 5 5 9 24 2 1.55 .463 .155
Since June 22 10 6.2 23 21 16 4 4 2 21.60 1.468
.563

The change in results is drastic and obvious. Up until June 21, Hudson was turning all hitters into little more than starting pitchers at the plate. But after that point, batters have been clubbing him around harder than Barry Bonds at his very peak (2004 = OPS 1.422). Literally, in the case of Edwin Encarnacion's 471-foot home-run yesterday afternoon at Chase, which was both the longest hit by a Blue Jay and the longest allowed by a Diamondback this season. Hudson has allowed as many hits in his last 6.2 innings as he did over the precdeding 40.1, covering 43 appearances dating back to September 5 last year.

BABIP

As you can see, this is certainly a factor, with well over half the balls in play during Huddy's recent stretch turning into hits. That's a radical departure from earlier, when the figure was less than one in six. This is regression, to some extent, with Hudson's overall BABIP for the season now being .291, basically indistinguishable from the NL average of .299. And he said, "I expected some regression from early on in the season because everything was getting caught It kind of went from one end of the spectrum to the other. It kind of went from everything getting caught to missing barrels to not missing many barrels and nothing’s getting caught. It’s just how baseball is."

Line-drives

But there's more to it than simply numbers evening out. Daniel hints at this he says he has gone from "missing barrels to not missing barrels." Hudson has been giving up line-drives at a truly ferocious rate. Over those first 30 games, his line-drive rate was 25%, again very close to the NL average (26%). But in the most recent ten games, that has doubled to a line-drive rate of 50%, which is undeniably a huge factor in the elevated BABIP, since line-drives are far more likely to become hits than ground- or fly-balls. He's allowing a lot more hard-hit balls: that stat has ballooned from 10.7% in April, to 25.9% in May and 36.1% in June.

A physical problem?

It is notable that the "Zero Day" for Hudson's struggles came immediately after he pitched on a third consecutive day for the first time in his career, during a period where he worked five games in six days. On the other hand, none of those appearances should have been over taxing, since he threw 15 or fewer pitches each time. But you are dealing with an elbow that has gone through Tommy John surgery, not once but twice. There aren't many of those around, and it would seem foolish to expect Huddy's limb to behave and react to any given workload, exactly the same way as a "normal" arm.

Chip Hale appears to belief there is no physical problem, and in terms of raw velocity, the numbers appear to back him up. Over the first 30 games, Hudson's average fastball was coming in at 96.42 mph. During the period of his struggles, that has actually increased a few tenths, to 96.75 mph. So if there is an issue, it's not apparently showing itself in Daniel throwing any less hard.

A mental problem?

We're getting into the realm of pure speculation here. There are no stats at which we can look, to tell us anything specific about where Hudson's head is at. However, two possible distractions stand out. Hudson went on the bereavement list due to the death of his grandmother at the beginning of July. We don't know when exactly she passed away, if it was sudden or after a long illness, or how close Hudson was to her.

The other potential issue is the looming prospect of Hudson being traded. No-one has been with the team longer, Huddy having bled Sedona Red since his trade from the White Sox at the deadline in July 2010. Of course, he has been saying the right things about a potential departure from Arizona, whether in trade or in his impending free-agency. "I’d love to come back and be here for the long run when everything is clicking for us. But I think I’ve heard (Ziegler) say that you maybe get one chance to get to this point in your career and get a pretty good payday. I’ve got to take advantage of it if it comes to that point and do what’s best for my family."

Could his subconscious be attempting to sabotage any trade? Seems like a stretch, particularly given that this would also be shooting in the foot, chances of the "pretty good payday" mentioned Certainly, Hudson seems at a loss for explanations. At the end of June, he said, "The only thing I can point to really is I’m not really making very good two-strike pitches. I’m leaving some balls up and getting some base hits. I’m at a loss for words for kind of how it flipped for me from one extreme to the other."

A mechanical change

Might there be more than sheer velocity involved? To look into that possibility, I used the tools at BrooksBaseball.net to analyze Hudson repertoire of pitches, before and after June 22. The chart below breaks things down by pitch-type: four-seam, change and slider (there was one pitch classified as a "sinker", which has been omitted!). The first line refers to the period through June 21, when Hudson was effective; the second, his appearances since then, when he has struggled. The last four columns show the average horizontal and vertical movement of the pitch, and the average horizontal and vertical release points.

Pitch Type Count Freq Velo (mph) pfx HMov (in.) pfx VMov (in.) H. Rel (ft.) V. Rel (ft.)
Fourseam 339 60.86% 96.42 -5.34 8.28 -2.39 5.53
123 66.85% 96.75 -4.65 7.68 -2.62 5.46
Change 104 18.67% 85.66 -10.48 6.13 -2.2 5.45
40 21.74% 86.93 -10.58 5.57 -2.52 5.39
Slider 113 20.29% 86.86 -0.41 1.69 -2.33 5.54
21 11.41% 87.62 -0.2 1.91 -2.66 5.47

A couple of things I see here. Hudson has moved away from using his slider, almost halving its frequency of use recently. While his fastball velocity remains up, his change-up has increased even more. Generally, pitchers want a big gap between those pitches' velocities, to increase their effectiveness, but with Hudson, the difference has declined somewhat, from 10.8 mph to 9.8 mph. There does also appear to be a change in his horizontal release point: we see this has shifted for all his pitches, and if we plot this by month across the entire season, we do see it seems be trending.

The lack of strikeouts

Over the past month, Hudson has just four strikeouts in 46 batters faced: an 8.7% strikeouts rate, which matches his walk-rate. That compares to his "good" stretch, when his K-rate was 21.4%, and the walk-rate was about the same as recently, at 8.0% Where have his strikeouts gone? It seems that his four-seamer and slider aren't fooling anyone at all of late. Batters have whiffed on those only 5.7% and 4.8% of the time they've been thrown in the past month: prior to Zero Day, those same figures were 9.1% and 15.9% respectively. This may explain why he has moved away from the slider, because it has been getting hit.

Over at Inside the 'Zona, a few days ago, Ryan Morrison dug into this particular topic: He concluded the change in release points may "have been a deliberate adjustment to shift just a bit of the stress of pitching away from his elbow, to his shoulder. It seemed to pay dividends with whiffs last season, but... whether Huddy’s step back with control as a reliever is due to his velocity spike or to the release point is anyone’s guess." And that's part of the problem in trying to analyze from the outside. It's a black box with many of the inputs hidden out of view, We don't know what effect, say, Mike Butcher is having on Hudson's pitch usage, mechanics, etc.

The way forward

Hudson certainly hasn't done his trade value any good over the past month, which has seen his ERA for the season explode from 1.55 to 5.30. The former figure could have netted us some good prospects from a contending club in need of relief help. Right now, he seems more like a reclamation project, and it would take a brave club to trade for Hudson, and use him in high-leverage situations during a pennant race. It wouldn't surprise me if there are, in effect, no real takers for Hudson, and he ends up staying with the D-backs for the second half of the season.

This would then, in effect, become Hudson's audition for a spot in the 2017 Diamondbacks bullpen. If he shows he can recover to anything approaching his first-half form, then he can be a useful component, and may even become the closer - Tyler Clippard is the obvious alternative there. However, we also have a number of younger, cheaper alternatives, even if they have also had their share of struggles this year. Enrique Burgos, Silvino Bracho and Jake Barrett are among the names who may be under consideration for high-leverage work next year, so it's up to Hudson to show he can still perform at the necessary level to deserve a new contract.

Fingers crossed he can, because when Hudson is right, he can be thoroughly dominant, and givethe team a real flamethrower out of the bullpen, something they haven't had in quite some time.