Giles: Drew Hutchison Is A New Kind of Project For the Pirates

PITTSBURGH – Drew Hutchison has found another opportunity to be a starting pitcher in the major leagues, and fortunately, it’s with a team that has a solid track record in recent years of rejuvenating pitchers’ careers.

That revival will take at least one more start, however, as Hutchison failed to impress on Saturday night in his first Pirates start after being called up from Indianapolis at the end of the Triple-A season. Hutchison’s basic statistics in that start left a lot to be desired: four runs allowed on eight hits in only four innings pitched, though he did have three strikeouts and did not issue a walk.

General Manager Neal Huntington took an optimistic tone about Hutchison’s performance when he met with the media on Sunday afternoon.

“You look at it, and it’s four runs on one walk and one ball hit over 90 MPH. That’s hard to do,” said Huntington. “At the same time, we’ve got to figure out a way to help him not let the ball roll on him, and to figure out how to stop the bleeding at one or two runs.

Huntington was asked by our own Alan Saunders whether Hutchison is a reclamation project — in the mold of A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, or Edinson Volquez — or if he was a mere tweak or two away from consistent success.

“He obviously did things that we had seen in Toronto and liked, and did some things that we had seen and liked in [Triple-A] Buffalo,” said Huntington. “We do think there are some positive signs: the fastball location; the ability to run it up in the zone and get some swings and misses; the ability to locate to both sides.

“The slider was a solid pitch for him, [he’ll] continue to develop a secondary [pitch], but we do still anticipate that with continued time, and effort, and development that he will be in the mix for us next year.”

For his part, pitching coach Ray Searage didn’t give away much about what Hutchison may or may not need to work on in the rest of September, or for next season.

“I’m just letting him go right now, and [we’ll] see what he’s got,” Searage said. “Just watching him warm up [on Saturday], obviously he mixes and matches well, but he’s got to keep the ball down.”

Searage indicated that he needs to see more starts and side sessions with Hutchison, in addition to video review, in order to get a sense of what may need to be corrected. This will obviously make it easier to spot some of the smaller adjustments like we have seen Ivan Nova make since he joined the Pirates.

Same Pattern, Different Pitcher?

It’s obviously challenging to evaluate whether Hutchison’s most optimistic projections align with his performance in just one start, but there are some comparisons to recent salvation stories that we can take a closer look at.

Here are some relevant numbers for pitchers whom I consider to be the most famous of the Ray Searage “reclamation projects” in recent years, with Hutchison included for comparison. The statistics are for the last full year that each pitcher spent with their previous organization(s), including the average K/BB and GB/FB for all starting pitchers that year:

hutchison-comparison

Reading from left to right, there are certainly similarities in the season ERA and FIP for each pitcher. It’s not surprising—nor did it go unnoticed at the time—that the Pirates would target pitchers whose actual runs allowed were higher than what we should have reasonably expected given their peripherals.

However, some obvious divergence begins to show in the K/BB and GB/FB columns. Burnett, Liriano, and Volquez were all well below average at avoiding walks (low K/BB), but were average or better at getting ground balls (higher GB/FB).

Hutchison appears to be the opposite. His K/BB ratio last year was comfortably above the average, and his GB/FB ratio is drastically lower than these three pitchers, and would seem to cut against the Pirates’ strategy of generating ground balls to be vacuumed up by their perfectly placed defenders.

Air Attack

I asked Huntington on Sunday whether he felt Hutchison’s relative inability to generate ground balls was a contributing factor to those heretofore unavoidable big innings. Would Hutchison benefit from being able to get an easy double play with runners on base?

Huntington did not seem particularly concerned about the lack of groundouts. He mentioned that popups (in addition to strikeouts) are even more likely to become outs, and that Hutchison has an above average ability to get popups and other weak contact.

“The challenge is he finds the middle of the plate a little too much, and when he does, he gets hit hard,” Huntington said. “Our belief is that there is some sequencing, some pitch use, that we can help him with — as well as some mechanical things to refine — that will allow him to stay out of the middle of the plate. Because when he’s out of the middle of the plate, he’s very good.”

With respect to popups, Huntington’s perspective does align with the numbers. Hutchison’s infield fly ball rate has increased each year in the majors, and his 12.1% mark last year was well above the average for all starting pitchers (9.5%). It appears that he’s particularly good in this regard against left-handers, with a 15.1% popup rate vs. lefties last season.

It’s certainly trivial to say that a pitcher does well when he avoids the middle of the zone, but the mechanical adjustments Huntington mentioned may dovetail with Clint Hurdle’s comments about Hutchison having an issue when throwing from the stretch. I suspect that will be a primary area of focus for Hutchison over the rest of the season and into Spring Training.

We did get a flash of Hutchison’s potential that fits with Huntington’s perspective. His strikeout of a half-swinging Joey Votto with a perfectly placed 94 MPH fastball on the inside part of the plate had the kind of velocity and location that can only sustain weak contact, if any at all.

Will It Work?

There is certainly a template for pitchers to be successful without generating a lot of ground balls. Two of Hutchison’s teammates in Toronto, Marco Estrada and former Pirate J.A. Happ, have done well the last two years despite ground ball rates below the league average. For what it’s worth, both also have above-average popup rates, with Estrada averaging a very healthy 13.6% over his career

Happ is a more relevant case because we know his success with the Pirates was driven in part by him mostly abandoning his two-seam fastball, a pitch which is usually promoted among Pirates starters. Though the motivation behind that seemed to be to generate more swings-and-misses rather than weak contact.

With one start in the books, Hutchison is not following the same pitch usage plan just yet. He used his two-seam fastball (36.9%) slightly more than his four-seam (31.5%) on Saturday night. That two-seam usage is a big shift from last season, when he used his four-seam more than 55% of the time.

I believe it’s fair to say that Hutchison will be a different sort of project than we’ve seen the Pirates undertake in recent years. He doesn’t neatly fit into the Burnett/Liriano/Volquez mold, and does not seem to be following the same process as Happ.

Two areas to watch going forward will be the pitch usage changes, and his challenges with throwing from the stretch. With Gerrit Cole going on the DL, and the need to monitor Jameson Taillon’s workload, I suspect that we will get at least another opportunity or two to see Hutchison again before the end of the season.

Alan Saunders contributed reporting to this article.

  • A “new type of project” all right – note he gave up a HR in today’s game. What a pathetic trade.

    • It’s good of you to give it so much time. Not even the offseason to see if Searage can help him? He’s only at the point of watching him without making any adjustments.

  • So, let me get this straight. We trade our best catching prospect, our second best OF prospect and a starting pitcher who’d just come off of three very good years, but was having a down year, all for a SP we ‘might’ be able to fix?

    Can we quit trying to ‘sell’ this trade (and Hutchison) and call it for what it was: a salary dump?

    • I don’t think selling or damning the trade was the point of this article.

      • Sorry Ed, but ‘selling’ Hutchison just hits a sore spot with me.

        • Hutchison is on the team. We don’t sell anyone. We report on the players on the team, and that includes Hutchison. The Pirates view Hutchison as a reclamation project. So here’s an article on what could make him a reclamation project, how he’s different from other reclamation projects, all with no sales pitch or any comments that Hutchison will work out.

          • Some reclamation projects make sense. Others, like raising the Titanic, do not. Hutchison is simply not a high upside arm. So he gets reclaimed to what standard? AAA depth to get bombed at the MLB level?

    • When are you going to give up on the salary dump whine and accept the trade for what it was, a Liriano dump. Expected to be a solid #2 he produced a #7 performance and led the team in losses at the time of the trade, while pulling down the highest salary on the staff. Liriano wasn’t fixable because what lead to his demise was a League mandate to remove the low strike. He couldn’t adjust his game, and HE HAD TO GO! Kudos to NH for finding a way to move him, even if it was uusual.

      • My “whine” is more towards the efforts of the FO (and here) in trying to make Hutchison into something worthwhile.

        It is as you say, both a Liriano and a salary dump. And, I agree with the crow in that, the prospects we gave up weren’t all that great, but can we pls quit trying to make Hutchison anything more than he is.

        Heck, Toronto wanted Liriano more than Hutchison ( and they didn’t take long to pull him out of the rotation).

        • OK. Right now Hutchison was a #6 pitcher on a team with a strong MLB staff. In his present condition he could be 4 or 5 on a weak team. Could he help the Pirates make and win in the playoffs? In his present condition, not much. Can he improve? Yes, possibly. So I am neutral about him until we see what he does next season. If he doesn’t improve it won’t be a surprise, but neither will it surprise if it does.

        • The problem here is that it’s not one or the other. It’s both.

          The Pirates saying it was all about Hutchison seems wrong. But then the opposite that it was all about the salary dump is wrong.

          Hutchison has actual value to them. He was a legitimate part of the deal. But it’s hard to argue that this was also about getting salary relief. And it seems if you say it’s partially about salary relief, then there’s no way you can suggest Hutchison has any value.

          • Time,
            I know that Reese McGuire’s offense hadn’t been where they wanted to be at that point , but wouldn’t his defensive potential and ability be worth more than just including him in the deal in your opinion?

            • I’m not sure what you’re asking. Are you saying that his defense, plus the offensive upside would make him more valuable? Or the defense, with no expected offense?

              • Maguire’s defense alone, as described onthis site from the day he was drafted, is in my opinion far more valuable than a bottom of the rotation arm who gets clobbered every time out.

              • Sorry about that. My thoughts are that he was young for his level and while his offensive skills may not have been where the Pirates were hoping it would be, his overall defensive package looked to show he could realistically reach the majors with a chance for the offense to improve. I’m my opinion to include him in this deal. Am I overestimating his potential and totally overlooking what Hutchinson can possibly be? Obviously they see something there as the article points out. Thanks for taking some time . My daughter at the office starts out with Pirates Prospects and a 24oz coffee. It’s a good way to start the day.

                • That’s the view I have of him. The defense will reach the majors, and he’s too young to count out the offense, especially with the positive signs he’s shown.

                  • Sorry about all of the missed words and jumbled text. I used my voice text feature and obviously didn’t check my statement to well after posting.

          • Tim exactly what value does Hutchison have??? If they wanted a pitcher who had average stuff to get shelled on a routine basis and take themselves out of games, they already have plenty of options for that. And to give up, at worst, a solid defensive catcher and then to openly lie and say the dump of Liriano’s salary was really to get Hutchison makes it all even worse. Fans are not as dumb as this FO thinks. And losing to the Phillies again – obviously they could care less about wining at this point.

    • To be fair, Liriano was no longer able to be fixed. You know why? Because he was the exact same pitcher this year he had been for his entire career. The exact same, the difference this year is that hitter weren’t swinging at his pitches outside of the strike zone. When hitters stopped giving him strikes, and he had to throw the ball over the plate, he got hit. Would you really like to see that for another year? Liriano had to be moved, and Toronto was probably the only team willing to take on his contract. So while yes, it is a salary dump, it was made with good cause.
      As for the prospects we gave up, well, McGuire had just OPS’d .667 in AA, and Harold Ramirez is, to this point in his career, a singles hitting corner outfielder.
      Now to Hutchison, if he is useful to the team over the next couple years, even as a 4th or 5th starter, then it may be equal value to what we would have received from Liriano and the prospects combined. If he fails completely, then we will likely lose this trade. I do not believe, however, that we gave up a substantial value in this deal, and the front office probably doesn’t either.

    • He may turn out to do well someday and I hope he does. Your 100 % correct Lee. A straight up salary dump AND THEN we throw in Reese on top of it? It still makes me want to vomit. I was a fan of how things had been going with the FO for the most part until that point. NH can only play Within the rules that ownership gives him but damn that was a really rough trade.

  • This might all be comforting, except Hutchison now has 74 major league starts under his belt and has been a thoroughly mediocre pitcher, if even that. The guys they’ve been successful with all had significant success previously. Searage just needed to get them back to where they were. With Hutchison, he’s expected to turn the guy into something he’s never been before.

    • Are you going by ERA on that, or the advanced metrics?

      Hutchison’s first three years for xFIP were 4.03, 3.82, and 4.21.

      Happ only had one year under a 4.43 from 2007-2013, and that was a 3.92 xFIP in 2012 (his ERA was higher, like Hutchison). Meanwhile, he had years with good ERAs, but poor xFIP numbers. And then he started doing both in 2014, and took a huge step forward with the Pirates in 2015, with his first sub-3.92 xFIP in his career.

      I think the common trend here is that the pitchers all show advanced metrics saying they should be better than their ERAs, and the adjustments made helped get them there, and beyond.

      • True, his first year was 4.03, but that was only in 11 starts. His next year he had that 3.82 xFIP, but since then it has been 4.21 and 4.54.

        All 4 years, his ERA has been well above his FIP and xFIP. After awhile it quits being an aberration and becomes a trend?

        He may indeed, be another reclamation project that we fix, but I ain’t holding my breath.

        Searage can’t fix everyone. See Morton, Charlie and Locke, Jeff.

        • Niese

        • I guess we need to define “fix” here. Morton’s problem was always not being able to stay healthy, and Locke’s realistic projection was always a back-end starter. Both guys put up positive WAR values over their Pirate careers.

          • And realistically, if Hutchison reaches his upside, he will probably never be more than a Charlie Morton or Jeff Locke sort of pitcher. I think expecting more than that would be delusional but, what do I know?

            • Expecting a #1 or #2 quality pitcher to fill the #4 and #5 positions in the rotation would be delusional. It might happen in a blue moon, but it would be an aberration. If Hutchison becomes a #3 at the 4 or 5 slot that would be a terrific win.

              • Whatever you say. I’m not going to argue about how lousy a pitcher Charlie Morton was when he got run out of town.

                When I look at Hutchinson I see a pitcher worse than Jeff Locke is right now. I am willing to admit I may be wrong but I don’t think he will ever be a MLB quality pitcher. Period. I certainly don’t see him as a potential 1, 2, 3 or even 4. And the Pirates already have a bunch of guys equal or better than him.

                I see he just gave up a homer, keeping his ERA for the Pirates at 6.00 or so. What a wonderful acquisition!

            • Morton was a significantly better pitcher than Locke, when he was healthy. If Hutchison turns into the healthy version of Charlie Morton, this is a surefire win for NH.

          • The thing is, Locke was fixed before he came to the majors. When he arrived with the Pirates in High-A, he had horrible control and was very inconsistent. They got him to the point where he could be a back of the rotation starter, which is a pretty good accomplishment. And then they tried to fix him again to make him more, and he took a step back instead.

            But neither were top of the rotation guys, and it seems that’s the definition of “fix” here. And that’s not always the case. It’s not about turning a guy into a top of the rotation guy. It’s about maximizing their ability. It just so happens the guys they’ve brought in before have top of the rotation stuff, and they got that out of them, or close to it.

            • Ok. In your opinion does Huchison have top of the rotation stuff?

              • I haven’t really seen enough of him to know.

                I also don’t think he has to be a top of the rotation guy. Think how much better this team would have been if they had a #3 or a #4 in the #3 or #4 spots this year.

                • What are they thinking starting the year with No. 3, 4 or 5 and a pitcher with a history of volatility as No. 2. NH has been here for 7 – 8 years and this is what he starts the season with following a 98-win year and watching the Cubs load up on talent? Good work!

                • It would have been nice to have a pitcher pitch like a #1 or #2 this year too.

            • locke’s projection when we got him was a #3

        • Morton was…no, wait. On second thought, I’m not having another Charlie Morton discussion.

      • My two cents, if anyone cares…. Due to the unpopular trade and his involvement in it, not his fault, there will be some continued views (perhaps thoughtful) that Hutchison is simply getting lip service on his future ability from the PBC management team. Though he may end up being something special, may be something mediocre, may be something worse it will take results for many/most to view him as a compelling future option to the staff. I liked the article, I also kinda get it, but I’m not sure any article (and certainly this article wasn’t meant to be) will change many minds until he proves it on the field…. Again, just the circumstances and the way I see it, wake me up in July of 2017 on Hutchison 🙂 🙂

        • The trade was unpopular to some, but far from all. We “gave” Liriano to Toronto for $18 mil and had to sweeten the deal for them to take it. The two prospects may make it to the majors in a few years or more, but their chances with Pittsburgh were slim and none. We got Hutchison in return; he may or may not ever make it into the Pirate Rotation. Regardless, still a fair trade in my estimation.

          We took $1.4 mil of that and got Nova to replace Liriano – also having to sweeten the pot with two more prospects whose chances of getting to the majors with the Pirates were also slim and none. A steal. Yep, liked the trade of MM also. There’s a few others I think need to be gone, but that will have to wait until the off-season.

          • I couldn’t agree more on all your points (strange for me as looking for disagreement 🙂 ), and had a similar post(s) at that time, end of the deadline trade stuff timing… But I learned, from my scars, to write posts a bit more understanding to the other side of things, such as my post on this thread 🙂 🙂

          • The trade makes sense if Hutchison turns out to be better than a number 4-5 sort of pitcher, Liriano never turns it around, the prospects they traded never turn into anything, And they actually spend the money they “saved” on something worthwhile. Regardless of how well Nova has pitched, I would argue that whatever money they gave him was wasted this year once the season was gone.

            I question whether any of those things will happen but, I’d certainly admit that I don’t have a crystal ball and that the Pirates organization has proven me wrong in the past. We shall see. On paper the trade looks awful for the organization.

      • I don’t see anything comforting about Hutchison’s xFIPs. They’re not very good, for one thing. For another, some guys DO consistently under- (Liriano) or over-perform (Volquez) their advanced metrics.

        Happ isn’t a very good example because he was only with the Pirates for two months. It’s a stretch to credit them with his current success.

        • Exactly what “stuff” does this guy have that could make him successful? Why waste time analysing this. He’s Mr Financial Flexibility. My bet is that the prospect of his ever being effective at the MLB is next to zero. Dumb trade and big lie by NH trying to justify it.

          • See Glavine.

            • So Hutchison will wind up in the HoF? Please.

            • That wasn’t the point. A pitcher with great command/control can have great success with average MLB “stuff” . The point made in the article is that Hutch does fine if he avoids the middle of the plate (barrel of the bat). So will every pitcher. But maybe Hutch’s stuff is good enough if he controls it better, like a Glavine.

        • He was working on his changes before arriving with the Pirates, and the adjustments he made here really put those changes over the top. They weren’t 100% responsible, but they get credit.

      • So the advanced metrics show he is a bottom of the rotation, league average at best, starter, Not worth giving up McGuire.

        • Have you seen what the trade market looks like for league-average starting pitchers with years of control?

          • Great, the Jason Rogers logic.

            “Boy, Supak and Broxton feels steep for a guy like Rogers”

            “But Michael Morse!”

            If the guy you’re trading for isn’t worth the talent it takes to acquire him *and* doesn’t actually solve the problem you’re intending to fix, then don’t trade for him!

    • Right! Exactly what indication are that Hutchison can be turned around? Is he flashing any plus pitches at all? Or is he on the 40 man so the Pirates can have a pitcher who is sure to get clobbered every time he goes out there. There was simply no justification for giving away Mcguire and Ramirez, none. If they thought Liriano was beyond redemption, then DFA him, pure and simple.

  • So instead of GB/FB rates perhaps we should be looking at (GB+Popup)/(Outfield FB + LD) rates? Or simply soft contact/hard contact rates. I’ll take a semi-wild guess that they actually measure something like this which is what led their interest in Hutchison.

    • Hutchison’s average exit velocity last year was around the league average. He started off well, then hit a rough patch in the 2nd half. His rate of soft contact last year (21.5%) was slightly above the AL average (18.6%). Good location, good velocity, and/or good spin will generate weaker contact, but it’s not a simple thing to tease out exactly which numbers they were targeting.

  • Oh goody, another guy that will have to nip at the plate and rely on a gracious strike zone from the umpire. I thought we took Locke out of the rotation already?

  • Thanks Tim for the update. I think Ray can help him however I am not sure that will make him an effective ML pitcher. Unlike Lirano, Volquez, Happ and Barnett He has really hitable stuff so when he misses his spots the ball goes a long way. Those guys had the luxury of getting outs even when they found the middle of the plate.

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