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:
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.
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.