Barnett: What Has Gone Wrong This Year For Daniel Hudson?

Since the Pirates most recent blown lead, there’s been significant chatter about the need to supplant incumbent closer Tony Watson with Felipe Rivero. As Tim pointed out yesterday in his piece on the bullpen’s issues, the solution is not as simple as that.  More precisely, he wrote: “The Pirates can’t just continue the current approach and do nothing. But there’s no easy fix here. Moving Felipe Rivero to the closer role just strengthens the 9th inning, while weakening the earlier innings. It makes it less likely that the lead will be blown in the 9th, but also less likely that the lead will ever get to Rivero.”

The reality is that there just isn’t enough depth in the bullpen as is reflected by the revolving door they’ve had at the back of the group. It just underwent another change as Johnny Barbato was sent down to Indianapolis, with Dovydas Neverauskas taking his place. Outside of Edgar Santana, there aren’t any other appealing alternatives.  What the Pirates need is for the current relievers they already have on the roster to adjust and put it together if they want to contend for a playoff spot.

When Daniel Hudson signed with Pittsburgh this offseason, there was thought that he could eventually become the team’s closer, yet he’s struggled to handle even situations that aren’t high leverage, allowing at least one run in 7 of his first 16 appearances this season.  It isn’t that two-time Tommy John surgery recipient was a surefire bet, but the miserable 5.55 ERA isn’t close to the performance the Pirates were hoping for after he flashed solid peripherals the last two seasons.

Considering the Pirates have him inked to a contract through 2018, I thought it would worthwhile to explore if there are any signs of hope or grave concern in the underlying stats or Hudson’s mechanics.

An Unexpected Change

One of the first things you look for when a pitcher disappoints is whether the velocity is still there. For Hudson, there has been a slight decline in his four-seamer, which has been registering a full tick lower on average than 2016, and his slider, which is down a couple of ticks.  Interestingly, the slider has gotten better at the lower velocity, limiting opposing hitters to a sensational -53 wRC+, but the fastball took a noticeable step backwards.

Regardless, I moved onto his release point, and in doing so, I noticed something quite peculiar.  Look at the chart from this season:

Chart: Fangraphs

I can tell you this was certainly not what I was looking for when I pulled up the chart; normally, you’ll look to see if there is a discernible variance between the different pitches in a player’s repertoire.  Any significant variance of that kind typically means a pitcher is struggling to conceal his pitches, giving the batter an immediate advantage.  That is not a major problem for Hudson even though he’s not displaying a particularly sharp spread.

Instead, Hudson has two distinct clumps centered approximately a full inch apart, which is usually indicative of a mechanical change, suggesting that we should review if that’s crux of his issues this season.

Moving towards a Shorter Arm Path

Not long after I started digging into the issue at hand, I stumbled across a couple of pieces outlining  a change Hudson made upon his second return from Tommy John surgery. Nick Piecoro of USA Today spoke with Hudson around that time and recorded Hudson’s words on the matter, writing, “I used to have a lot of lag in my arm and that would help with my deception and stuff, but it really wasn’t good for my elbow — obviously, two surgeries later,” he said. “It’s still a work in progress.”

Quite frankly, it’s incredible that he’s been able to battle back from two surgeries on the elbow because it normally marks the end for pitchers, so it makes a great deal of sense for him to alter his mechanics to protect the elbow. After all, a small decrease in movement and deception is much better than thriving for a brief time only to open to up yourself to injury again.

Anyways, the second article is by Eno Sarris and focuses on documenting the change on video.

Immediately, it sticks out how far behind his head that Hudson brings the ball before whipping the arm forward.  While this can conceal the pitch more (as Hudson alluded to) and add increased movement, it also puts a ton of stress on the elbow.  Meanwhile, the second GIF is taken after Hudson returns a second time from surgery, and in it, there is a distinguishable difference in arm action as he throws with a shorter arm path to decrease the drag on the elbow.

If you’re not one for the video analysis and prefer the cold hard stats, he also includes this chart.

I hope this seems familiar because it is practically the spitting image of the chart we saw earlier, confirming the notion that Daniel Hudson has been playing with his mechanics in season.  Considering the impact the old mechanics had on his elbow, this may be an alarming development, so let’s explore the progression he’s made.

Hudson’s 2017 Arm Action

After pouring through his game charts to try and determine when he’s used each throwing motion, I found that he used the old release exclusively for the month of April and up until his May 5th appearance. That span of time corresponded with a 7.82 ERA and a .339/.403/.509 that surely was far from what Hudson intended when reverting to his old mechanics.

Rather than abruptly change the mechanics, he gradually began to mix in the “post injury” arm path, but he hasn’t exclusively moved to those mechanics.  On the contrary, he continues to mix them regularly, and I honestly can’t think of single pitcher that regularly uses this strategy. Nevertheless, it’s been effective as Hudson has looked like a different pitcher since May 8th, holding hitters around the Mendoza Line and putting up a stellar 2.84 ERA.

I imagine hitters are having quite a difficult time trying to recognize the possible pitches by release because on any given pitch since Hudson is working across a wide margin.  Furthermore, the different release driven by the arm path also varies the movement on his pitches.  For examples, take a gander at this chart illustrating the range of horizontal movement on his four-seamer by game.

Beginning with that May 8th appearance, the four-seamer has armside run anywhere from 2 inches to 8 inches.  How is a hitter supposed to know how the fastball is going to behave when it varies like that?  Or how can he adjust when the next time he see Hudson, the pitch doesn’t something entirely different?

And it’s not just the four-seamer that is doing this.

Final thoughts

Even if it’s been a little under the radar and in lower leverage situation, Hudson has bounced back with this strange strategy, and while that is great to see for the Pirates, this is a dangerous strategy for Daniel Hudson. For one, I’m not sure how difficult it will be to maintain both releases without bouts of inconsistency, but that isn’t even the most serious concern. It’s that this very arm action is probably putting increased stress back on that twice surgically repaired elbow, and as we mentioned earlier, the list of guys who have successfully returned from two Tommy John surgeries is short enough.  You don’t come back from three, and neither the Pirates or Daniel Hudson want to see it to come that.