Collin McHugh Joins the Atlanta Bullpen

© David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

If you think back through the mists of time to last October, the Braves had one calling card on their march to the World Series: a bullpen that answered the bell day after day and either kept them in games or closed the door, depending on the situation. The core four members of that bullpen – Will Smith, Tyler Matzek, Luke Jackson, and A.J. Minter – will return, but some peripheral members of the team’s pitching staff left in free agency, and you can always use more pitching. To that end, Atlanta signed Collin McHugh today:

As far as I’m concerned, the terms of the deal – two years and $10 million, with an additional team option for $5 million net of buyout – are an incredible deal for the defending champions. McHugh was one of the best relievers in baseball last year on a rate basis, and he’s getting less this year than Brad Hand, who bounced through three teams on his way to a below-replacement-level season.

I could just tell you that McHugh looks like a good bet to provide strong relief work, but I’ll do slightly better than that. As Jon Tayler noted in our free agent preview, McHugh made one key change to his pitch mix in 2021: he rediscovered an old friend. He threw his cutter 33% of his time, a rate he hadn’t approached since he was a full-time starter in 2016. In addition to that, he maxed out on slider usage; he threw it 52.9% of the time, by far a career high. He was essentially a cutter/slider pitcher, with the occasional four-seamer mixed in for the element of surprise.

McHugh’s cutter is a strange one; he releases it from a three-quarters arm slot, but its cutting action gives it enough spin that it breaks to his glove-side. That provides a sharp counterpoint to his four-seamer; if he started the two pitches aimed at the same spot, they would end up about six inches apart horizontally when they crossed home plate. That’s an unnatural look for hitters who see his arm slot and expect a tailing fastball. Painting the corner with a pitch that looks like it will stay outside is a great way to freeze lefties:

McHugh also ran a high swinging strike rate with his cutter, because it just moves a lot differently than you’d expect. Let’s use a freeze frame from that pitch to Kyle Schwarber to show why hitters had trouble with it. When a pitcher throws from this arm angle and a hitter picks up a fastball, they simply don’t expect the ball to sink (relative to his four-seamer) and cut the way his does:

I’m not sure the pitch will be as good this year as it was in 2021, but the numbers don’t lie: batters did a poor job of even making contact against it, and when they did, they hit either a pop up or a grounder more than half the time, roughly the same mark as Corbin Burnes’ cutter.

If the cutter was McHugh’s key change, the thing he kept constant was even better. His slider is probably his best pitch, and throwing it more than half the time hasn’t sapped its effectiveness at all. It’s one of those giant, horizontal sliders that are all the rage these days; “sweepers” if you’re into new pitch names. It does this to a lot of good hitters, so don’t feel bad, Eloy Jiménez:

It might sound reductive, but that’s basically the Collin McHugh story. A cutter here, a slider there, and pretty soon you’re racking up real value. Freed of the need to throw a four-pitch mix to get through a lineup two or three times, he attacked – and attacked, and attacked – with his two best pitches and found success.

How will that work in the Atlanta bullpen? Exceedingly well, I presume. That bullpen looks downright unfair this year; in addition to retaining the four arms who carried them through the postseason and adding McHugh, the Braves signed Kirby Yates to a rehab-and-return deal (two years, $8.25 million with a team option as he recovers from TJ). That’s six deep with good, versatile relievers, and McHugh frequently worked multi-inning stints with Tampa Bay, which gives Brian Snitker even more flexibility in deploying his bullpen.

When Yates is back to full strength, the Braves will feature six relievers with ERA projections below 4.00. Only the Dodgers, Padres, and Rays have more such depth – the White Sox are tied with Atlanta until they follow through on their stated desire to trade Craig Kimbrel. That kind of bullpen makes load management much easier; if you want to give two of your good relievers a day off, there are more where those came from if the game gets tight.

It’s hardly a surprise that McHugh ended up choosing Atlanta. He grew up in Georgia, going to high school in the same county as the Braves’ Triple-A team before attending Berry College in nearby Rome, Georgia. He lives in Atlanta in the offseason. The Braves have prioritized signing Georgians in recent years – Smith, Dansby Swanson, Drew Waters, and Matt Olson, just to name a few – and it’s hard to imagine a more comfortable situation than playing baseball in the town you want to live in anyway.

As good of a fit as the Braves are for McHugh, he might be an even better fit for the team. He and Yates bring needed right-handed balance to the bullpen, and the Braves will likely give their relievers plenty of work, as the rotation is long on five-and-dive types. Want to give a starter a cushion before coming into the game? McHugh opened seven games for the Rays last year. Need an extra inning? He went more than an inning 25 times. It’s a match made in heaven – or, as so many of the Braves’ are these days, in Atlanta.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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David Kleinmember
6 months ago

McHugh getting less than Familia and Hand are getting is hilarious— I figured he’d get around eight mil per year and he got just ten mil combined, crazy. I’m sure teams offered him more but he went to school in Atlanta so that may be why he signed with the Braves. The Braves are having a tremendous offseason unfortunately.

Last edited 6 months ago by David Klein
6 months ago
Reply to  David Klein

He also lives in Atlanta in the offseason and his wife has a business there, just a few blocks from the Braves former home at Turner Field. I’m sure that all played a factor, as well as the opportunity to get a 2-year deal with an option for a 3rd.

6 months ago
Reply to  David Klein

This signing, along with Diekman’s, just really makes me shake my head at the Phillies FO. At least with bullpen signings. I can’t say they didn’t try, I can’t call them cheap but I also don’t see any actual improvement. Atlanta on the other hand, while this is one shrewd signing.