Dakota Hudson, Groundball Enthusiast

© Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Dakota Hudson shouldn’t be this good. It’s hard to analyze baseball, and pitchers are good for all sorts of difficult-to-comprehend reasons, but look at his numbers. It shouldn’t work. His career strikeout rate is a lackluster 17.2%. He walks more than 10% of the batters he faces. Either of those numbers would be alarming; both together is a recipe for trouble.

Naturally, Hudson is off to another roaring start. His 3.29 ERA is actually worse than his career mark, and it’s still 17% better than league average in this low-scoring year. He’s outperforming every available peripheral by miles – just like he always has. Three-hundred-and-fifteen innings into his major league career, his stat line will make you question what you know about ERA estimators. His FIP is a so-so 4.56. It’s not some home run rate fluke, either; his xFIP is exactly the same. SIERA clocks him at 4.96. xERA, the Statcast version of an ERA estimator, is right in line with everything else at 4.55. And yeah… his career ERA is 3.17. So let’s investigate what the heck is going on.

Let’s start in the obvious place: BABIP. If you find a pitcher who’s allowing far more or far fewer runs than expected, how he does on balls in play is a likely culprit. Lo and behold, Hudson has a career .258 BABIP allowed, and a .259 mark this year. We solved it! Except, I have one relevant variable to add. Hudson pitches for the Cardinals:

BABIP by Batted Ball Type
Type Hudson STL MLB
GB .209 .216 .241
LD .659 .616 .620
FB .078 .086 .098

That’s batted ball data for the last two years, and it’s safe to say that the Cardinals are making Hudson look good out there. They have the best infield defense in baseball, full stop. Over the last two years, they’re 38 outs above average (the equivalent of 29 runs) on the infield, the best mark in the game. Hudson himself has benefited from four extra outs of infield defense this year per Baseball Savant. If you have a good defense, you should use it, and Hudson does exactly that. He’s not quite Framber Valdez, but he’s fifth among pitchers with 50 or more innings pitched in groundball rate, and second only to Valdez for groundball rate by a starter since his 2018 debut.

Okay, so we’ve figured out one way that Hudson succeeds: by keeping the ball on the ground and letting his team do the work. There’s more to that skill, as well. Across the majors, teams have converted 30.9% of their double play opportunities – grounders hit with less than two outs and a runner on first. Hudson clocks in at a cool 40.6%, with the Cardinals as a whole right around league average. But more importantly, he gives himself more bites at the apple by getting grounders all the time with a runner on first.

Do you know how valuable a double play is? I ran the numbers. So far this year, teams have scored an average of 0.9 runs in an inning when they send a batter to the plate with a man on first and no one out. That excludes the last inning of the game, so that walk-offs don’t impact the total.

Getting one out on a groundball is nice – with a runner on first and one out, teams have only scored 0.53 runs. Turn a double play, though, and you’re living large. With no one on and two outs, teams have scored only 0.09 runs per inning this year. And since a double play is a real possibility when you coax the batter into a grounder, just getting that grounder does a lot of work. When the batter hits a grounder with a runner on first and no one out, batting teams have scored 0.76 runs in the inning.

Here’s a table of how many runs are saved, on average, by getting a grounder in every base/out state in 2022:

Scoring by Base/Out State, 2022
Runners Outs RE Grounder RE Difference
0 0.49 0.45 -0.04
1– 0 0.90 0.76 -0.14
12- 0 1.52 1.41 -0.11
123 0 2.46 2.23 -0.23
1-3 0 1.79 1.89 0.10
-2- 0 1.17 1.09 -0.08
-23 0 1.92 1.97 0.05
–3 0 1.18 1.29 0.11
1 0.26 0.21 -0.05
1– 1 0.53 0.41 -0.12
12- 1 0.95 0.71 -0.24
123 1 1.57 1.20 -0.37
1-3 1 1.20 1.15 -0.05
-2- 1 0.71 0.63 -0.08
-23 1 1.42 1.60 0.18
–3 1 0.94 0.99 0.05
2 0.09 0.05 -0.04
1– 2 0.20 0.14 -0.06
12- 2 0.47 0.29 -0.18
123 2 0.82 0.63 -0.19
1-3 2 0.50 0.44 -0.06
-2- 2 0.32 0.27 -0.05
-23 2 0.58 0.51 -0.07
–3 2 0.38 0.24 -0.14

That’s a big table, but I highlighted the situations where a grounder is best. If you’re a worm-burner on the mound, you’ll be better than average in those situations, because your batted ball mix will have a ton of double plays – most of the best situations for grounders involve a runner on first and less than two outs.

In those situations, Hudson ups his grounder-heavy game even further. He’s induced grounders on 44% of such plate appearances this year, and 42.5% for his career. League-wide, pitchers coax grounders in only 31% of such situations. Hudson has already had this general setup – runner on first, less than two outs – 59 times this year. That’s an extra six grounders, an extra six chances to turn a bad spot into an inning-swinging defensive gem.

There’s more good news, too, depending on your definition of good. Hudson’s biggest weakness is his elevated walk rate. Walking a batter guarantees a runner on first base, naturally. That means that Hudson’s biggest weakness gives his greatest strength – all those grounders – more chances to shine.

Is it enough to keep his ERA so sterling while he struggles to get free outs via a strikeout? Nope! Even if you give the Cardinals defense maximum credit for extra outs and Hudson maximum credit for inducing double plays, that only accounts for roughly a third of the gap between his actual run prevention numbers and his ERA estimators. But that’s a big tailwind anyway – take a pitcher with otherwise league-average peripherals and spot them Hudson’s groundball rate with runners on and an excellent defense, and they’d allow four to five runs fewer than a completely average pitcher in a full season. That adds up – save four runs here and four runs there, and pretty soon you’re talking about a playoff berth.

Hudson mixes his pitches to maximize this effect. He throws 41.4% sinkers overall – and more than 50% sinkers when there’s a runner on first and less than two outs. That’s not a great way to strike people out – Hudson’s sinker almost never misses bats, and rarely generates bad swings – but it’s just what the doctor ordered if you’re going for a grounder rather than a strikeout. The pitch boasts a 63.4% groundball rate, and you basically can’t hit it for a home run; he’s thrown 2,339 sinkers in the majors, and 14 have turned into homers.

Will Dakota Hudson keep beating the odds, preventing runs at a premium rate despite uninspiring raw numbers? I don’t think so. But I do think he’ll continue to do better than his FIP implies. For the Cardinals, and for Hudson, walks just aren’t as bad as you’d think. They might set you up to do the one thing you’re best at.

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

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3 months ago

It’s amazing, but with runners on first base only, not only does Hudson’s GB% go up, but also his % hit hard and % hit up the middle. To top it off, his walk rate goes on the decline. In his career, over 254 PA, he has induced 40 double plays with a runner on first and less than 2 out, or 15.4% of these situations. Albert Pujols has had a 14.6% GIDP rate in these situations in his career, so Hudson is basically getting the average hitter to get doubled up at a higher rate than the all-time GIDP king.

One more thing, with runners in scoring position, Hudson walks more batters than he strikes out, but induces weak contact to the tune of a career .214 BABIP (314 PA). While the Cards’ defense certainly deserves a ton of credit, I’d also have to bet that he and Molina have put together a very well-thought out game plan for approaching hitters differently in different base/out situations.