Drew Hutchison Needs His Good Fastball

Breakout candidates are often identified on the pitching side either on the strength of peripheral stats which portend improvement over more conventional numbers, a strong second half, or some demonstrative change in a pitch. Sometimes, the candidates fulfill expectations and make those who stumped for them look like geniuses. Most of the time, however, the players meet their reasonable expectations and everyone moves on to another slew of potential breakouts. Poor seasons by breakout candidates tend not to get noticed, however, but rather ignored. Drew Hutchison spent the first month of the season looking like a breakout candidate that would soon be forgotten. He has spent the last few weeks attempting to turn around a rough start, culminating in a shutout of the White Sox during which he struck out eight without giving up a walk. Hutchison’s fastball has gained some life on it the second month of the season, providing some confidence that a breakout could still be in store.

Hutchison earned the breakout label by meeting many of the characteristics mentioned above. His ERA for Toronto in his first year of starting last year was 4.48, 10th worst in the majors among qualified pitchers, but his peripherals showed something a little better as his FIP was a middle-of-the-pack 3.85 and the difference between his ERA and FIP in 2014 was eighth-highest among qualified pitchers. His 23% strikeout rate was in the top 20, and his walk rate was decent. Hutchison’s peripherals made him look average instead of bad, although that alone is not what made Hutchison a potential breakout candidate.

Hutchison’s strong second half bolstered confidence in the young pitcher. After the All-Star break last year, the 24-year-old struck out 27% of hitters, ranking tenth in MLB, right behind Stephen Strasburg and Madison Bumgarner and just ahead of Felix Hernandez and David Price. He gave up a few too many home runs, but had a decent walk rate and closed out the season very strong, striking out 35% of hitters in September. Hutchison’s slider had become a big weapon, and Jeff Sullivan discussed it over the winter.

The question is, what now? Hutchison was absurdly good after he started exclusively using his slower and bigger-breaking slider. That’s the encouraging bit. He did finish strong, and it does look like a quality breaking ball, visually. Hutchison’s increased confidence in the pitch can’t be written off. On the other hand, there are two things. For one, who’s to say Hutchison’s slider will be so consistent again in 2015? And for two, now teams will have had more of a chance to prepare. The Yankees were caught off guard in August by Hutchison’s breaking ball. They were more successful the next time they met. Players in the league are always adjusting, and adjustments back don’t always happen immediately. There can be a delay, and perhaps, in Hutchison’s case, the word is out that his slider has a lot more consistent depth.

A month into the present season, however, Hutchison wasn’t getting the results he desired, and the peripheral statistics that favored him in 2014 were not nearly as kind. After a May 3rd pummelling against Cleveland, Hutchison’s ERA was 7.47 with a poor 5.19 FIP. He was striking out just 16% of hitters and walking more batters than the previous season. He failed to pitch five innings in four of his six starts, and he was producing fewer swings and misses on the slider that had been so effective for him at the end of last year.

Using the same Brooks Baseball charts Jeff Sullivan used in his post from January with updated information from this year, we can see that the slider for 2015 is not quite the same one he used so effectively last year. Here is the velocity by start:

Brooksbaseball-Chart (1)

Here is the vertical movement by start:

Brooksbaseball-Chart (2)

The slider has not been as sharp as it was last season and he is using it less, but the fastball has also been a problem. After getting hitters to whiff on the pitch 16% of the time at the end of 2014, hitters were swinging and missing at just half that rate in the early part of this season, per Brooks Baseball. Here is a fastball to Adam Jones in his second start of the season.

The pitch was 90 mph over the middle of the plate, and Jones crushed it out of the park. That velocity was typical for Hutchison the first few starts of the season. He’s very dependent on his four-seam fastball, and uses it a majority of the time. In 2014, only Jordan Zimmermann, Phil Hughes, Chris Young, and Shelby Miller used their four-seam fastballs more often than Hutchison’s 59% mark on the season. That usage has only been amplified so far this season: Hutchison’s 68% usage rate on his four-seam fastball ranks third in MLB behind only Gerrit Cole and James Paxton. While potentially overly simplistic, here are Hutchison’s monthly averages for the four-seam fastball velocity as well as monthly FIP since the start of last season.

  FB Velocity FIP
4/14 93.5 3.01
5/14 93.0 4.98
6/14 92.5 3.97
7/14 93.0 3.79
8/14 92.9 3.83
9/14 93.4 3.49
4/15 92.2 5.07
5/15 93.9 2.63

Hutchison’s best three months are also the three months during which he recorded his highest average velocities. The whiff numbers have not gone significantly up this month, but over the last three starts Hutchison has used his fastball and slider in two-strike counts and gotten very good results.

Here he is in the midst of striking out nine Houston Astros, getting good velocity on his fastball.

Striking out a bunch of Astros might not be incredibly impressive given that team’s tendencies, but getting Mike Trout to chase a hard slider out of the zone is not an easy task.

Trout would get his revenge with a single and a home run later in the day, but when Hutchison left the game with two outs in the seventh inning, he had given up just two runs. In his last four starts, Hutchison has pitched 26.2 innings, struck out 28 hitters and walked only four, recording a 2.36 ERA and 2.09 FIP over that interval, capped by a complete game shutout of the White Sox last night.

Here is the slider he threw to strike out Jose Abreu:

In the eighth inning of his Maddux, Hutchison was still able to dial up the velocity on his fastball, getting it up to 94 miles per hour on this strikeout:

Over his last half-season of starts, Hutchison has mixed two very good stretches with one poor one. Unfortunately for Hutchison, the poor stretch came right at the beginning of the season, causing some of the breakout candidate’s luster to wear off. Hutchison is not yet pitching as well as he did at the end of last season, but his fastball has been encouraging. The slider is not as dominant, and he is not using it nearly as much as he did near the end of last season, but as Hutchison’s velocity has shown an increase over his first few starts, the Blue Jays’ righty has gotten better results.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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Jason Lukehart

Thanks for mentioning the Maddux. The Blue Jays now have one in each of the last four seasons, with Marcu Stroman, R.A. Dickey, and Henderson Alvarez having thrown the previous ones.


Shelby Miller has two already this season. Pretty amazing.

Jason Lukehart

Miller is the 19th player since MLB began tracking pitch counts in 1988 to throw multiple Madduxes in the same season.

He’s only the 5th to throw two in the same calendar month: