JAWS and the 2021 Hall of Fame Ballot: Tim Hudson

The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2021 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot, and other candidates in the series, use the tool above; an introduction to JAWS can be found here. For a tentative schedule and a chance to fill out a Hall of Fame ballot for our crowdsourcing project, see here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

At the turn of the millennium, on the heels of six straight sub-.500 seasons, the Oakland A’s enjoyed a competitive renaissance. From 2000 to 2003, they averaged 98 wins per year, good for a .606 winning percentage that ranked second in the majors, an eyelash behind the Mariners (also .606 but with one more win in that span). They made the playoffs in all four of those seasons, three by winning the AL West, and they did it all despite shoestring budgets that regularly placed their payrolls among the majors’ bottom half-dozen. The ability of general manager Billy Beane to exploit market inefficiencies in crafting a low-cost roster gained fame via Michael Lewis’ 2003 book Moneyball, but underplayed in a tale that emphasized on-base percentage, defense, and quirky, misfit players was a homegrown trio of starting pitchers — Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito — who were central to the A’s success. Drafted out of college, the “Big Three” asserted their spots among the AL’s top pitchers despite a lack of overpowering stuff.

The oldest of trio was Hudson, a skinny, undersized righty (generally listed at 6-foot-1 and 160 pounds) who relied on his low-90 sinkerball to generate a ton of groundballs, as well as a diving split-fingered fastball, slider, and change-up to miss bats and keep hitters off balance. An Alabama native who was drafted out of Auburn University in the sixth round in 1997, Hudson reached the majors just two years later, and quickly emerged as a frontline starter able to shoulder annual workloads of 200-plus innings, belying his modest frame. In a 17-year career with the A’s (1999-2004) and later the Braves (2004-13) and Giants (2014-15), Hudson helped his teams reach the postseason nine times, but both the pitcher and those teams experienced more than their share of hard luck in October. Only at his final stop, in San Francisco, did Hudson’s teams even make it to the League Championship Series, but in 2014, he was a key component of the Giants’ World Series-winning squad.

Though he made four All-Star teams, received Cy Young consideration in four seasons, and won well over 200 games while cracking his league’s ERA and WAR leaderboards seven times apiece, Hudson does not have an especially strong case for Cooperstown, particularly once one looks beyond the superficial numbers. While he’s expected to receive a smattering of support from BBWAA voters in a year where the ballot traffic is comparatively minimal relative to recent cycles, he might not even draw the 5% needed to remain on the ballot. Even so, his outstanding career is worthy of review.

2021 BBWAA Candidate: Tim Hudson
Pitcher Career WAR Peak WAR JAWS
Tim Hudson 57.9 38.3 48.1
Avg. HOF SP 73.3 50.0 61.6
222-133 2,080 3.49 120
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Hudson was born on July 14, 1975 in Columbus, Georgia, but he grew up on five acres of land in nearby Salem, Alabama (population: 6,428), which he described as having “one four-way stop sign in the middle of town.” His father, Ronnie Hudson, was a supervisor at a company that made cereal boxes, while his mother, Sue, was a housewife. Hudson began playing baseball in a cow pasture with his friends, and graduated to Dixie Youth ball in Phenix City, Alabama, right on the Alabama/Georgia border, at age eight. His first attempt at pitching didn’t go well; via Sports Illustrated’s Jeff Pearlman, nine-year-old “Little Timmy” walked the first four batters he faced, and hit two others while lasting just an inning. “I was terrible,” Hudson told Pearlman in 2000, “but I didn’t care. I loved it.”

Hudson didn’t take the mound again until he was a junior at Glenwood High School, having developed into an excellent hitter while playing shortstop and center field. Though he stood only 5-foot-11 and weighed 145 pounds, he also played cornerback on the football team. Still, it was baseball that he excelled at while helping Glenwood to state championships during his junior and senior years. As a senior, he went 9-0 with an 0.46 ERA and 107 strikeouts, plus a .475 batting average with eight homers and 16 steals. College coaches ignored him, however, as “Too small, too light, too unknown,” in the words of his high school coach, Russ Martin.

Hudson enrolled at Phenix City’s Chattahoochee Valley Community College, where he turned into one of the nation’s best junior college players while pitching and DHing, earning Division II All-American honors twice. After his freshman year, the A’s drafted him in the 35th round, but he opted not to sign. During his sophomore year, Division I schools such as Florida State, Mississippi State, Alabama, and Auburn came calling; Hudson chose the last of those, and after learning a split-fingered fastball and dropping down from an over-the-top delivery to a three-quarters one, he became one the best two-way players in college history. Regarding the splitter, here’s what he told Eno Sarris in 2014:

“I was just messing around in the bullpen one day before a game, threw a couple because I didn’t have a change-up, threw it in the game a couple times, and got some swings and misses. I’ve been throwing it ever since, and it’s gotten better every year.”

Hudson went undrafted as a junior in 1996, but as a senior in 1997, he went 15-2 with a 2.97 ERA and 165 strikeouts on the mound, and hit .396 with 18 homers and 95 RBI as a center fielder. The performance earned him SEC Player of the Year, an unprecedented two-position spot on the All-SEC team (pitcher and outfielder) and consensus All-American honors. The A’s drafted him again in the sixth round, and signed him for a bonus of just $22,500, less than one-tenth of what overall number one pick Matt Anderson received from the Tigers.

Despite Hudson’s size, the A’s chose to develop him as a pitcher, and after encouraging him to raise his arm slot a bit, he overcame a bout of elbow inflammation that had cropped up during the SEC tournament; as a result, his fastball climbed from 87-91 mph to 90-94. The 21-year-old righty began his professional career at Southern Oregon of the Northwest League, where he struck out 37 hitters in 28.1 innings. After learning a change-up from minor league pitching coordinator Rick Peterson that fall, Hudson rocketed through High-A Modesto and spent most of his age-22 season at Double-A Huntsville. His performance there was rough (4.54 ERA, 4.7 BB/9), but he dominated Double-A hitters at the start of the 1999 season, this time at Midland of the Texas League. After he did the same to Triple-A hitters at Vancouver, the A’s called him up in early June.

The A’s had fallen upon hard times following their 1988-92 success under Tony La Russa, finishing under .500 annually from 1993-98, with dreadful attendance and minimal payrolls. But with a core that included emerging homegrown stars Jason Giambi, Eric Chavez, and Miguel Tejada, they were on the rise, having improved from 65-97 in 1997, their second year under manager Art Howe, to 74-88 in ’98. They were 29-27 when Hudson made his debut against the Padres on June 8, 1999. Though he allowed three runs in five innings, he struck out 11 — tied for the second-highest total among all pitchers who debuted between 1972 and 2009 (Steve Woodward had 12 in his July 28, 1997 debut).

The rookie Hudson pitched very well, lasting at least seven innings in 11 of his 21 starts while going 11-2 with a 3.23 ERA, 132 strikeouts, and 3.9 WAR in 136.1 innings. The A’s won 87 games and finished second in the AL West, while Hudson finished fifth in the AL Rookie of the Year voting, won by Carlos Beltrán. Both he and the A’s fared even better the following season. Joined in mid-April by Mulder, the number two pick of the 1998 draft out of Michigan State, and in late July by Zito, the number nine pick of the ’99 draft out of the University of Southern California, the 24-year-old Hudson headed a fortified rotation that was backed by a particularly potent offense that powered the team to 91 wins and the AL West title.

Receiving a gaudy 6.4 runs per game of support, Hudson went 20-6 despite a 4.14 ERA (113 ERA+). He made his first All-Star team, tied David Wells for the league lead in wins, placed ninth in ERA and 10th in WAR (4.0), and finished a very distant second behind unanimous winner Pedro Martinez in the Cy Young voting. In August, he got some security in the form of a four-year, $9.1 million extension that included a club option for 2005. Taking the ball in the postseason for the first time in Game 3 of the Division Series against the defending champion Yankees, he turned in a solid effort, allowing four runs (three earned) but taking the loss in an eight-inning complete game. The A’s lost the series in five games.

Hudson and the A’s continued to improve. The team went 102-60 in 2001, claiming the AL Wild Card spot (the 116-win Mariners won the division), and he went 18-9 with a 3.37 ERA (129 ERA+); his 235 innings placed second in the AL, his win total fourth, his ERA fifth, his 181 strikeouts sixth, and his 4.5 WAR ninth. He placed a distant sixth in the AL Cy Young voting while Mulder, who’d gone 21-8 with a 3.45 ERA and 5.6 WAR, was the runner-up to Roger Clemens. Facing the Yankees in the Division Series again, Hudson spun eight shutout innings in a Game 2 win – the only postseason W of his career, as it would turn out — but gave up a crucial solo homer to David Justice in relief of Mulder in Game 5 as the A’s were again eliminated.

The A’s won the AL West again in both 2002 (103-59) and ’03 (96-66), and Hudson improved his run prevention in both seasons, posting a 2.98 ERA (sixth in the league) in the former year and 2.70 (second) in the latter. From an advanced stat standpoint, those were the two best years of his career, but he was an afterthought in the Cy Young voting, not that he had a real claim on winning. His 145 ERA+ and 6.9 WAR (fourth) in 2002 were completely overshadowed by Zito, who rode a 23-5 record and 7.2 WAR to the Cy Young, while his 165 ERA+ and 7.4 WAR (third) the following year netted him a distant fourth-place showing as Roy Halladay (22-7, 8.1 WAR) won.

In a March 31, 2003 feature on the Big Three in Sports Illustrated, Phil Taylor described the trio’s dynamic and their individual temperaments:

The Oakland aces study one another’s pitching performance almost as much as they scrutinize opposing hitters. Every one of their starts is like a tutorial for the other two. “Sometimes it’s not anything specific, it’s just stuff that rubs off,” says Mulder. “You watch Huddy handle a first-and-second, no-out situation. You see the way he steps onto the rubber like he’s in complete control. It’s nothing that one guy can communicate to another, it’s just something that you see and pick up on.”

…At 6’1″ and 164 pounds Hudson is by far the least physically imposing of the trio (Mulder stands 6’6″ and Zito 6’4″), but on the mound he may be the most intimidating. He stares down hitters with a glare that reminds veteran A’s observers of former ace Dave Stewart, and giving up a hit doesn’t concern him so much as it angers him. “Huddy’s like, ‘O.K., that guy doubled — he got lucky. Next hitter. Come on, come on, buddy. You and me,'” Zito says. “Mulder and I are never going to have quite that same personality on the mound, but we can borrow a little bit of that approach and fit it into what we do.”

The postseason frustrations continued for Hudson and the A’s, who again made Division Series exits after losing Game 5. He was roughed up for 11 runs (six earned) in 8.2 innings over two starts in 2002 against the Twins, the second of which was on three days of rest; instead of clinching the series, the A’s lost 11-2. He scattered 10 hits and three runs across 6.2 innings as the A’s took Game 1 of the 2003 Division Series against the Red Sox, but left Game 4 after just one inning due to a left oblique strain. Adding insult to injury, the A’s lost both that game and Game 5.

Though he made the AL All-Star team for the second time in 2004, Hudson missed the game as well as six weeks of play due to another left oblique strain, an injury that loomed large as the 91-win A’s finished just a game behind the Angels in the AL West, and seven behind the Red Sox in the Wild Card race. With his eligibility for free agency just a year away, the cost-conscious A’s exercised his $6.5 million option for 2005, but in December traded him to the Braves in exchange for pitchers Dan Meyer and Juan Cruz and outfielder Charles Thomas. Whatever sadness he had over leaving the Bay Area was mitigated by his joining the team he grew up rooting for. “I always wondered how it would be to put on a Braves uniform and play in Atlanta,” Hudson told ESPN. “Now I get to see. Hopefully I’ll do what all the Braves pitchers had done.” Before he’d thrown a competitive pitch for the team, he committed to sticking around, signing a four-year, $47 million extension in March 2005, covering the ’06-09 seasons with a mutual option for ’10

By that point, both Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux had moved on in free agency, but John Smoltz remained, and the Braves were still an NL East powerhouse, having won 10 straight division titles and 13 of the past 14. Though he again missed a month due to a left oblique strain, and matched his career-worst 4.33 FIP, Hudson helped make that 11 straight and 14 out of 15, posting a 3.52 ERA and 3.3 WAR in 192 innings. His postseason — yup, another first-round exit. After walking five, allowing five runs in 6.2 innings and taking the loss in the Division Series opener against the Astros, he turned in seven strong innings on three days of rest in Game 4, departing with a 6-1 lead but two baserunners. Alas, reliever Kyle Farnsworth allowed both to score and was still in the game when the Astros tied the score in the ninth. They won it in the 18th, eliminating the Braves.

The Braves slipped to 79-83 in 2006, with Hudson slumping to career worsts in ERA (4.86), FIP (4.55) and WAR (1.3) while slogging through 218.1 innings. He called the results “embarrassing,” and cited a compounding of bad mechanical habits. With the help of pitching coach Roger McDowell, he returned to form with a 4.7-WAR, 3.33-ERA season in 2007, and was similarly effective through the first two-thirds of the 2008 season, but 68 pitches and six shutout innings into his July 23 start against the Marlins, he began experiencing discomfort below his elbow, which he attributed to throwing more splitters than normal. It turns out he’d torn his ulnar collateral ligament and needed Tommy John surgery. Remarkably, it was the first arm injury of his career, at age 32.

Hudson made his return on September 1, 2009, against the Marlins in Miami again, and pitched well enough down the stretch that he had enough leverage to parlay a $12 million mutual option (which the Braves declined) into a three-year, $28 million extension with a club option for 2013. He made the first year of that deal pay off in resounding fashion, tossing 228.2 innings and going 17-9 with a 2.83 ERA (138 ERA+) and 5.8 WAR, his best numbers since 2003; both his ERA and WAR placed sixth in the league. He made the NL All-Star team, finished fourth in the Cy Young voting, and won both the NL Comeback Player of the Year award as well as the Hutch Award, given annually to the player “who best exemplifies the fighting spirit and competitive desire of Fred Hutchinson.”

In manager Bobby Cox’s final season at the helm, the Braves claimed the NL Wild Card spot, but despite Hudson’s seven innings of one-run ball (an unearned run, at that) against the Giants, they lost both his Game 3 start and the Division Series, the sixth consecutive time Hudson’s teams too a first-round exit.

Hudson turned in another very good season in 2011 (215 innings, 3.22 ERA, 3.0 WAR), but his season ended in disappointment. As of September 8, the Braves were 84-60, 10 games behind the NL East-leading Phillies but 7.5 games ahead of the Cardinals in the Wild Card race. They frittered away that lead and ultimately missed the playoffs by going 5-13 the rest of the way, though two of the wins came in Hudson’s starts. With St. Louis and Atlanta tied at 89-72 entering the final night of the season, the Cardinals routed the lowly Astros, 8-0. Hudson started for the Braves against the Phillies, and carried a 3-1 lead into the seventh inning, though he departed with one out after a Jack Wilson error allowed Philadelphia’s second run to score. The lead held until the ninth, when Craig Kimbrel — who led the NL in saves and was on the verge of winning Rookie of the Year honors — blew the lead, and the Braves lost in 13 innings.

As it turns out, the Braves and Cardinals would meet in the next season’s first NL Wild Card game in 2012. Hudson did his part to help Atlanta get there, that after undergoing late November surgery to alleviate a herniated disc, the recovery from which cost him most of April. Though his 16-7 record and 3.62 ERA looked superficially solid, his season was worth just 1.4 WAR after park and defensive adjustments, basically a league-average performance. He did not pitch in the Wild Card game, which the Braves lost. The team picked up his $9 million option, and went on to win the NL East in 2013, but Hudson was limited to 21 starts. He was subpar early on, posting a 5.37 ERA though his 11 starts in April and May, though he did turn in a strong seven-inning, one-run effort on April 30 against the Nationals for his 200th career win.

Hudson tightened things up, posting a 2.73 ERA in 10 June and July starts, but his season ended abruptly on July 24 when he suffered a fractured right ankle, as Mets batter Eric Young Jr. inadvertently stepped on his right foot while the two players raced to first base. Hudson needed season-ending surgery to repair a fractured right fibula and ruptured deltoid ligament — a rough way to enter free agency for the first time at age 38.

While the Red Sox, Indians and Braves showed interest in Hudson — and while he hoped to finish his career in Atlanta given his local roots — he chose to return to the Bay Area on a two-year, $23 million deal with the Giants, who had an opening in their rotation with the expiration of Zito’s seven-year, $126 million deal. He pitched very well early in the year, carrying a 1.81 ERA through his first 13 starts and making the NL All-Star team for the final time, but was pummeled for a 6.46 ERA over his final eight starts, and finished at 3.57 (97 ERA+).

The 88-win Giants claimed a Wild Card spot, and just kept winning once they reached the postseason. Hudson started Game 2 of the Division Series and delivered 7.1 innings of one-run ball with eight strikeouts, though it took his teammates until the 18th inning to seal the win; with that game, Hudson earned the distinction of being the only pitcher to participate in two 18-inning postseason games. When the Giants won the series in four games, it was the first time in nine tries (seven for which he was on the roster) that Hudson’s team advanced to the NLCS. His start against the Cardinals in Game 3 of the series was no gem, but the Giants pulled out a win in 10 innings, and won the series in five games.

That gave Hudson his first trip to the World Series. Facing the Royals in Game 3, he allowed one run through his first five innings, but two of the four batters he faced in the sixth scored, one after he departed; the Royals won the game to take a two-games-to-one lead. When the series stretched to a seventh game, Hudson got the call to start, and wobbled through 1.2 innings, allowing two runs and departing with the score tied 2-2. Jeremy Affeldt relieved him, provided 2.1 innings of scoreless work while the Giants inched ahead by a run, and Madison Bumgarner locked up the team’s third title in five years by pitching five shutout innings on two days of rest. In his 16th year in the majors, Hudson was finally a champion.

Following offseason surgery to remove bone spurs from his right ankle, Hudson returned for one more campaign, but a recurrent shoulder strain limited him to two starts in July and August. After homering and collecting career win number 221 against the Diamondbacks on September 8, he announced that he would retire at season’s end. Twelve days later, facing the Diamondbacks again, he threw six shutout innings for his final career win, but couldn’t make it past the third inning in either of his final two starts. His time was up.

Given the relative rarity of 200-win pitchers — only two are active, and only six have reached the last half-dozen BBWAA ballots — it’s fair to wonder about Hudson’s standing, particularly given that he didn’t just inch past the milestone, and that he accompanied those wins with an attractive 3.49 ERA (120 ERA+). Only 23 pitchers whose careers began in 1984 or later have notched 200 wins, and Hudson’s right in the middle of that pack, ranking 12th in both wins and ERA, with very similar numbers to Curt Schilling (216 wins, 3.46 ERA), who’s on the cusp of election to the Hall of Fame. Comparing Hudson to some recently elected pitchers, he has three more wins than Pedro Martinez, nine more than Smoltz, and 19 more than Halladay. His ERA is 0.05 lower than Tom Glavine, and 0.19 lower than Mike Mussina. That has to count for something, right?

It does, but not very much. Among that 200-win set, Hudson is 18th in innings (3,126.1) and 20th in strikeouts (2,080). The six pitchers from that group with fewer innings — Orel Hershiser, the still-active Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke, and the enshrined Martinez and Halladay — all had stretches of true dominance, and each won at least one Cy Young. Hudson’s similarity to these guys’ careers is only superficial.

From a traditional standpoint, beyond the wins and ERA, Hudson does not have a strong collection of things going for his Hall of Fame case. His total of four All-Star appearances is low, he never won a Cy Young award, and he led his league in a triple crown category just once. Though he was a key starter for nine playoff-bound teams and started 13 games across seven trips to the postseason while posting a respectable 3.69 ERA, he won just one of those games. Via the Bill James Hall of Fame Monitor, which gives credit for awards, league leads, postseason performance and so on, he scores just 66, well short of a likely Hall of Famer; he’s in the vicinity of Mark Langston, Kenny Rogers, Bob Welch, and Fernando Valenzuela — guys who had very solid careers but no claim on Cooperstown.

The advanced statistics offer a similar conclusion. Hudson was very good at run prevention in a high-scoring era, but as a sinkerballer, he didn’t rack up a ton of strikeouts, and so a larger portion of the credit is apportioned to his defense than would be the case for a higher-strikeout pitcher. He placed among his league’s top 10 in WAR seven times, but in the top five only twice, and never higher than third. He topped 5.0 WAR in a season just four times. His 57.9 career WAR ranks 78th all-time among starting pitchers, ahead of 17 of the 65 enshrinees but more than 15 wins off the standard. His 38.3 peak WAR ranks just 110th, ahead of only 12 starters, and nearly 12 wins below the standard. He’s in a virtual tie for 83rd in JAWS with Hershiser and Tommy John, but 13.5 points below the standard, and he doesn’t have enough of the stuff not captured by WAR to overcome that.

He’s not Hall of Fame material, but there’s no shame in that. Tim Hudson was a damn good pitcher who contributed to several winning teams that had hard luck in the playoffs, but he stuck around long enough to play a significant role on a championship team, and left his mark in all three cities where he pitched. By appearing on the ballot, he’ll get his moment in the sun — but it won’t be on the stage at Cooperstown.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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3 years ago

The very definition of a “hall of the very good” pitcher.

3 years ago
Reply to  ScottyB

Can’t agree with this more. He and Oswalt were two of my favorites to watch and both get an instance pass into this non-existent club….

3 years ago
Reply to  iancal

Mostly I agree but I think Oswalt was more underrated. Oswalt was almost always good to very good, rarely average.