Somewhere around two years and $6 million a year: those appear to be the terms for a certain kind of match this offseason. A match between budget-conscious teams seeking to acquire meaningful (if flawed) talent and players willing to forgo a bigger one-year deal in order to gain an extra year of security. Matt Joyce, Steve Pearce, Wilson Ramos, Sean Rodriguez, even Junichi Tazawa — they’ve all given us brief glimpses into above-average work, and longer looks at less exciting work.
In a way, Daniel Hudson fits right into this collection of players: according to Jeff Passan, he received a two-year, $11 million deal from the Pirates. If he’s their closer for the next two years, that will be a bargain; he could also return hardly anything. In either case, discussing the deal in such simple terms is selling his story way, way too short.
The short version of the story goes like this. Hudson has been hurt, a lot. He debuted in 2009 as a starter and has only managed 64 innings a season on average since — and that includes the 222 he but up that magical 2011 season. There were two years he didn’t pitch at all. Then he came back as a reliever. Then, last year, he recorded an ERA over five. Pittsburgh’s decision to sign him to this deal seems to be the product of looking pretty hard at the success of 2015, you could say.
So, in an offseason that has seen the three largest reliever deals of all time — even after you adjust for inflation — the Pirates went bargain-hunting and hoped to find a pitcher who’s two-thirds as good as those relief aces, at one-eighth the cost. In that way, it fits well with the deals Joyce, Ramos, and Rodriguez received.
But that’s too simple a way to describe a man who lost two full years to injury. After a first Tommy John didn’t quite hold, Hudson found himself on the wrong side of an even longer and more grueling rehab process from a second surgery to the elbow. The details of the daily grind and the emotional upheaval he and his wife suffered were chronicled in Jeff Passan’s The Arm, and they’re worth reading if you’d like to better understand how important this payday was for Hudson.
For the Pirates, they’re banking on a couple things to feel as good about this contract at the end of it as they might feel now.
There haven’t been a lot of pitchers who’ve have had to contend with a second Tommy John surgery almost immediately after a first, unsuccessful one. Jim McLennan at AZSnakePit compiled a list of the members of that unfortunate fraternity: Brian Anderson, Matt Beech, Dave Eiland, Mike Lincoln, and Denny Stark.
The full list of double Tommy John pitchers includes pitchers like Adam Choplick and Alfredo Silverio, of whom you may not have heard before. Of the 16 in Jon Roegele’s database who had a second Tommy John within a year of the first, seven never made it back to pitch. Doug Brocail’s average-ish 317 post-second-surgery innings are the positive benchmark for the group. Jonny Venters is the only one who underwent a third surgery, and he just tore his UCL a fourth time this past summer.
But at this point, Hudson is more like Brocail than the rest, since he’s managed two years of good work after the second surgery. And it’s possibly the result of a mechanical overhaul the pitcher underwent during his second rehab.
Near the end of a shorter piece about his second return, Hudson discussed those changes with Nick Piecoro and revealed a bit about the pros and cons of his new mechanics:
Hudson has made an adjustment to his arm path that he believes will lead to less stress on his elbow. He said it was something he implemented last year before ultimately reverting to his old mechanics, which he thinks contributed to needing the surgery a second time.
“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.”
Since he’s talking about lag, and deception, and arm path, let’s focus on the way Hudson brings the ball up from behind him back in the day first. Here’s 2012:
Now let’s look at that same arm path last year:
You can see he’s got shorter arm action in the back, something that many mechanics gurus feel is very important for arm health. Instead of looping all the way around, he begins the loop and then pulls the arm up faster. That helps the arm be on time when the body whips around. Less drag should mean less stress on the elbow.
For the health gains, he probably did have to give something back, though. There might have been an effect on his deception, as he notes. It’s as hard to compare the two versions of Hudson as it is to measure deception, but it’s worth noticing that batters have swung at 71% of his pitches in the zone the last two years, as opposed to 67% earlier in his career. His peak in swings and whiffs per swing on the slider came in 2012, and batters swing at his changeup less often now than they did before.
There’s a way to identify a another adjustment Hudson has made, one which might be helping to preserve his health even while robbing him of some stuff: look at his arm slot. Here are his release points seen from the catcher’s point of view, with 2012’s release points in black and white, and 2015’s in color.
Going over the top will rob a pitcher’s stuff of horizontal movement. If you focus just on that type of movement, you do indeed see that Hudson’s stuff is straighter now. Every single pitch has lost fade. To be fair, the change in his slider is both small and might be a positive change, but the picture is painted.
The good news is that he’s made up for this loss in horizontal movement with a big leap forward in velocity. He’s averaged basically 96 the last two years, which puts him in the top 20 among qualified relievers the last two years, even in a league that has seen velocity go up every year.
If you’re talking about a reliever over the last two years who both (a) threw harder than 95 on average and (b) recorded a swinging-strike rate above 12% (Hudson had a 12.5% mark during that time frame and averaged 95.8 mph), you’re talking about only 19 pitchers, including the very best closers in the game. If you buy that closers are made from tools, not temperament, then Hudson may end up closing for the Pirates over the next two years. After all, the Pirates now have four great to decent lefty relievers on their team — Antonio Bastardo, Wade LeBlanc, Felipe Rivero, and Tony Watson — and they could easily make a trade, like with the Miami Marlins, who don’t currently have a single lefty in the pen.
And if Hudson pitches to the talent suggested by his velocity and whiff rate in a setup or closing role for the Pirates over the next two years, he’ll easily be worth the contract, at least when compared to other relievers and their free-agent deals.
But that’s the smaller story. The bigger story is the perseverance that Hudson has shown, and his willingness to trade stuff and deception for a healthy arm and a place in this game.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.