With the Cardinals’ offense held to two runs across the first three games of the NLCS against the Nationals, the team has dug themselves a hole. The odds of the Cardinals winning four straight games aren’t high; our standard odds give the Cardinals a 3.1% chance at taking the series with ZiPS’ method going a bit higher at 4.9%. Winning four games in a row against a good opponent isn’t impossible. Just a few weeks ago the Cardinals pulled off a four-game sweep to solidify their playoff position. Back in April, the team completed a four-game sweep of the Dodgers and later that month, they won the first three of a four-game set against the Nationals. If Cardinals were to do the same now, they would force a Game 7. But that St. Louis has done something similar doesn’t change the current situation, which is dire, and the team isn’t helped by the fact that they have to turn to their fourth-best pitcher tonight when a loss ends the season.
Tonight’s start isn’t Dakota Hudson’s first with the Cardinals facing elimination. Just a week ago, he took the mound with St. Louis down two games to one against Atlanta. Hudson lasted four and two-thirds innings and gave up four runs, though three of those runs were the product of poor defensive play. The Cardinals eventually rallied to win that game in 10 innings and then blew the Braves out in Atlanta to advance to the NLCS. Hudson’s performance in that start was fairly typical for him, with a low number of strikeouts, a couple of walks, and what would have been a low run total if the normally stout Cardinals defense had supported him.
Tonight’s game isn’t likely to turn on the performance Hudson provides, given the offensive offensive performances by St. Louis so far, but if the Cardinals are going to extend the series, it’s important that their starter keep them in the game. Hudson’s profile is unique and he’s been a near-perfect fit for the Cardinals this season. Looking at various WAR metrics, his 1.0 WAR indicates mediocrity. If we were to use WAR based on his .335 xwOBA, we’d see a similar result. Over at Baseball-Reference, he’s put up a 2.2 WAR, a roughly average pitcher. Baseball Prospectus sees a similar 2.4 figure.
Where Hudson separates himself from that mediocrity is in our RA9-WAR, where he has put up a 3.4 mark this season, which ranks 18th in the National League. Given what all the other WAR metrics say about Hudson, along with his low strikeout totals and high walk rate, it’s not a stretch to say that his 3.4 RA9-WAR inflates his talents a bit. However, it also wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Hudson combined with the Cardinals defense is one of the 20-best pitchers in the NL. Hudson couldn’t move to Queens with the Mets infield defense and be that pitcher, but with Kolten Wong, Paul DeJong, Paul Goldschmidt and Tommy Edman (or Matt Carpenter), he gets the results of a good pitcher. Hudson has one elite skill, and he and the Cardinals combine to get outs at a very high rate.
Hudson’s 57% groundball rate topped the majors this season, and if we compare his groundball rate to other pitchers over the last decade, his 131 GB+ rate is one of the 20 best figures over that time:
|2017||Marcus Stroman||Blue Jays||91||89||143|
|2016||Marcus Stroman||Blue Jays||93||80||136|
Hudson throws his sinker for nearly half of his offerings, and the pitch induces grounders 63% of the time. He developed the pitch with the assistance of a TrackMan and Adam Wainwright. When fly balls are hit against Hudson, he isn’t any different from a typical pitcher, but because fly balls are rare, he has put together an above-average home run rate. What separates Hudson’s sinker from most other pitchers’ is its heavy usage, the velocity, and the heavy sink. The graph below shows all pitchers who throw a sinker or a two-seamer at least 20% of the time, with their velocity and sink:
Hudson isn’t off on his own, but Luis Castillo is the only pitcher to throw harder than Hudson and get more sink on the pitch. By velocity and spin rate, Hudson’s sinker is a match with the one Stephen Strasburg used to beat the Cardinals last night. Hudson also has a pretty good high-80s cutter/slider and a low-80s breaking pitch that is more of a slider/curve. The cutter gets a very good 20% whiff rate, though he doesn’t exert great control over it. Against righties, he basically only throws his sinker and cutter, and even without factoring in batted balls — where he has a 64% groundball rate — his 19% strike out rate, 8% walk rate, and one homer per nine innings leads to a solid 4.39 FIP. Against lefties, where he mixes in a four-seamer and curve, his groundball rate is “only” 50%, and he walks nearly as many batters as he strikes out. He’s asking lefties to get themselves out and if they want, he’ll simply move on to the next hitter. He does the same for all batters when there are runners on base. This type of strategy would lead to disaster for most pitchers, but it works for Hudson because he just keeps going after groundballs to limit damage and the Cardinals defense turns them into outs.
Hudson will try and help the Cardinals continue their season tonight, and the Cardinals will try to score some runs, though it looks like they will do so with a defense-first lineup. Tommy Edman is starting at third base while Harrison Bader will play in center field. Jose Martinez will play in right, though Hudson pitches away to lefties and gets groundballs from righties so the gamble is a calculated one. The Cardinals survived Hudson’s last start staring at elimination, and they will need to do so again tonight.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.