Dakota Hudson is somewhat of a square peg in a round hole. At a time where four-seamers at the belt are de rigueur, the 24-year-old St. Louis Cardinals right-hander likes to live near the knees. Since debuting last season, Hudson has thrown his signature sinker a full 50% of the time. And he’s done so successfully. Hudson has a 3.31 ERA over 119-and-two-thirds career innings.
He hasn’t always relied on the worm-killer responsible for his MLB-best (among qualified pitchers) 60.3% ground-ball rate. As a young pitcher at Mississippi State University, Hudson was primarily four-seamers from straight over the top, and a breaking ball he couldn’t consistently command. Then came his metamorphosis.
“Butch Thompson was my pitching coach at the time,” explained Hudson. “I was 10 or 11 appearances into my sophomore year, and had just gotten through maybe two innings. He came up to me and said, ‘Hey, are you willing to make a change?’Of course I was. So I dropped down.”
The original plan was to drop all the way down to sidearm, but Hudson couldn’t comfortably get that low. He ultimately ended up closer to three-quarters, with a sinker and a cutter/slider becoming his weapons of choice.
The process of finding the most-optimal arm slot was achieved sans a catcher.
“I was throwing into a square net,” Hudson said. “It was kind of a dropping-down-and-trying-to-figure-it-out deal. After a couple of weeks, things started to come together. I ended up throwing a couple of live BPs, and throughout that sophomore year it showed up more and more. Then I ironed it out over the winter break, and came back throwing that way.”
Hudson relied on more than the eye test while fine-tuning his new delivery and the diving sinker that came along with it. He had a TrackMan at his disposal at MSU, and used it to his advantage.
“I believe that it was a ‘break Z,” Hudson said of the movement he’d begun getting. “It was the last 20 feet toward the plate. If I was throwing it around 92-94 [mph], my spin efficiency was such that it was causing the ball to drop a certain amount. I took that and went with it.”
What Hudson had opted to go with changed slightly in spring training of last year. The two-seamer he was throwing had a tendency to cut, so on a suggestion from Adam Wainwright, he switched to a one-seam grip.
“I was playing catch with Waino,” said Hudson. “He said, ‘Your ball kind of spins like this,’ and threw me back the same pitch. Then he showed me a grip. My sinker has been more consistent ever since.”
The approach he takes with his bread-and-butter offering harks back to the days when sinkerballers weren’t few and far between, but rather commonplace and completing games.
“Every batter, I’m trying to throw three pitches or less,” informed Hudson. “Ground-ball guys typically don’t get a lot of strikeouts, but the appeal to that is getting deep into games. I want to throw as few pitches, to as many batters, as I can.”
In his own words, Alex Dickerson is simply “riding a hot streak.” Unspoken, but every bit as true, would be these words: “It doesn’t hurt to be healthy.” The 29-year-old outfielder missed all of the 2017 and 2018 seasons due to back and elbow injuries. Prior to that two-year stint on the shelf, he put up a .779 OPS in 95 games with the San Diego Padres.
Dickerson is now a San Francisco Giant, and as suggested above, he’s swinging a hot bat. In 47 plate appearances with his new club, he boasts a .357/.426/.786 slash line, with four round trippers. Acquired from the Friars on June 10, in exchange for Franklin Van Gurp, Dickerson had been putting up healthy numbers in Triple-A, as well — a .984 OPS in 133 plate appearances.
When I spoke to Dickerson earlier this week, he did allow that a minor adjustment has helped fuel his surge. He’d recently made “a postural change” to his swing, bending forward slightly in order to be in a more athletic position. Clarifying that “it wasn’t anything crazy,” he explained that when he’s too straight up he doesn’t get into his legs, and his load, as efficiently.
As for his returning from an extended hiatus, the former Indiana Hoosier isn’t feeling pressure to again prove himself big-league capable. He’s simply glad to be back.
‘When you’ve just missed two years, you just try to go play baseball,” Dickerson told me. “It’s as simple as that. The game itself is simple. You’re given a day. You’re given four at bats and you try to make them as quality as possible.”
On Friday, Dickerson hit in the cleanup spot and went 2 for 4 with a home run. Those qualify as quality at bats.
RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS
When I first talked to Kevin Plawecki, he was excelling both at, and behind, the dish in Double-A. That was in June 2014, two years after the New York Mets had drafted him 35th overall out of Purdue University. The future looked bright for the former Boilermaker, and it turned out that his first big-league opportunity wasn’t long in coming. Plawecki spent the bulk of the 2015 season in Gotham, where he appeared in 73 games and logged over 250 plate appearances.
He’s since ridden a rollercoaster. Never quite able to fully establish himself, Plawecki has bounced between a backup role and occasional stints in Triple-A. Acquired by the Indians this past offseason, in exchange for Sam Haggerty and Walker Lockett, he’s currently slashing .209/.241/.341 as Cleveland’s No.2 catcher. (It’s worth noting that Plawecki has made a pair of mop-up pitching appearances out of the bullpen, and has retired all six batters he’s faced.)
Earlier this season, I asked the now-28-year-old how he’d describe the path he’s followed since our conversation five years ago.
“Unpredictable,” answered Plawecki. “At the same time, I’ve grown a lot, and probably more as a person than as a baseball player. In Double-A, you kind of expect the road to be easy. You expect to go to Triple-A, go to the big leagues, then kind of take off from there. But you have to get over a lot of hurdles along the way, some that I didn’t see coming. I’ve had to step back and grow as a person, along with the baseball.”
Hitting has been his biggest hurdle, and the search for an adjustment that could springboard his career continues. Most recently, he’s opened up his stance and quieted his hands, looking to simplify his swing. And who knows? Maybe the corner he’s looking to turn is… well, right around the corner. The personable Westfield, Indiana native has swatted seven hits in his last 13 at bats.
“It’s a constant battle,” Plawecki admitted. “It’s challenging and humbling, but at the same time it’s fun. You need to remember that.”
Earlier this week I ran a Twitter poll asking who has the better future, Fernando Tatis Jr or Vladimir Guerrero Jr. A surprisingly-small number of people weighed in — just 201 — with Tatis Jr coming out on top with 55% of the vote A commenter offered this astute observation: “The answer is yes.“
Milton Smith II, a 21-year-old outfielder in the Miami Marlins system, has 24 hits in 61 at bats with the Batavia Muckdogs in the short-season New York-Penn League. Last season, Smith slashed .352/.433/.410 in the Gulf Coast League after being drafted in the 22nd round out of Meridian (Mississippi) Community College.
Bladimir Restituyo, an 18-year-old (his birthday was a few days ago) infielder in the Colorado Rockies system, is slashing .310/.306/.440 with the Boise Hawks in the short-season Northwest League. The La Vega, Dominican Republic native is without a walk in 86 plate appearances. That’s the most PAs without a free pass in affiliated ball.
Nolan Jones, a 21-year-old third baseman in the Cleveland Indians system, leads the minor leagues with 65 walks. A second-round pick in the 2016 draft, Jones is slashing ,286/.435/.425 with the Lynchburg Hillcats in the high-A Carolina League. The left-handed hitter sits atop our Indians Top Prospect list.
Max Murphy, a 26-year-old outfielder with the St. Paul Saints, leads the independent American Association with 16 home runs. The former Minnesota Twins farmhand is slashing .332/.385/.642.
Kensuke Kondo, a 25-year-old catcher/outfielder, is slashing .313/.431/.404 for NPB’s Nippon-Ham Fighters. Kondo’s slash line over 2,323 career plate appearances is .305/.401/.419.
A coach I chatted with recently brought up how difficult it can be to transition from player to whatever comes next. Hearing that brought to mind something I’d read in Dick Bosman’s autobiography, co-written with Ted Leavengood, which was published last year.
Released at the tail end of spring training, in 1976, the veteran of 11 big-league seasons was driving home from Florida to Virginia, knowing he’d reached the proverbial end of the road. Perusing a map, Bosman realized he wasn’t too far from Kingsport, Tennessee, where his professional career had begun 15 years earlier. He got off the interstate and found his old ballpark. No one was there.
Bosman “went onto the field and thought about the years that had passed since he had been a kid playing in his first spring with nothing but hope and optimism.”
Time passes quickly. It truly does.
Last Sunday’s column included memories of the San Diego Chicken, courtesy of Randy Jones. The now-69-year-old southpaw had shared them at SABR 49, where along with Mark Sweeney he regaled a rapt crowd as part of the Padres Player Panel. Today we’ll hear another of his stories, this one featuring a former Padres owner, and a 1970s craze immortalized in a novelty song by Ray Stevens.
“Ray Kroc on the loudspeaker, during the streaker,” began Jones. “I was on the bench, in ’74, when that happened. We were playing the Astros, and Ray came on the loudspeaker to apologize for how poorly we were playing. He might have had a couple of social sparklers. No sooner had he gotten that out of his mouth, this nude kid came out from by third base. He was flying across toward second base, buck naked, and ended up sliding into second base. [Kroc] shrieked, ‘Get that streaker!” We’ve got security running this guy around. He’s like a drunk driver in the outfield. They finally got him. [Kroc] was just going ballistic.
“I remember that a lot of the players were offended that he would come on and say we we were playing like that. I’m thinking, ‘He’s right.’ But we drew a million people that year. We had an owner who had some character — no doubt about that — so it was kind of fun, to tell you the truth. The Chicken would come out on roller skates. I didn’t give a damn.”
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
At The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Derrick Goold wrote about how Cardinals rookie Tommy Edman, an undersized-and-unheralded infielder out of Stanford, is making a name for himself with some timely hitting.
At Yahoo! Sports, Hannah Keyser wrote about how Rays fans are left to wallow in embarrassment despite the team’s success on the field.
Over at The Chicago Sun Times, Steven Greenberg wrote about how Lucas Giolito hopes to join the ranks of athletes using their voices prominently in support of causes and policies that support those who are marginalized or discriminated against.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
Miami Marlins right-hander Sandy Alcantara has a .179 batting average and a .714 BABiP in 32 plate appearances.
The Yankees Dominican Summer League team beat the Twins DSL entry by a score of 38-2 on Wednesday. The Yankees had 31 hits and played error-free ball, while the Twins had five hits and committed six errors.
Updating a random stat from a few weeks ago: The Chicago Cubs have stolen 24 bases in 40 attempts. The Arizona Diamondbacks have stolen 49 bases in 55 attempts.
A week ago Saturday, Daniel Ponce de Leon became the first St. Louis Cardinals reliever to record as many as nine strikeouts in a game since Al Hrabosky turned the trick on September 25, 1974. Dizzy Dean fanned 10 in a six-inning relief effort on August 21, 1932.
Tim Lincecum had 1,704 strikeouts with the San Francisco Giants. Going into Saturday night’s game, Madison Bumgarner had 1,704 strikeouts with the San Francisco Giants. Bumgarner had 270 career starts, all with the Giants. Lincecum had 270 career starts, all but nine with the Giants.
On this date in 1923, the Cleveland Indians scored in every inning on their way to a 27-3 win over the Boston Red Sox. The Tribe plated 13 runs in the sixth inning, all off reliever Lefty O’Doul. Six years later, O’Doul batted .398, with a league-leading 254 hits, as an outfielder for the Philadelphia Phillies.
On this date in 2003, Shea Hillenbrand homered in the fourth, fifth, and sixth innings to help lead the Arizona Diamondbacks to a 14-6 win over the Colorado Rockies.
On July 9, 1946, Ted Williams went 4 for 4, with a pair of home runs — one of them off a Rip Sewell eephus pitch — as the American League routed the National League 12-0 on a Tuesday afternoon at Fenway Park. The annual celebration of baseball’s best was returning from a one-year hiatus, wartime travel restrictions having resulted in no All-Star Game being played in 1945.
Otto Hess — the only player in MLB history who drew his first breath in Switzerland — went 20-17, with a 1.83 ERA, for the Cleveland Naps in 1906. Born in Berne, Hess came to the United States at age 10.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.