The Understated Greatness of Tim Hudson

For all of the natural ebbs and flows of individual player performance from year to year, the game’s ruling class – the elite among the elite, the upper crust – is a fairly closed society that remains fairly static from year to year. Any given year might have its Yasiel Puig joining that group, or its Albert Pujols conceding his seat, but the core membership is fairly predictable. What might happen in any given season, however, is one of these elite players taking a temporary step up in class, reaching an even more rarified air than ever before. Let’s continue to take a deeper look at the 2014 performance of some of the game’s elite, and determine whether they in fact have taken things to the next level. Today, Tim Hudson.

Your first thought might be, Tim Hudson – elite? A brief perusal of his career numbers might be in order. Does 212-114, 3.41, career ERA+ of 124 grab you? His 2013 season (8-7, 3.97) might not look so hot on the surface, but his FIP was over a half-run lower, and his cumulative record in his three previous seasons with the Braves was 49-26. Wins and losses are obviously far from the only or preferred way to evaluate a starting pitcher, but Hudson sure has had a knack for winning – and not losing – throughout his career. 16 years in the big leagues, 11 times as an ERA qualifier, and he has reached double digits in losses exactly three times, and has a career high loss total of 12. He’s played on a lot of good teams, true, but he has played a large role in making those teams good.

Hudson was a 6th round draft pick out of Auburn in 1997, and was just as well known for his bat as his arm as an amateur. John Poloni, who was unfairly negatively singled out in the “Moneyball” book, believed in him as a pitcher and pushed hard for his selection. Depending on how things play out following Hudson’s career, Poloni just might be responsible for signing a Hall of Famer for a relative pittance.

Hudson knifed through the minor leagues, going 24-10, 3.22, with about a K per inning, and reached the major leagues almost two years to the day after being drafted, on June 8, 1999. Some pitchers require an adjustment period after reaching the big leagues for the first time, but not this guy. Hudson went 11-2 in 1999, and his career record stood at a remarkable 49-17 following the 2001 season. Hudson was quite the strikeout guy at this point in his career, whiffing 482 batters over 573 2/3 innings over that span. Going relatively unnoticed by all save for a few trailblazers in those early days of advanced analysis was Hudson’s underlying strength – his high grounder rate, generated by the sinker that drew Poloni’s attention.

That sinker has driven Hudson’s performance all of these years, even now as he approaches his 39th birthday. He is off to a fantastic start in his first season with the Giants, posting a sterling 7-3, 2.39, mark despite being obliterated by the White Sox in his last start. Has he found another gear at his advanced age, or found a new trick? Or are contextual factors like the ones that made it seem like he was having an “off” year last season doing tricks in the opposite direction in 2014? Let’s take a closer look at his 2013 and 2014 plate appearance outcome frequency and production by BIP type data to see what, if any, changes have taken place. First, the frequency information:

FREQ – 2013
Hudson % REL PCT
K 18.6% 93 40
BB 7.0% 91 39
POP 7.6% 101 56
FLY 19.9% 71 2
LD 19.7% 92 20
GB 52.8% 123 92

FREQ – 2014
Hudson % REL PCT
K 15.8% 78 3
BB 3.7% 46 1
POP 1.5% 19 1
FLY 18.8% 68 1
LD 21.4% 102 45
GB 58.3% 134 99

Always the extreme ground ball guy, Hudson has taken that part of his act to new heights this season. 80.5% of all hitters he’s faced have made contact, a career high, with his K rate descending to its lowest mark since 2010 and his BB rate dropping to a career low. His 2014 K rate is in the 3rd percentile, and his BB rate is in the 1st. That, my friends, is what we call pitching to contact.

The type of contact he tends to induce is not a surprise – it’s almost always of the ground ball variety. His 2014 popup and fly ball rates are both in the 1st percentile, and in both 2013 and 2014, his grounder rate has been in the 99th. His line drive rate has been below MLB average in both 2013 and 2014 (20 and 45 percentile ranks), and his 2014 liner percentile rank to date is actually his highest since 2008. Bottom line – Hudson allows lots of contact, but generally prevents the ball from being hit in the air or on a line as well as anyone in the game.

Now let’s take a look at the production by BIP type allowed by Hudson in 2013 and 2014, both before and after adjustment for context:

PROD – 2013
FLY 0.288 0.779 107 111
LD 0.587 0.773 80 96
GB 0.239 0.249 99 100
ALL BIP 0.302 0.448 83 88
ALL PA 0.244 0.295 0.362 85 90 3.97 3.29 3.47

PROD – 2014
FLY 0.235 0.686 79 122
LD 0.655 0.931 103 106
GB 0.177 0.222 61 76
ALL BIP 0.280 0.439 75 90
ALL PA 0.232 0.262 0.364 76 89 2.39 2.88 3.41

The actual production allowed by Hudson on each BIP type is indicated in the AVG and SLG columns, and is converted to run values and compared to MLB average in the REL PRD column. That figure is then adjusted for context, such as home park, team defense, luck, etc., in the ADJ PRD column. In the three right-most columns, his actual ERA, his calculated component ERA based on actual production allowed, and his “tru” ERA, which is adjusted for context, are all presented. For the purposes of this exercise, SH and SF are included as outs and HBP are excluded from the OBP calculation.

Hudson has had the good fortune to play in large ballparks with good outfield defenses in both 2013 and 2014. Truth is, however, that on the rare occasions that he does allow the ball to be hit in the air, it tends to be hit with above average authority. While his actual production allowed on fly balls is down quite a bit from 2013 to 2014 (his REL PRD has dropped from 107 to 79), his subpar hard/soft fly rates have caused his ADJ PRD on fly balls to be 111 and 122 over that span. While he doesn’t allow many liners, they too have been hit harder than league average this season (106 ADJ PRD, up from 96 in 2013).

Then there’s all those ground balls…..not only does he induce a ton of them, but thus far in 2014, he’s yielding a lot of weak ones. He’s allowing hitters to bat just .177 AVG-.222 SLG on grounders for a REL PRD of 61, which is adjusted upward only slightly for context to 76. In 2013, he allowed grounders to be hit at virtually exactly league average authority, with an ADJ PRD of 100.

Put the whole package together, and his overall contact management ability has been nearly the same in both 2013 and 2014, with ADJ PRD figures – or adjusted contact scores – of 88 and 90, respectively. Add back the K’s and BB’s and those numbers are virtually unchanged, with ADJ PRD figures on all plate appearances of 90 in 2013 and 89 in 2014. His “tru” ERAs, adjusted for context, are 3.47 in 2013, and 3.41 in 2014. That’s right, he has exhibited virtually the same true talent level in 2013, when he had a 3.97 ERA, and in 2014, as he’s posted a 2.39 mark to date. No, Tim Hudson has not taken his game to a new, higher level in 2014. He’s simply become an even more extreme version of himself, becoming more of a pitch-to-contact guy than ever, and has concentrated an even higher percentage of that contact within the ground ball department than he had previously.

Let’s take a moment to talk about Hudson’s potential Hall of Fame candidacy. He’s not going to win 300 games, which has become a bar set way too high, and one that is becoming increasingly insurmountable in the age of the five-man rotation. Mike Mussina is 270-153, for heaven’s sake, and is far from a lock to make it to Cooperstown, for reasons that will never be adequately explained to me. When all is said and done, Hudson’s winning percentage will be one of the best – even today, he fits pretty squarely within the Whitey Ford family of pitchers – Ford finished up with a 236-106 career mark and a 133 ERA+, and was an easy selection. Hudson is not quite Ford, but he’s not far off.

Hudson needs a “hook”, a selling point that will help him gain admission to the Hall. I would submit that his contact management ability is that hook. Hudson is one of the very best contact managers the game has ever seen. I will be presenting at the Saber Seminar in Boston on August 16-17, and my talk will focus on the best contact managers in the history of the game – or at least going back to 1938, when some semblance of batted ball data became available. No, granular data going back that far isn’t available, but records of basic batted ball types – popups, fly balls, liners and ground balls – are. In other words, you can come up with the “REL PRD” data in the above tables – as well as the reasons why pitchers are good or bad contact managers – but you can’t come up with the “ADJ PRD” data.

In 11 years as an ERA qualifier, Hudson has never had an above league average unadjusted contact score. Even more amazingly, his unadjusted contact score has been below 80 – over 20% better than league average – in eight of those 11 seasons. How does Hudson do it? It’s pretty simple. 93.5% of the pitches he has thrown in 2014 are some variation of his fastball, with his sinker leading the way at 44.9%, and his cutter (23.4%), splitter (13.8%) and four-seamer (11.1%) following behind.

Despite his low K rate, his 9.2% swing-and-miss rate is above average, and he has a double-digit whiff rate with three pitches, his splitter (17.1%), cutter (14.7%) and curve ball (13.6%). It is that sinker, however, that pays the bills. It is by far his most effective pitch, accumulating the lion’s share of the weak ground ball contact that he generates.

No, Hudson has not taken his game to a new level this season – he has simply maintained the very high standard he has set for himself as he approaches the age of 39, and he shows no signs of letting up. Though he has played the vast majority of his career with very good clubs, he has never been on the winning side in a playoff series. Let’s enjoy watching a virtuoso work for the Giants as the season continues, and perhaps watch him work late into October for the first time.

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8 years ago

Great piece on one of my all-time faves. Hudson is the definition of understated greatness, but I agree he will have trouble getting much support for the Hall of Fame. Kevin Brown doesn’t get a 2nd glance from voters and Mussina will likely struggle to garner real support, so I can’t see Hudson (even with 2-3 more years like this one) making it in.

Magick Sam
8 years ago
Reply to  nickolai

Kevin Brown doesn’t get a second glance for PED suspicion reasons, I think