Two decades ago, Tim Hudson was finishing up his first season at Chattahoochee Valley Community College. He was a short righty with a sinker, a slurve and small hands. More than 3,000 innings later, that sinker’s still going — but the rest of Hudson’s arsenal’s evolved. And maybe the story of that change can tell us a little bit about sinkerballers, in general.
The first thing Tim Hudson did to become Tim Hudson was learn the splitter that summer before he went to Auburn. There’s no great back story, no grandpa behind the barn. “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,” Hudson told me this month. “I’ve been throwing it ever since, and it’s gotten better every year.”
OK, maybe it hasn’t gotten a lot better in the last few years, but it hasn’t gotten worse. And you have to remember there’s a Tommy John surgery in there. “I definitely didn’t probably throw as many split fingers after Tommy John, for a little while,” Hudson admitted.
But he doesn’t think the pitch is related to his surgery, even if his community college coach told him he’d hurt his arm messing with the pitch. “Never thought there was much of a difference between the splitter and my other pitches” when it came to soreness or injury risk, Hudson says. He didn’t even have the soreness that some associated with learning the pitch (Brandon League said his knuckles ached for weeks when he was learning it). “It’s kind of crazy,” Hudson says now. “I have really small hands. Usually guys with big hands and big fingers can throw it really easily, but my hands are small — but my fingers are really flexible.”
The splitter is a huge part of Hudson’s success. “Same slot as your fastball, same arm speed as your fastball but if you throw it right and stay behind it, and have good action with your finish, the bottom falls out,” Hudson says. “For hitters, it’s a pitch that’s really, really hard to lay off and it’s hard to hit. But, if you don’t throw a good one, they’re really easy to hit; they hang up there and go a long ways.” Over 34,000 pitches into his career, the splitter has the second-best swinging strike rate in his arsenal (to his slider/cutter) and the second-highest home-run-per-fly-ball rate.
Unlike Jeff Samardzija, Hudson doesn’t really have two different split fingers. “The force I have on the ball is always the same,” Hudson says. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t vary the pitch a little. “It’s where on the ball that I’ll change where I hold the ball,” he says. “Sometimes I’ll hook a seam with my index finger; sometimes I’ll go straight leather, no seams. Some days, they’re better than others depending on how the balls are rubbed up.”
When told Samardzija’s splitter sometimes cut, Hudson thought that only happened in error with his version of the pitch: “Usually when they cut or run is when the release point is inconsistent. Sometimes the arm is dragging a bit, and you’re trying to catch up. Then you have the tendency to pull them. If you can get your arm slot straight up and over — stay behind it and finish it out front — it’s usually right to the plate and you want it to bounce between the plate and the catcher.”
The splitter was his first change-up, but Hudson has developed a more standard change-up since. Well, he kind of holds it and throws it like a splitter anyway.
Hudson has quietly turned to the change more often than the splitter. Even though most of the classification systems have him throwing the splitter more often for most of his career, Hudson says the systems get it wrong. “I can tell you, 95% of the time I throw a change-up it thinks it’s a splitter,” he says. “I usually throw my splits with two strikes. Early in the count, it’s usually a changeup.” But he admits they look very similar and are only about 3 mph apart, with the splitter being a little harder. You can certainly see two clusters in the BrooksBaseball chart for his splitter: One is faster with less vertical break; one is slower and has more drop.
The changeup was easy for him, though. Both the splitter and change “came pretty naturally” because most of what he throws “naturally sinks and runs.” It was the breaker that was tough on him, even though he threw that little slurve back in junior college.
“The hardest thing for me to learn was a cutter or slider,” Hudson says. And he agreed that, where some pitchers who have great breakers find their mechanics make learning a changeup difficult, he had the opposite problem, but for similar reasons. “It’s just the natural way your arm is,” he says. “Your wrist angle, where you are on the ball. I naturally throw on the inside of the ball. Most sinkerballers naturally throw on the inside of the ball.” Fade came easy to Hudson; it was the cut he needed to learn.
Hudson eventually found it. Or, better: he eventually found two breakers. “The cutter and slider, I hold them the same way,” he says. “Sometimes, you’ll manipulate it a little, make it a little bigger, and then you’ll call it a slider. Then the cutter is the one you stay behind a little more, and it’s a little harder.” That’s the slider on the left and the cutter on the right, for what it’s worth.
The differences may be subtle, at least in grip. What makes them move differently is the release. “They’re different pitches from what the hitter sees, but they’re really the same grip, except you’re a little more on the side of the ball with the slider. Cutter, you’re a little more behind the ball, but still on the right side,” Hudson says.
There’s been a bit of a change in his cutter and slider usage over the years, even if it wasn’t necessarily on purpose. Given how difficult it is to differentiate between the cutter and slider by the numbers, this table was dubious before meeting with the pitcher, especially since it wasn’t clean-cut. His T.J. surgery was in 2008. But was he moving from the slider to the cutter?
When I asked him, Hudson to me it’s totally possible he’s moved away from the slider and to the cutter since the surgery. “Probably, maybe just after Tommy John you try not to manipulate the ball or twist so much,” Hudson said while mimicking putting torque on the ball with wrist movement.
His curveball isn’t used as often, but it’s been great this year. The whiff rate on the pitch is up to 15.1%, from his 12.5% career rate. When asked why, Hudson thought it was about timing. “I think I’m just mixing things up more, trying to be as unpredictable as you can,” Hudson said. He’s gotten more unpredictable by becoming more predictable: This year, the PITCHf/x database shows that he’s halved his usage of the pitch when behind in the count, and doubled it when ahead.
Of course, we can’t forget the sinker, even if it’s the pitch he’s throwing less often these days. His grip on the pitch is a little askew when compared to the more standard version that Andrew Cashner throws. It’s still working, as it’s still a top-10 fastball despite coming out of a 38-year-old arm.
Maybe it’s just doing so well this year because his control has been so other-worldly. His career walk rate is better than average, but this year, he’s fourth in the league in that stat. “Getting ahead of hitters more,” Hudson said, but that can’t be all of it. His current first-strike rate (63.4%) is better than the league average (60.1%) and his own average (60.3%), but not by enough to explain halving his walk rate. Maybe it’s instead about that career-low fastball velocity (89 mph). “I don’t have anything really overpowering, so I’m not overthrowing much,” he said. “My command is better because I’m more under control and my delivery is more consistent.”
Over the years spanning Chattahoochee Valley and China Basin, Hudson has picked up a lot of tricks. The split-finger was only the first. Since, he’s developed three other pitches and great sense of when to use them. Which is serving him well now in his 16th pro season. “Where I’m at in my career, there’s nothing really overpowering, so I got to mix everything in there, throw it to the wall and see what sticks,” Hudson said. “Throw the rosin bag out there a couple times.”
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.