Phew, there’s hope for Collin McHugh

Houston Astros starter Collin McHugh is having a really hard time readjusting to working out of the rotation. Through eight starts (41 IP), he’s put up a startling 6.37 ERA and is conceding home runs at an alarming rate (his 1.98 HR/9 ranks as the 3rd highest rate among the 52 SPs who have thrown at least 40 innings).

Photo: Trask Smith/UP

Last year, the Astros used McHugh exclusively as a reliever, and he pitched extremely well in that role. He had a 1.99 ERA, 11.70 K/9, 2.61 BB/9, and 0.75 HR/9 in 72.1 innings pitched. But in the offseason, the Astros lost two key members of their rotation to free agency — LHP Dallas Keuchel (still a FA) and RHP Charlie Morton (signed with the Rays) — and they felt McHugh could fill one of those spots. From 2014 – 2017, McHugh made 102 starts out of their rotation and pitched to the tune of a 3.70 ERA (approximately).

Unfortunately for Houston, McHugh has struggled big-time, proving to be very susceptible to the long ball. He has allowed three more home runs and thirteen more earned runs in 2019 than he did all of last year (in 31.1 fewer innings!). He’s throwing fewer fourseam fastballs in favor of his slider…

Pitch PercentagesSliderFourseam FastballCurveballCutter
201824.649.517.77.8
201943.7 (+19.1)29.3 (-20.2)9.3 (-8.4)12.5 (+4.7)

One possible reason as to why McHugh is throwing his fastball less frequently is that its velocity is not what is was as a reliever. In 2018, his average fastball was 92.5 mph (according to Pitch Info Pitch Velocity as found on FanGraphs), whereas in 2019, his average fastball velocity has measured in at 90.4 mph (-2.1). Consequently, hitters are absolutely feasting off of his four seamer, as conveyed below…

Fastball Stats (FanGraphs)PitchesAVGSwStr%HR
2018597.18510.95
2019201.3536.03

Additionally, Collin McHugh has yet to develop a feel for his curveball in 2019, which is a bigger deal now that he pitches as a starter. Out of all of his pitches in 2018, his curveball generated swings and misses at the greatest frequency (22.9% SwStr). Batters hit for a .217 AVG against the pitch and not a single curveball was hit for a HR (215 pitches). He’s throwing it only 9% of the time (down 8% or so from last year).

To no surprise, hitters are much more productive when facing McHugh for a 2nd/3rd time…

1st time through the order

  • IP: 18.2
  • AVG: .182
  • HR: 3
  • ERA: 3.38

2ND time

  • IP: 14.1
  • AVG: .317
  • HR: 5
  • ERA: 10.05

3RD time

  • IP: 8.0
  • AVG: .172
  • HR: 1
  • ERA: 6.75

Perhaps most intriguing of all, one plausible explanation for McHugh’s rough start to the 2019 campaign is that he could be tipping his pitches. Hitters are hitting McHugh much harder with runners on base. This could be because the baserunners are exchanging/signaling signs with the hitter…

BASES EMPTY

  • IP: 26.2
  • AVG: .205
  • HR: 6
  • ER: 6

men on base

  • IP: 14.1
  • AVG: .291
  • HR: 3
  • ER: 23

Here are two graphs which outline McHugh’s horizontal and vertical release point on his fourseam fastball and slider (his primary offerings)…

Graph via Brooks Baseball
Graph via Brooks Baseball

Information that can be easily drawn from the data:

  • McHugh releases his slider much further away from his body than his fourseamer (more so than last year)
  • He releases his slider at a significantly lower point than his fourseamer (more so than last year)

Here are some screenshots (sorry for the shabby quality) and GIFS that attempt to illustrate this stark difference between the release point on his slider and fastball…

Francisco Lindor HR off of Slider in 2019 (video courtesy of Baseball Savant)
Slider Release Point on that pitch (2019)
Carlos Gonzalez HR off of fourseam fastball in 2019 (video courtesy of Baseball Savant)
Fourseam Fastball Release Point on that pitch (2019)
Ketel Marte popup off of Slider in 2019 (video courtesy of Baseball Savant)
Slider Release Point on that pitch (2018)
Nick Ahmed deep fly ball off of Fourseam Fastball in 2018 (video courtesy of Baseball Savant)
Fourseam Fastball Release Point on that pitch (2018)

As a result, hitters have crushed McHugh’s slider when they put it in play…

2018

  • Pitches: 290
  • AVG: .100
  • HR: 0
  • SwStr%: 13.8

2019

  • Pitches: 300
  • AVG: .157
  • HR: 4
  • SwStr%: 18.7

At this point, a temporary move to the bullpen would be of benefit to both the Astros and McHugh, who would have the opportunity to alter his release point (make it less of a drastic difference between the slider and fastball release point) and experiment with his curveball. His fastball would also presumably play up, as its velocity would likely increase.

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