Breakout or Fakeout: The Collin McHugh Chronicles

Every year a handful of players that weren’t on anybody’s radar invariably come out of nowhere to impact leagues and help determine championships. It’s always fun – and usually necessary for a title run in a competitive league – to hit on one or two of these guys, but figuring out what to do with them in dynasty leagues after the season ends can present a challenge. Was it a flash in the pan or a legitimate coming out party for a player no one saw coming?

Perhaps no player better fits the mold this year than 27 year-old Astros righthander Collin McHugh. A former Met 18th rounder from a tiny school in rural Georgia, McHugh put together a solid if unspectacular minor league progression before running into nothing but trouble at the big league level. He bottomed out last year in a seven game, five start trial with both the Mets and Rockies, when he somehow managed to give up 45 hits over 26 innings en route to a double-digit ERA. That performance for the ages led the Baseball Prospectus staff to conclude in our Annual that “after another disastrous season…it’s time to ask what McHugh really offers a major-league team.”  McHugh subsequently went undrafted in NFBC leagues and remained unowned in Sportline leagues for the first month of the season. And then…well, a funny thing happened.

Fast-forward to the present, McHugh has turned in the 27th most valuable fantasy season by a starting pitcher, highlighted by a sparkling 2.79 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, and 144:40 K:BB in 142 innings. So what gives? What’s changed in McHugh’s profile to explain the huge turnaround, and what does it mean for his future value?

Mechanically, McHugh’s altered the width of his release point while maintaining a consistent vertical plane. Translation: he’s throwing the ball at a steeper angle this year despite not adding additional height to his arm angle. The more compact delivery has helped him find an extra mile an hour of velocity while generating two additional inches of depth on his curveball. Those are not insignificant numbers, especially for a guy whose fastball just isn’t that great. Even with the additional giddyup his fastball rates below-average on the velocity scale, and indeed the pitch has generated a below-average amount of swings and miss. The curve, however, has benefited greatly from his new arm angle, as he’s now generating whiffs about four and a half percent more often than he did last year with the pitch. That’s a huge number, especially since he’s now throwing the pitch seven and a half percent more often.

Actually, he’s throwing both his curve and his slider significantly more often this year, likely because he now understands that his fastball is not going to cut it as a bread-and-butter offering against Major League hitters. As his primary weapon the slider is interestingly a rather unremarkable pitch. It doesn’t generate a ton of movement relative to most sliders, leading to a quite pedestrian whiff rate. What it does do is move just enough to induce a whole bunch of weak contact. He generates infield pop-ups at a staggering rate with the pitch, helping drive a paltry .308 slugging percentage against.

A word of caution is warranted here, as his slider usage has exploded to the point where it represents a red flag for future health concern. He’s thrown the pitch more than 30% of the time this season, and that number is closer to 40% over the past six weeks. The heavy reliance on spinning the ball has already led to repeated blister problems in the past, including a DL stint earlier this season, and longer term there’s reason to be concerned about the stress that kind of a pitch selection profile places on his elbow.

But for the shorter term that fantasy owners should be concerned about we’re looking at a pitcher who altered his mechanics and even more significantly altered his pattern of attack this season, and the adjustments have resulted in very real and very likely sustainable improvements. There’s nothing fluky in either the results (3.16 FIP, 3.17 xFIP) or the process through which he’s attained them. Especially given that you likely snagged him for a couple bucks at most off waivers the surplus value he stands to offer in return over the next couple years could be some of the best in the game. And he’ll be cheap enough that even if his elbow does eventually blow up the hit to your budget will not be enough to cripple you. So congratulations, Collin McHugh owners. You’ve won this round.

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Wilson Karaman

Wilson Karaman

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