Believe in Drew Hutchison
When Russell Martin signed a five year, $82 million contract to catch for the Blue Jays, nearly every article reporting the deal referenced Martin’s excellent receiving ability. Indeed, Martin represents an enormous defensive improvement over Dioner Navarro, the Jays’ 2013 regular. According to Baseball Prospectus data, Navarro was the third worst pitch framer in the game and cost Toronto nearly 14 runs in 2014. Meanwhile, Martin saved the Pirates 19 runs.
Gaining 33 runs back would make the Jays roughly league average in runs against. That’s not bad for a team that played a majority of its games in a positive offensive environment with a starting rotation that was a mix of old vets (Dickey, Buehrle), failed injury comebacks (Morrow, McGowan), J.A. Happ (Happ), and youngsters logging their first significant chunk of MLB innings (Hutchison, Stroman).
Hutchison and Stroman both had impressive 2014 campaigns and are strong dynasty options given their youth and success at the MLB level but I think Hutchison makes an especially good target with the addition of Russell Martin.
Amid reports of increased velocity, Hutchison had a strong spring and carried that over into the regular season. His average fastball velocity did increase by about 1 MPH compared to the 58.2 major league innings he threw in 2012. He was also throwing almost as hard in September as he was in April, certainly a good sign for a young player coming back from Tommy John and logging the highest innings total of his career. Most importantly from a fantasy perspective, the strikeout ability that Hutchison showed at every level of the minors translated to the big leagues. He posted 8.97 K/9 on the year, including a dominant close to the season that saw him strike out 57 batters in 40.2 innings over his last seven starts.
Scouting reports from Hutchison’s prospect days praised his three pitch mix but his usage pattern and results suggest he should limit the changeup going forward. Hutchison is basically a fastball-slider pitcher against righties but used his changeup about 20% of the time against lefties in 2014, throwing it almost exclusively down and off the plate away. Because of the consistent location out of the strike zone, batters didn’t offer at the pitch much but when they did and made contact, the results were poor. Among the 85 pitchers who threw at least 200 changeups in 2014, Hutchinson’s GB/BIP was the 9th lowest, LD/BIP was 2nd highest, and FB/BIP was 14th highest, especially problematic for someone who pitches half their games in the Rogers Centre. His TAv against with the changeup was an awful .347. For some context, Mike Trout’s TAv in 2014 was .353. Lefties were Mike Trout against Hutchison’s changeup. That’s…not so good.
On the bright side, Hutchison seemed to recognize this and changed his pitch mix against lefties as the year progressed. In mid-August Hutchison began to limit his changeup usage, favoring his plus slider. In September, he traded in some fastballs for even more sliders and ended up throwing the slider 23% of the time, an increase of 10% over his typical usage to that point. Throwing the changeup less often made it dramatically more effective. Lefties whiffed more per swing and when batters put the ball in play, there were more grounders and fewer liners and fly balls than previously. The fastball also suddenly generated more swings and more whiffs per swing.
One other thing to note is that his slider changed dramatically in September. The slider velocity in September was about 2 MPH slower than usual and was 3 MPH slower than the changeup, where they had previously been about the same speed. The 10 MPH difference in speed between the fastball and slider in September was easily the biggest separation between two pitches in any month of the season. In addition to the difference in velocity, the shape of the slider was significantly different. There was some modest increase in the horizontal movement of the slider and it showed much more depth.
So how does Russell Martin play in to this? Here is a representation of Martin’s strike zone in 2014 (hat tip to Baseball Savant for the data):
First off, let me acknowledge that this is a very unscientific take on the strike zone. I made no adjustments for batter handedness, pitch type, etc. This is simply a scatter plot of horizontal and vertical positions of all balls and called strikes.
With that out of the way, check out this scatter plot where the red now represents Hutchison’s 2014 pitches that were called balls.
There are an awful lot of pitches low and to the catcher’s right that are either clearly in or just off the edge of Martin’s strike zone. Now look at Hutchison’s zone profile with the slider:
Hutchison throws a majority of his sliders in the locations where he looks primed to pick up some extra called strikes as a result of the defensive upgrade from Dioner Navarro to Russell Martin.
I probably should have thrown out a caveat long ago about drawing conclusions from one month of data. But if the shape of Hutchison’s September slider holds and he employs a pitch mix similar to what he used at the end of 2014, I believe he’s a good bet to post another top-20 strikeout total without hurting your ratios. That should make him a strong mid-rotation starter in your fantasy rotation, with some potential for continued development since he will be only 24 years old on Opening Day.