What Happened to Drew Hutchison?
Apologies to Christmas, but this is the most wonderful time of the year. The snow is melting (hopefully), somehow every player in the league is in the best shape of his life, rankings lists are being rolled out and subsequently picked apart (might I suggest you take a look at Bret Sayre’s Top 500 dynasty list on this wonderful site?), and prognosticators are making bold declarations predicting the next breakout stars.
Heading into the 2015 season, several industry outlets bold predictions tabbed Blue Jays starter Drew Hutchison as an emerging ace. Another year removed from Tommy John, the velocity, the arsenal, the run support, the framing skills of newly acquire catcher Russell Martin were all poised to propel Hutchison to stardom. Well, it didn’t quite materialize. In fact, it was a disaster of Shane Greene proportions for those who championed Hutchison. Every fantasy owner remembers the bold calls that panned out, but we easily dismiss the ones that went wrong. So, what the hell happened to Hutchison?
After 11 uninspiring starts in his major-league debut back in 2012, Hutchison’s elbow barked and he underwent Tommy John surgery, which cost him the entire 2013 campaign. Upon his return the following season, he fired 185 innings and struck out a batter per-inning at just 23-years-old. The 4.48 ERA he compiled wouldn’t turn any heads, but his 3.68 Deserved Run Average (DRA) showed that he deserved a much better fate. Mix that with an above league-average 95 cFIP (a predictive pitching metric) and there was reason for optimism. On the surface, he was healthy and seemingly on the cusp of fantasy greatness. Then the wheels came off faster than one of Yoenis Cespedes’ sports cars on the Autobahn.
A freak knee injury to budding superstar Marcus Stroman thrust Hutchison into duty as the Toronto’s Opening Day starter (sorry R.A. Dickey). He responded by taking care of business against the Yankees that day, going six innings and giving up three hits. Just as fast as it had taken off, the bandwagon came screeching to a sudden halt by the end of April. To make matters worse, it then exploded. Hutchison surrendered seven earned runs over four innings against the Orioles in his next start and after after serving up six runs to the Red Sox and Indians in subsequent starts, his ERA on Cinco de Mayo was 7.47. That’s not a typo. It is, however, the actual model number of a Boeing jet.
When it was all said and (mercifully) done, Hutchison’s 5.80 DRA on the season ranked 113th out of 114 starting pitchers with at least 125 innings. In case you need context, that was two spots worse than Kyle Kendrick, who made half of his starts in Coors Field, and in case you missed that is Kyle Kendrick.
Even during his season from hell, Hutchison flashed some signs of being a useful starter moving forward. While his rate stats belonged in the garbage can, he still produced a 103 cFIP, which foretells roughly league-average performance moving forward. It’s also not hard to imagine his eye-popping .343 BABIP reverting back to the league average, which was roughly 60 points lower in the AL last season. Simply pointing to BABIP and shouting “regression” is probably not productive in trying to fully understand what happened to Hutchison last season.
One of the biggest factors contributing to Hutchison’s struggles was the simple fact that he didn’t strike as many hitters out as in the previous year. In 2015, he struck out just 7.7 batters per-nine, down from a batter per-inning in 2014. Typically when a pitcher’s strikeouts nosedive, it makes sense to take a look at his stuff, to see if it’s trending toward Mike Pelfrey rather than Clayton Kershaw.
Velocity (all charts courtesy Brooks Baseball)
Hutchison’s velocity on his four-pitch mix was remarkably similar from 2014 to 2015. Sure it would be nice if there were a bigger discrepancy between his fastball and change, but at least a velocity dip can be ruled out as the cause for the lower strikeout totals.
The biggest difference in pitch usage for Hutchison came with an increase in fastballs at the expense of sinkers. Despite fewer sinkers (aka less movement on his heaters), his groundball rate actually crept up from 36.1 percent to 39.6 percent. The added ground balls obviously didn’t lead to better rate stats, most likely because of a bigger problem Hutchison faced, that he didn’t miss many bats. If you’re looking to point the finger at the Blue Jays defense, don’t bother, they led the majors in defensive efficiency (.721) according to Baseball Prospectus.
Three of Hutchison’s four pitches got fewer whiffs in 2015. Despite throwing his change and slider at a similar rate, the pitches became below average pitches for generating whiffs, which probably contributed to lower strikeout totals and higher rate stats. As it turns out, one of the reasons Hutchison may have seen his strikeout rate decrease could be that all of his pitches moved less.
One of the reasons Hutchison’s pitches moved less could be his trouble maintaining a uniform release point. In 2014, Hutchison showed a more smooth consistency in his horizontal release point, firing pitches from a slightly lower, but similar arm angle. In 2015, he bounced around with the release point, creating an inconsistent delivery that resulted in pitches that didn’t move all that much. Mastering a consistent release point is difficult, but certainly not impossible. With a few tweaks this spring, Hutchison could return to 2014 form.
Heading into the 2016 season, there’s good news and bad news. First the bad news. As currently constituted, Hutchison is probably the sixth or seventh starter for the Jays, depending on what they decide to do with youngsters Aaron Sanchez and Roberto Osuna. Now on to the good news. Hutchison is still only 25 years old. There’s still plenty of time for him to reclaim some of the mechanics that led to such a promising 2014. Additionally, even without a guaranteed spot in the rotation, Hutchison could be a prime bounce back candidate. Per PECOTA, Hutchison’s 10th percentile outcome for the 2016 season proposes a line of 5.15 ERA, 1.59 WHIP, with 7.7 strikeouts per nine innings. In other words, the worst-case scenario the projection system can foresee is a repeat of 2015. With the right adjustments and opportunity, not to mention benefitting from the vaunted Toronto lineup, Hutchison could be a sneaky pickup with the talent to turn a profit at an extremely low cost in dynasty formats.
Mark Barry is a writer at The Dynasty Guru. Follow him on Twitter @hoodieandtie