Drew Hutchison: Baseball’s Next Great Swing-and-Miss Artist?

hutchison

In his post-season press conference earlier this month, Toronto Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthropolous pointed out to reporters the blatantly obvious when he said his club didn’t achieve its goals this season. Toronto finished third in the American League East in 2014 and in the process extended its postseason drought to 21 consecutive seasons — now the longest active streak in baseball — despite a top-ten payroll exceeding $130 million at the beginning of April.

Yet for all the things Toronto didn’t achieve this season, several positives did come to fruition. Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion combined for 9.9 wins above replacement from the meat of John Gibbons’ lineup. Melky Cabrera and his 125 weighted runs created plus could be back (if the price is right). Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez showed signs of reaching their potential as future front-end mainstays to the rotation.

Oh, and don’t forget about Drew Hutchison. Toronto’s ninth-round pick in the 2009 amateur draft — the final draft under GM J.P. Ricciardi, who was canned after the season — posted a strikeout rate of 23.4% (best among his club’s starters) over 32 starts this season. Even with an unsightly earned run average of 4.48 and HR/9 of 1.12, such production is at the very least encouraging for Hutchison, who missed all of 2013 (notwithstanding his several minor league outings) after undergoing Tommy John surgery two years ago.

Hutchison was particularly impressive after the All Star break. The Lakeland, Florida native increased his strikeout ratio to 10.12 per nine innings (third-highest among qualifying starters), up from 8.2 during the first half of the regular season. Further, his swinging strike rate after the midsummer classic rose to 13.7%, which was higher than 93% of qualifiers and a modest increase from the much more league-average 10.7% rate he generated from April through the middle of July.

How was Hutchison’s arsenal able to take on a new level of filth as the season progressed? Firstly, he integrated his slider much more frequently.

Brooksbaseball-Chart (2)

From April through mid-July, Hutchison incorporated his slider at a steady rate, eating up approximately 20% of his arsenal over those four months. The turning point in that trend occurred in his final outing of July at Houston, when 29.8% of his 62 total pitches — he lasted just three innings in the outing — were made up of sliders. He then followed it up by tossing his breaking ball 24.02% of the time in the month of August and increased it to a healthy 31.35% in September, according to Brooks Baseball.

Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of this increase wasn’t so much the fact that Hutchison threw more sliders, but rather when he threw them. He showed tremendous confidence in the offering when ahead in the count as the season progressed, chucking it at a 42.9% frequency in pitchers’ counts over the final two months of the regular season — up from 30.6% prior. The result of that increase? Opponents missed on a ridiculous 42.7% of their swings against Hutchison’s breaking ball over the final two months of the season — increased from 29.7%.

Interestingly, his slider wasn’t the only offering that induced more swings-and-misses over time.

Hutchison

Each of Hutchison’s offerings — four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, changeup, and of course, slider — witnessed incremental increases in the amount of misses per swings they generated over the last two months of the regular season. Location had about as much to do with it as anything. The 6-foot-3 righty buried his slider and changeup in the lower third of the zone 72.0% of the time in August and September, compared to 66.5% prior. Simultaneously, he elevated his fastballs to the upper third 7% more frequently late in the season.

What we’ve learned today is that Hutchison tapped into his ability to miss bats at high frequencies A.) because of his comfortability with his slider, especially in pitchers’ counts, and B.) to locate his off-speed offerings down in the strike zone while elevating his 90-94 MPH fastball with increased effectiveness. Both of these attributes were on display in the last two months of the regular season, and were undoubtedly the key reason as to why he missed more bats than any other pitcher in the month of September (17.2% swinging strike rate).

To be sure, Hutchison must improve upon his ability to locate his hard and soft stuff and, thus, change the eye level of hitters. As we’ve already covered, home runs were a big concern for him in 2014, partially due to the fact that he wasn’t able to elevate high enough in the strike zone. But if he continues to command his hard stuff up and slider and changeup down more efficiently over time — as he showed in August and September — there’s no question he will limit the long ball and continue to miss bats at an elite clip.

______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Statistics courtesy of TruMedia Networks LLCFanGraphs.com and BrooksBaseball.net

Alec Dopp is a contributor to Gammons Daily and also covers the Green Bay Gamblers of the United States Hockey League. Connect with him on LinkedIn and give him a follow on Twitter @alecdopp