(Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire)
There’s quite the history of failed starting pitchers turning into lights out relievers. Mariano Rivera, famously, was a failed starter. Andrew Miller, Zach Britton, Aroldis Chapman, Shane Greene and even Bud Norris fit this bill as well.
Collin McHugh has turned himself into a lights out reliever as well, although it’s hard to call his stint as a starter a ‘failure’. From 2014-2017, McHugh made 102 starts for the Astros. He posted a 3.70 ERA (3.60 FIP) with a 1.25 WHIP and an 8.4 K/9. However, Houston’s acquisitions of Justin Verlander last July and Gerrit Cole in the offseason pushed McHugh into a bullpen role, where he has thrived.
So far in 2018, McHugh is 3-0 with a 0.97 ERA, 0.81 WHIP and a ridiculous 51/9 K/BB ratio in 37 innings. His 89.4% LOB rate is obviously going to regress, but his 2.03 FIP and 2.12 SIERA show that his results are not entirely flukey.
He has been one of the best middle relievers in all of baseball, and has joined Chris Devenski and Brad Peacock in a bullpen filled with excellent long relievers.
Looking at McHugh’s pitch history, it looks like he’s made small adjustments to an already exceptional arsenal. The biggest change has been the addition of his slider, a pitch he didn’t throw until 2015. He started using it more regularly in 2017, offering it 17.3% of the time. It had mixed results, generating a 1.7 pVAL and an excellent 19.1% swinging strike rate, but also giving up a 31% line drive rate. He struggled with location as well, only reaching the zone 40.2% of the time. The 2017 version of his slider had about six inches of vertical movement, but didn’t move horizontally much if at all – making it look more like his nasty curveball.
McHugh has bumped his slider usage up even more this season, tossing it at a 19.3% clip. The pitch itself has undergone a significant change as well. Slider 2.0 generates 9.9 inches of movement, including about nine inches of drop and nearly three inches of horizontal movement.
Here’s a look at his slider from 2017 (top) and one from this season:
As you can clearly see, his slider now glides across the strike zone and away from a right-handed hitter (or in this case, into a left-hander) where before it looked more like a tight curveball. Although he’s getting less swing and misses on this version of his slider (19.1% in 2017, 11.6% this year) he has held opposing hitters to a .100 average and a -28 wRC+. He has also managed to throw 45.5% of his sliders in the zone, a five percent increase from last year. However, hitters are only swinging 39.7% of the time – which has lead to considerably more called strikes.
The extra horizontal movement has fooled more hitters into taking pitches that end up clipping the strike zone. McHugh has taken advantage of this by busting right-handers in on the hands and allowing this pitch to bend back into the inside corner. Here’s a look at his ‘front-door slider’.
It looks like McHugh actually missed his spot here, but he’s been using that front-door slider to back right-handers off the plate and get himself a strike call.
With the steady increase in slider usage for McHugh – something had to give. That something was his changeup, a pitch that McHugh used somewhat regularly from 2014-2016 but that he abandoned altogether in 2018. Opponents have long hit his changeup well, with a -5.8 career pVAL and a .297/.319/.484 slash line against.
McHugh has made other improvements as well, but the primary reason for his elite performance out of the bullpen this season has been replacing his changeup with his new-look slider.
From a fantasy perspective, McHugh looks similar to teammates Chris Devenski and Brad Peacock, who hold fantasy value thanks to their strikeout number and high-usage, but who rarely factor into the mix for saves – or even holds. Houston’s bullpen has been a frustrating one for fantasy owners, but don’t expect McHugh to step into a closer role anytime soon. Ken Giles and Hector Rondon will remain the closing options, and Devenski is likely third in line.
Still, for deeper leagues with K/9 as a category, McHugh definitely has value.
Hey Andy, do you feel McHugh holds more value in a categories league than Strahm or Yarbrough, both with similar SP, RP elig, and each lacking in SV+HD. Are all these guys an equal play for vulture Wins? Thnx
If you’re looking exclusively for wins I like Yarbrough the best in that group. Ratio-wise I like McHugh the best.
If the Astros were to sustain an injury and needed a starter, would it be McHugh or Peacock?
I’d suspect McHugh, although I’m not 100% positive.