by Dave De Wit
Don’t look now, but Collin McHugh is the Dallas Keuchel of this season—oh wait, that doesn’t exactly work. They’ve both been great in Houston, and if Keucheling were a verb for coming out of nowhere, having a slightly strange name and throwing a baseball really well, then McHugh has absolutely Keucheled through his first nine starts of 2014. Yet, McHugh’s fantasy stock hasn’t quite reached the same level as his teammate. In fact, McHugh is owned in less than half of ESPN and Yahoo! leagues.
McHugh’s 2.82 ERA and 1.03 WHIP over 54.1 innings are brilliant, but it is his 60 strikeouts to 19 walks that really shine. As noted in previous posts, the best predictor for rest-of-season ERA is strikeout percentage minus walk percentage (K-BB%). Currently the AL average K-BB% is 11.7 percent. McHugh has an 18.7 percent K-BB%, showing that his impressive ERA is not all fluke.
To put his K-BB% into context, McHugh currently ranks 10th in the category among AL starters with a minimum of 170 batters faced (when both strikeout and walk percentages are reliable). His K-BB% in the whole MLB ranks 17th best. That puts him just ahead of Adam Wainwright, Scott Kazmir, Anibal Sanchez and teammate Keuchel (he’s out-Keucheling the Keuchler!).
McHugh’s success in preventing runs is coming in large part from an added mile and half per hour of velocity on his four-seam fastball and from ditching his underwhelming sinker. Before this year his 91 mph fastball (per Brooks Baseball) was getting crushed—opponents hit for a .372 average against it with an unbelievable .821 slugging percentage over 355 pitches! His sinker was just as bad, getting pounded for a .485 average and .735 SLG. This year McHugh has ditched the sinker, and his new 93 mph fastball has opponents hitting just .253 with a .387 SLG over 387 pitches.
While the faster fastballs and lack of sinkers have been nice, it’s McHugh’s curveball that is really impressive and is driving his strikeout rate.
McHugh’s curve is getting whiffs 16.5 percent of the time, while league average on curveballs is about 11 percent. Righties have had no chance against the offering, whiffing at a 20.75 percent rate. Along with the impressive curveball, McHugh has about average swing-and-miss ability with his fastball and slider.
A concern with McHugh going forward is his ability to get left-handed batters out. His changeup, which he only uses 10 percent of the time against lefties, isn’t very good. Its 5.9 percent whiff rate this year is way, WAY below the 15 percent league average whiff rate on changeups.
To make up for the lack of a change, McHugh has thrown breaking balls against opposite-handed batters. While curveballs typically don’t have a platoon split, sliders—which he is throwing 26 percent of the time against lefties—do. His slider against left-handers is getting considerably fewer whiffs than league average, yet it hasn’t resulted in any damage to this point.
Through 118 left-handed batters faced, McHugh has actually fared better against lefties than against righties, despite the fact that his strikeout rate is nearly ten percentage points higher when facing righties. This implies that McHugh’s success against lefties is a little lucky, as his .238 BABIP against also suggests.
Despite the concern of regression against left-handed batters, McHugh’s outlook going forward is surprisingly positive. While most fantasy owners see his name on the waiver wire and immediately assume that he can’t keep it up, you can pounce on him for no cost and ride his amazing curveball up the league standings. And with his next two starts coming against the poor-hitting Tampa Bay Rays, now is a good time to buy in.