If the Braves expect to contend in the competitive National League East, they are going to need Tim Hudson to pitch more like the player they thought they were acquiring after the 2004 season. Luckily for Atlanta, the players given up in this trade have not exactly been missed-Charles Thomas was just let go by the Athletics, Dan Meyer has struggled with injuries, and Juan Cruz has been alternating between poor and average since the deal went through, and is a Diamondback now besides. Can Hudson revert to form, or is his past success more of a product of Oakland than we thought?
Timothy Adam Hudson attended Auburn University before the Athletics selected him in the sixth round of the 1997 amateur draft; this came after the A’s initially tried to draft him back in 1994 after he graduated from high school, but chose to attend Auburn instead:
Year Team IP K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR/9 H/9 RA 1996 Auburn (NCAA) 74.0 11.0 3.8 2.9 0.5 7.9 3.77 1997 Auburn (NCAA) 118.0 12.9 3.8 3.3 0.6 6.6 3.36
Mostly a reliever in 1996, Hudson started 18 games for the Tigers in 1997, with some nifty results. Like most young pitchers, Hudson walked too many batters, but the strikeout rates were impressive, and opponents didn’t get many hits off of him. The A’s took him with pick #185 in the draft, and he began his professional career later that year at Southern Oregon in the Low-A Northwest League:
Year Team IP K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR/9 H/9 RA 1997 S.Oregon (A-) 28.2 11.6 4.7 2.5 0.0 3.8 2.51 1998 Modesto (A+) 37.2 11.5 4.3 2.7 0.0 4.5 2.42 1998 Huntsville (2A) 134.2 7.0 4.8 1.5 0.9 9.1 5.63
Hudson’s high walk rate was a problem throughout his first two seasons in the minors, although nothing negative came of it until his stay at Double-A Huntsville in 1998. Somehow, his hit rate was lower than his walk rate during his time at Southern Oregon, and he just missed duplicating the feat for Modesto the next year. There were no such statistical oddities at Huntsville, just Hudson getting beat around for a much loftier hit rate, lower strikeout rate, and too many free passes for hitters. His Run Average was over a full point higher than his ERA, thanks to 16 unearned runs.
The 1999 season would be the last year Hudson spent in the minor leagues for any extended period of time, as he would repeat Double-A for a few innings, move on to Triple-A, then secure a spot in the A’s rotation before the season was out:
Year Team IP K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR/9 H/9 RA 1999 Midland (2A) 18.0 9.0 1.5 6.0 0.0 4.5 0.50 1999 Vancouver (3A) 49.0 11.2 3.9 2.9 0.4 7.0 2.94 1999 Oakland (MLB) 136.1 8.7 4.1 2.1 0.5 8.0 3.70
Walks were still an issue, but he again kept his hit rates somewhat low, and managed to strike batters out at a higher rate again. His major league debut was fantastic, posting a 3.70 RA at age 24. Baseball Prospectus 2000 was a big fan of Hudson’s work and future:
We told you to watch out for him last year, but nobody could have expected him to be this good this fast. His assortment is dynamite, from the darting, moving sinker to a good forkball, a nice changeup and a slider he mixes in for show. For a strikeout pitcher, he’s economical with his pitches, and Howe deserves credit for not overworking him. Perhaps the most basic thing he gave the A’s was the ability to go beat Randy Johnson or Pedro Martinez behind a good pitching performance.
Hudson’s strikeout rate began falling immediately after the 1999 season, although he managed to keep his walks and homeruns down, as well maintain a very high groundball rate. Baseball Prospectus 2001 had a solid description of his tendencies:
Tim Hudson changes speeds aggressively and well, his sinker moves, and his forkball drops on batters like an anvil on Wile E. Coyote. The key is that his release point is almost identical for every pitch, making it incredibly difficult for hitters to figure out what’s coming.
This would help to partially explain the high groundball rates and low hit rates, as there would be a lot of weak swings and guesses coming from hitters. This didn’t keep his strikeout rate from dropping, though:
IP K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR/9 H/9 RA BABIP 2000 202.1 7.5 3.7 2.1 1.1 7.5 4.45 .265 2001 235.0 6.9 2.7 2.6 0.8 8.3 3.83 .289 2002 238.1 5.7 2.3 2.5 0.7 9.0 3.36 .295
Hudson’s ERA remained low thanks to an incredibly high rate for stranding baserunners, 78.5 percent. Throw his decreased walk rate in the mix, along with a league average BABIP and 35 double plays, and in 2002, you have yourself the best (non-peripheral) season of Hudson’s career.
To put the double plays into perspective, Hudson had just 18 GIDP induced in 2001 in only three fewer innings pitched, and only 23 GIDP the next year in two additional innings pitched. Essentially, even though Hudson was probably not as good a pitcher as he had been just two years before, he was putting up better numbers due to his groundball rates. This is a strategy that works very well if you have a solid or great defense behind you, but once you stop striking batters out, start handing out free passes to first base again, and lose the incredible infield defense that used to back you (read: get traded to Atlanta later on in life), it catches up to you.
Baseball Prospectus 2002 mixed optimism with worry for Hudson’s future:
Hudson was great all year except in May, when he was collectively lit up by the AL East. His K rate hasn’t been what it was in 2000-2001, which is a cause for some concern, but he is keeping his GB/FB ratio up above 2. He’s a good bet to continue to be among the best pitchers in the game, but there is some mileage there, and lefties do hit him pretty hard-.283/.334/.448 in 2002.
That line against lefties was not a problem in 2003, where Hudson straightened out his issues and dominated them to the tune of .229/.286/.317, but from 2004-2006, southpaws have had their way with him at .288/.358/.448. His last two seasons in Oakland were a mix of effectiveness and decline:
IP K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR/9 H/9 RA BABIP 2003 240.0 6.1 2.3 2.7 0.6 7.4 3.15 .261 2004 188.2 4.9 2.1 2.4 0.4 9.3 3.92 .302
A very low BABIP and low walk rates kept his ERA down despite the declining strikeout rate, this time falling to just under five batters per nine. Hudson was still able to dominate hitters thanks to his ability to induce grounders almost 60 percent of the time when a ball was put in play, but he was having trouble getting them out any other way.
The Athletics had a decision to make in regards to Hudson. He was an effective pitcher, but this was in part due to the defense the A’s had behind him, as well as his home park. Although hitters were not exactly beating Hudson around, there were still more hits allowed on the road. The kicker was that he was going to cost much more than he was probably going to be worth going forward. This may sound like hindsight talking, but would you really want to invest almost $12 million a year into a pitcher who very well may implode as soon as the next season, thanks to the loss of what makes him successful? That $12 million looks much better after this offseason’s spending spree, but it still isn’t something the A’s could afford to spend their money on.
This is not to say the Braves have a bad defense. Their outfield defense has been among the best in the game the past few years, with rangy fielders like Ryan Langerhans, Jeff Francoeur, Matt Diaz, and Andruw Jones covering ground out there, but the infield is another story. Marcus Giles‘ range decreased with injuries and aging, and although Chipper Jones is a much better fielder than during his initial stay at third, he’s still no great shakes at the hot corner. The Braves also downgraded their shortstop defense by switching from Rafael Furcal to Edgar Renteria in 2006.
During Hudson’s stay in Oakland, the A’s team ranks in Defensive Efficiency were #16, #20, #2, #6, #2, and #9, with the non-top ten ranks coming in the years where Hudson was still able to strike batters out. During his two years in Atlanta, the Braves ranked #20 and #18; remembering that most of their best defensive play comes from the outfield, that’s a stark contrast from his time in Oakland. The results with the Braves are about what you would expect after seeing that:
IP K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR/9 H/9 RA BABIP 2005 192.0 5.4 3.1 1.8 0.9 9.1 3.70 .290 2006 218.1 5.8 3.3 1.8 1.0 9.7 5.32 .307
The positives: Hudson’s strikeout rate climbed two straight years, coming much closer to average than his last year in Oakland. The negatives: his walk rate also jumped back up over three per nine, and his home run rate, once a strength, has become a weakness. It appeared like almost nothing was wrong in 2005, but that was because Hudson stranded 78.8 percent of his baserunners. With essentially the same peripherals in 2006, Hudson only stranded 67.4 percent of all baserunners, and it showed up in his Run Average.
Year P/PA FB% LINERD% GB% IF/F% HR/F% BABIP eBABIP Dif. 2002 3.5 25.0% 19.6% 55.4% 9.1% 10.2% .295 .316 +0.21 2003 3.6 23.3% 18.8% 57.9% 12.0% 9.0% .261 .308 +0.47 2004 3.5 23.0% 18.0% 59.1% 13.3% 5.4% .302 .300 -0.02 2005 3.5 20.7% 20.7% 58.6% 6.3% 15.9% .290 .327 +0.37 2006 3.6 24.2% 18.1% 57.7% 10.3% 14.4% .307 .301 -0.06
Hudson was a bit lucky during his latter years in Oakland, except for 2004, and his first year in Atlanta was a repeat of that kind of good fortune. His home runs per flyball skyrocketed once he came to Atlanta, and it showed up in his numbers this past year as well. Hudson’s PECOTA forecast is fair for 2007, and I do expect a small bit of improvement since his percentage of stranded baserunners was probably a few percentage points lower than it normally is. Hudson has also struggled on the road-.273/.343/.451 away from the Ted, .266/.330/.397 at home-which cuts into his value.
Of course, there are defensive problems in the Braves infield heading into 2007. Kelly Johnson may very well win the job at second outright, and we really have no idea how effective he will be there with the leather. Edgar Renteria is still at shortstop, and Chipper Jones is average on his best days. Combine that infield with the five-year Hudson forecast where his projected PERA creeps up from 4.39 in 2007 to 5.21 in the last (option) year of his deal with Atlanta, is reason to trade him.
The Braves have tightened up their budget, even releasing Marcus Giles this winter because he was in line for a raise, so spending $11.75M AAV on someone who is producing like a back-of-the-rotation starter is probably not in their best interest. If they can sign Mark Redman to a minor league contract so he can put up an ERA of 5.00 in the majors, why should they pay Hudson thirty times as much to do just about the same, especially when they have to pay Mike Hampton roughly $30 million over the next two years to join the 5.00 ERA club?
Hudson makes just $6 million this year, but his contract calls for $13 million in 2008-09, with a $12 million option for 2010. There are other teams with looser purse strings who need rotation help, and with the right infield defense behind him, Hudson may even be able to post ERA figures in the low-to-mid four range. With the paucity of available rotation help out there, that has quite a bit of value, even at $13 million.