After undergoing Tommy John surgery over the summer of 2012, Drew Hutchison returned to the mound the following year, making 15 starts in the minors. Then in 2014, he arrived to spring training supposedly throwing harder. The positive news got me excited, and intrigued me to the point that I boldly predicted he would win a rotation spot and earn positive 12-team mixed league fantasy value.
The apparent velocity spike was backed by his spring training performance. He struck out 19 of the 55 batters he faced, for an impressive 34.5% strikeout rate. We know to put little stock in spring training results, but strikeouts are the one metric I still do pay attention to. Since the strikeouts were evidently supported by a real change, I then named Hutchison as one of four breakout candidates based on spring strikeout rate surges.
Unfortunately, Hutchison didn’t exactly enjoy that breakout performance. Or maybe he did. It depends of course on which metrics you choose to focus on. On the one hand, he posted an ugly 4.48 ERA, which alone meant that he was essentially replacement level in mixed leagues and likely added and dropped all season long. On the other hand, that came along with a 1.26 WHIP and 184 strikeouts, both of which contributed positive value to fantasy teams.
Even more telling though is that his strikeout rate did rise, though we have just one short season to compare it to. He struck out nearly a batter per inning, and I’m quite confident in saying that the mark was well above even the most optimistic of expectations and projections. And while he was an extreme fly ball pitcher, he maintained about a league average walk rate. Put all together, his SIERA was nearly a full run lower than his actual ERA at 3.59.
Oddly, it’s not so obvious why his ERA was so much higher. His BABIP and HR/FB rate both sat right around the league average. His LOB% was the primary culprit, but even that mark was just a percentage point below average. Perhaps given his fly ball tendency, he gave up a higher rate of doubles and triples than most and the homers he did allow just so happened to be of the multiple-run variety more often than not. He doesn’t even need to improve his skills for his ERA to improve significantly.
In the intro, I talked about talk of Hutchison’s velocity improving during the spring. On the season, his fastball velocity did improve over his 2012 mark, though only marginally, and certainly not to the degree it sounded like based on all the spring rumblings. His fastball did reach a peak velocity of about a mile per hour more than in 2012. So it’s still good news, even if I was expecting just a bit better.
When inspecting his pitch results, it appears that he has real strikeout ability. His fastball induced swinging strikes at a well above average clip, representing quite the jump from his short 2012. The velocity increase likely has something to do with that. And both his slider and changeup are solid pitches, generating SwStk% marks in the mid-teens. The improved changeup compared to 2012 may have once again been helped by his increased fastball velocity. But with three average or above average pitches, his strikeout rate shouldn’t regress too far.
Another non-obvious path to strikeouts is the potential for a jump in his called strike rate. According to the leaderboard at Baseball-Reference, he posted the second lowest looking strike rate (L/Str) in baseball. Looking strike rate is definitely a skill, but not as reliable as swinging strike rate. So while it’s unlikely he suddenly comes close to leading the league in the category, he should definitely get more called strikes next season. And guess who recently signed with the Blue Jays? Russell Martin, who finished 10th among catchers this season in the RAA catcher framing metric. So Hutchison should enjoy a nice boost in called strike rate next year.
The only real concern is that he threw just 57 innings in 2013 after returning from surgery, and is coming off an enormous jump to 184.2 innings this year. But assuming he stays healthy and is good for another 180+ innings, then he’s going to prove to be quite the bargain in drafts/auctions.
Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.