The Astros have a pretty good pitching staff this year, finishing second in the American League in ERA for starting pitchers. They'll bring in a loaded rotation into this series full of young arms that can miss bats. Today's starter is Collin McHugh. The Fightin' 31!
Collin McHugh is a right-handed pitcher drafted in the 18th round by the New York Mets out of Berry College in Georgia. He made his major league debut in 2012, where things did not go so well. In eight appearances (four starts), he had an 8.86 ERA in 21.1 innings. He pitched in just three games for the Mets in 2013 before they traded him to the Rockies for reserve outfielder Eric Young Jr. McHugh fared no better in the thin air of Colorado, giving up 21 runs in 19 big league innings. That winter, they placed him on waivers, where he was claimed with the worst team in baseball - the Houston Astros.
Since going to Houston, McHugh has become a completely different pitcher. In terms of results, he has been one of the better pitchers the past two seasons, accruing 7.2 fWAR in just over 350 innings. That puts him 18th for pitchers in all of baseball in Wins Above Replacement (min. 350 innings).
The Astros picked McHugh up because they noticed fantastic spin on his curveball.
The Astros’ analysts noticed that McHugh had a world-class curveball. Most curves spin at about 1,500 times per minute; McHugh’s spins 2,000 times. The more spin, the more the ball moves during the pitch—and the more likely batters are to miss it. Houston snapped him up. "We identified him as someone whose surface statistics might not indicate his true value," says David Stearns, the team’s 29-year-old assistant general manager.
Hugh refined his slider and curveball, and began throwing them much more frequently. This year, he threw his curveball 23.5% of the time, fifth-most in baseball, and he threw his slider 38.7% of the time, third-most in baseball. By pitch value, McHugh's curveball is seventh-best in baseball. He can throw it at different speeds, even throwing an effective "slow curve" in the 50s. Batters hit just .158 against his curveball this year, whiffing 36% of the time.
The slider is less effective, lacking much bite, but it will induce groundballs. Hitters were able to knock it around for a batting average of .301 with a slugging percentage of .440. The secondary pitches not only get outs in themselves, but they have also made his 91 mph fastball much more effective.
McHugh is about average in terms of home run rate and exhibits decent command with 3:1 strikeout to walk ratio. His strikeout rate did decline significantly this year from 9.14 per-nine-innings in 2014 to 7.56 this year. His FIP went up as well to 3.58, up from 3.11 a year ago. Despite this, he enjoyed his finest season, winning 18 games with a 3.89 ERA and 3.9 fWAR.
McHugh fares better against lefties, surprisingly, perhaps because his breaking stuff runs in on their hands. Lefties hit just .235/.292/.356 against him while righties hit .288/.336/.420. McHugh was a fairly similar pitcher on the road as he was as home, actually giving up slightly more home runs away from cozy Minute Maid Park.
When the Astros slumped in September, McHugh slumped with them. He has a 4.70 ERA over his last five starts, although in two of those starts he gave up just one run in seven or more innings of work. Since the All-Star break, McHugh has been a much better pitcher than he was at the beginning of the year, with a 3.11 ERA and 10 wins in his last 14 starts.
The Royals have faced McHugh just once before when he tossed seven shutout innings in 2014, allowing just five hits and no walks while striking out nine. Eric Hosmer went 0-for-3 with a strikeout against him, Alex Gordon was 1-for-3, Salvador Perez and Lorenzo Cain each went 1-for-3 with a strikeout, and Alcides Escobar was 0-for-3 with two strikeouts.
Make no mistake, Kansas City will face tough opposition from starting pitchers in this series and the Royals will need to jump on McHugh and his breaking ball in Game One.