Collin McHugh wowed Mets fans with an amazing debut, striking out nine Rockies and only walking one over seven strong innings. McHugh also wowed Mets fans with a curve that had a ton of drop and made Rockies batters look silly.
Of course, a lot of pitchers have made Rockies batters look silly, and in his second start McHugh faced a more formidable offense — the Cardinals — and lasted only four innings, striking out two (though he walked none).
So which McHugh is the real one? How good are his pitches? McHugh wasn't at all a hyped prospect for the Mets (ever, really) so most casual fans haven't heard of him. Oddly, though, he's been one of the more scoutable prospects in the system, since he lucked his way into pitching in two straight PITCHf/x games at Futures at Fenway as well as in the Arizona Fall League, where two stadiums are equipped with PITCHf/x. Since these other sites have had calibration issues, I'm ignoring that data for now.
Let's take a look at his pitches through PITCHf/x.
Vertical Movement: the amount of inches the ball drops/"rises" as compared to how we would expect gravity to make a pitch drop. So a Fastball with Positive 10 Vertical Movement "RISES" 10 inches more than it should if gravity was the only force acting on it and a curveball with -10 Vertical Movement drops 10 inches more than a pitch thrown that is just acted on by gravity.
Horizontal Movement: The Graph is from the view of a catcher or umpire behind home plate. So a pitch that's on the left side of the graph (and has "negative horizontal movement") moves in on righties and away from lefties. A pitch that's on the right side of the graph moves in on lefites and away from righties.
Legend for this Graph and All Subsequent Graphs:
4-Seam Fastballs = Red Dots
2-Seam Fastballs = Orange Dots
Change Ups = Dark Yellow Dots
Sliders = Blue Dots
Curveballs = Purple Dots
Stop me if you've heard this one before: McHugh throws five pitches:
- A Four-Seam Fastball averaging just under 90 MPH (89.7 MPH) with 6 inches of tail in on righties and 7.5 inches of "rise".
- A Two-Seam Fastball averaging around 90 MPH (same as the four-seamer) with 9.8 inches of tail in on righties and only 3 inches of "rise."
- A change-up — super rarely used (only four thrown so far) — that has averaged 82.5 MPH, 10 inches of tail, and only 1.75 inches of "rise"
- A slider averaging 83.8 which averages 2 inches of movement away from righties with .2 inches of "rise
- An 11-to-5 curveball averaging just above 70 MPH (70.4MPH) with 7.3 inches of movement away from righties and an average of 10.6 inches of vertical drop.
Regarding #5, I've seen this curveball described before as a 12-to-6 curve, most recently by Metsblog. However, it is in fact a pretty textbook 11-to-5 curve. A 12-to-6, exemplified by Barry Zito, has little horizontal movement and is basically all vertical movement. It's the rarest variety of curveball, and just because a curve has a lot of drop does not make it a 12-to-6. An 11-to-5 is far more common, which combines the drop with a decent amount of horizontal break. Think of a clock face: a 12-to-6 breaks straight down, while 11-to-5 breaks down and to the side.
McHugh is essentially a two-pitch pitcher against left-handed batter, relying on his four-seamer (60.8%) and curveball (22.8%), while he is a three-pitch pitcher against right-handed batters, with the slider being a major weapon (29%) alongside the fastball (41.6%) and the curveball (19.1%)
I'll go a bit more in depth on these pitches, because I'm sure those numbers above aren't that.
The Four-Seam Fastball
McHugh's four-seam fastball is his primary pitch, particularly against lefty batters. It's very ordinary in movement for a four-seamer — the pitch doesn't sink nor does it have the "rise" you'd expect from a rising whiff-inducing fastball — and has mediocre velocity — it often comes in under 90 MPH. It's certainly the pitch McHugh throws most consistently for strikes, but it's not like he has hit the corners with the pitch particularly well: against lefties so far he seems to go middle-in more than away, and he doesn't pound the inside (or really any part) of the strike zone especially well. Against righties, it's hard to discern a pattern of where he locates the four-seamer other than the fact that he tries to be generally within the strike zone.
Overall the four-seamer is not an impressive pitch, and that fact is reflected in his results: Against lefties, the pitch has a good swinging-strike rate and against righty batters it has an average swinging-strike rate, but it is clearly a fly-ball pitch and probably an extreme one at that — 13 of these four-seamers have been put in play, and only one has resulted in a ground ball.
I'm pretty sure McHugh is aware of its mediocrity — while it's his primary pitch, he throws it only 61% of the time against lefties and only 42% of the time against righties. These are not high percentages. Still, McHugh throws the pitch against lefties even in good counts (on 0-2, 1-2, and 2-2 counts, he's thrown the pitch in nine of 16 opportunities, despite the favorable count), presumably because the pitch has a decent whiff rate against lefties (and because of a lack of other trusted options). Against righties, however, McHugh seems to avoid excessive four-seam usage until he's behind in the count.
The Two-Seam Fastball:
McHugh's two-seam fastball is a different story. It averages 4.5 inches more sink than his four-seamer, and actually has pretty good sink for a two-seamer. Its velocity is around 90 MPH, the same as his four-seamer. McHugh could in fact have a pretty good sinker here, which, unlike his four-seam fastball, could induce a pretty solid ground ball rate.
Of course, in contrast to the four-seam fastball, McHugh barely throws the two-seam fastball at all. He's only thrown it 14 times in the two starts combined, compared to 85 four-seam fastballs. There's a reason for this: a lack of command. Nine of these 14 two-seamers have missed even a generous interpretation of the strike zone, and that number climbs to 11 of 14 if you use the rulebook strike zone. McHugh aims this pitch inside on righties and away from lefties, capitalizing on the natural tailing action of the pitch, but mostly it hasn't even been close to the zone. Mind you, he's aiming for either the corner or just off the plate intentionally, but he's really missing by a bit.
While this could have been a small sample size thing, McHugh himself said in a comment on my previous post on him that "the difference is that I have a bit more command w the 4 sm and the 2 sm has some more sink" — the implication being that command is not something McHugh identifies with the two-seamer, which is a shame because, unlike the four-seam fastball, there's really a legit pitch here that could work well as a primary pitch instead of just something McHugh throws to change it up a little. In theory, if McHugh could control the pitch, the two-seamer would work well as the primary fastball, causing batters to pound balls into the ground, with an occasional four-seamer being used to get whiffs. It's something to think about and work on for McHugh.
Lets be quick here: If McHugh doesn't trust his two-seamer, then he seriously distrusts his change-up. McHugh has thrown a grand total of our of them in 168 pitches. None have been in two-strike counts. None have been in anything beyond a one-ball count. This doesn't mean the pitch can't be useful in the future — it's got movement like the two-seamer (slightly more tail and sink actually) and could be a nice third weapon against left-handed batters if McHugh could develop it. But this is a lot more theory than reality at this point.
McHugh's slider on the other hand is a pitch he relies upon greatly, at least against right-handed batters. The pitch is rarely used against lefties (5%) but is a major weapon against righties (29%), to the point that it becomes his primary pitch in some counts. The pitch lacks great movement, but it has decent velocity for a slider, and most importantly, McHugh has some command over the pitch and seems to have two targets for it. Early in counts (0-or-1-ball counts), he has aimed low and away from righties, out of the strike zone; in worse counts he has aimed in the strike zone, essentially middle in.
McHugh described the pitch as a "contact pitch" because of its lack of great movement, but he has gotten three whiffs on 14 swings against righties — not at all a bad rate, notwithstanding the small sample size — all on sliders low and away (not surprisingly, no batter has missed on a slider in the strike zone so far). But unlike his four-seamer, the slider shows promise even as a contact pitch because it may be a good ground-ball pitch (four of seven balls in play have been grounders).
McHugh's curve has gotten the most attention from Mets fans, especially from his first start. However, while everyone loves a good curveball, Mets fans probably need to temper their expectations for this pitch a bit. The curveball's velocity is poor, often under 70 MPH, which limits its effectiveness. Moreover, its movement has varied a good bit: In his first start, McHugh's curve did indeed have nasty movement — consistently above 10 inches of vertical break, sometimes breaking between 12-14 inches downward on its way to the plate. With that amount of break, a curveball, even at McHugh's velocity, could be fairly good (that's a LOT of movement).
But this week, McHugh's curveball's drop was more in the 7.5-10 inch range, which is far more typical of an 11-to-5 curveball and, without much velocity, it doesn't make for an impressive pitch. This doesn't mean that McHugh couldn't make such a curveball work, but just that at that level of movement, he won't make batters look silly without good location and timing.
The curve is still a very important pitch, as it's McHugh's only real secondary pitch against lefties and is basically his out pitch, having been used on two-strike counts against both lefties and righties. McHugh described the pitch last year:
The curve and change are both pitches meant to be thrown in the zone (i.e., contact pitches) early in the count and "chase" pitches late in the count. Most of the misses with those pitches are down, bc you don't want to get hurt in the middle of the plate with them.
This has pretty much been the case: Nearly all of McHugh's curves (all but four of the 35 thrown) have been below the middle of the zone, with most either being low or in the lower third of the strike zone. Command is not McHugh's problem with this pitch and over half of his curves have hit a large strike zone (a good number for a breaking ball). I wouldn't expect it to be a great ground-ball pitch despite the movement (lacking velocity hurts in this regard), but we simply don't have enough data (just five balls in play) to tell yet. Against lefties the curve has gotten whiffs in his two starts, but again the sample is too small to conclude anything meaningful from that.
Overall, the curve is a solid weapon in McHugh's arsenal, but unless he gets a lot more movement than he did in his second start, it won't be enough for him to do well against big league hitters.
Collin McHugh is not going to be the next Mets ace. He certainly can be a #5 pitcher for the Mets, which is more valuable than most fans think. He could be even better than that, but he has a lot to work on before he can get to that level. In that regard, I hope he works heavily on two-seam command and on using that pitch more frequently. Lacking great velocity, it's his only pitch that has a good shot at getting ground balls and certainly seems promising, far more so than the four-seam fastball. It'll also be interesting to see if he develops his change-up (my bet is no).
Mind you, improvement is possible. A few years back, we watched Jon Niese come up to the majors with only three pitches, but he added two more pitches over the course of a year and has developed very nicely. McHugh may not be Niese — for starters, he's not a lefty and has worse velocity — but like Niese back in 2009, he's likely to change quite a bit from the pitcher we've seen these last two starts. With any luck, those changes will be positive ones.