Back when the "Moneyball" Oakland A's made the playoffs four consecutive seasons and averaged 97 wins over a five-year span, it may have been sabermetric principles and exploiting market inefficiencies that eventually received acclaim for the team's success, but the foundation was really similar to most winning teams: Terrific starting pitching.
Tim Hudson was always my favorite of Oakland's big three. Mark Mulder was the golden boy left-hander with the good looks and the classic delivery from an imposing 6-foot-6 frame. Barry Zito was the California surfer with a new-age vibe and curveball that buckled knees. Those two were top-10 picks. Hudson was a sixth-round pick out of Auburn, an undersized right-hander who had been a two-way star in college, but not a top prospect until he blew through the minors in less than two years.
Hudson had actually been the seventh pitcher the A's selected in that 1997 draft. I remember watching one of his first starts as a rookie in 1999 and thinking, "Who is this guy? He's phenomenal." Listed at 6-foot-1 -- generous by an inch or two, I would guess -- and an unimposing 175 pounds, nothing he threw was straight. As it was noted in "Baseball Prospectus" after that season:
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 pitchers, and [Art] 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.
In 2000, the A's snuck into the playoffs on the final day of the season and Hudson was a huge reason why -- he won his final seven starts that season, posting a 1.16 ERA and tossing eight scoreless innings in Game 161.
Twelve years later, Hudson is still going strong and I still love watching him pitch. The sinker is now more often in the upper 80s than the lower 90s, but it still moves and still darts. Hudson threw 6.1 shutout innings against the San Diego Padres on Tuesday, as the wild-card leading Atlanta Braves won 6-0, improving to 12-4 with a 3.59 ERA. In a Braves rotation that has battled injuries (Brandon Beachy) and inconsistency (Tommy Hanson, Mike Minor), Hudson has been the rock since he returned after missing the opening weeks after back surgery.
Hudson had pitched the past couple seasons with back pain and still fashioned a 3.02 ERA. He had initially wanted to wait until he retired to have surgery, but instead had the lumbar spine fusion performed in November. Yes, that doesn't sound like something you want to go through -- especially since the surgery is done through the stomach area.
It's the second time Hudson has recovered from major surgery, having undergone Tommy John surgery in 2008. His career was in jeopardy then, but since that surgery he has gone 47-24 with a 3.18 ERA. In my mind, he's the most underrated pitcher of the past 10 years. How much publicity does Hudson get?
Hudson: 192-101, 3.42 ERA, 2,625 IP, 50.5 WAR
Smoltz: 213-155, 3.33 ERA, 3,437 IP, 62.6 WAR
Schilling: 216-146, 3.46 ERA, 3,261 IP, 76.9 WAR
Maybe Hudson isn't quite on their level, and he doesn't own their postseason success (he's 1-3 with a 3.46 ERA in 10 games), but he's pretty close and has been a quiet workhorse (only Roy Halladay has more 220-inning seasons since 2000). And he's not finished. Earlier in the season he said he feels so much better after the back surgery that he feels he can pitch a couple seasons after his current contract expires (the Braves hold a club option for 2013).
If Hudson pitches four more seasons, which takes him to age 40, he could conceivably end up with about 240 career victories. Maybe that doesn't make him a Hall of Famer, but it puts him in the discussion. Not bad for a sixth-round pick.
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