Can Dan Hudson sustain his 2010 post-trade performance?
They say the grass is always greener on the other side. In Hudson's case, however, maybe he just preferred the desert.
Before being shipped to the Diamondbacks in the Edwin Jackson deal at last season's trade deadline, Daniel Hudson was unimpressive in three starts for the White Sox, holding a 6.32 ERA, 1.79 WHIP and lackluster 1.3 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He did pitch decently during his short stint with the Sox in 2009 with a 3.37 ERA and 1.34 WHIP, but six of his eight appearances came out of the bullpen. And his 7.4 BB/9 rate in his two starts was enough to make any prospective owner gun-shy.
Once Hudson joined the D-backs last year, though, he looked like a new man. In 11 starts, he went 7-1 with a 1.69 ERA, 0.84 WHIP and 4.4 K/BB ratio. He lasted at least seven innings in nine of those outings and allowed more than two earned runs (three) only once. To put his 2010 performance into perspective, he was the top fantasy hurler in Arizona, narrowly edging fellow right-hander Ian Kennedy. And according to the ESPN Player Rater, he was also a top-50 fantasy starting pitcher despite pitching for less than half the season.
Unfortunately, that's not where the story ends. Despite the pristine numbers, Hudson's time in the Arizona desert wasn't all prairie dogs and cactus gardens. First of all, Hudson's .246 BABIP (batting average against on balls in play) last season was very luck-driven. That mark was actually the fourth-lowest in baseball last year for hurlers who pitched 90 or more innings, and it should shift closer to the mean in 2011. He was also lucky with his 7.0 home run-to-fly ball rate (The league average is about 10.0.) Assuming it normalizes this season, the right-hander should see his ERA rise, especially considering he's a fly-ball pitcher at Chase Field, a hitter-friendly ballpark. Finally, his 83.1 percent strand rate last season was the second-highest mark in baseball among those with 90 or more innings and should regress this year, which will also contribute to a higher ERA.
The D-backs may have trouble scoring runs consistently this year. In 2010, the team ranked 16th in the majors in runs scored. In 2011, however, Adam LaRoche, the team's RBI leader last year, and Mark Reynolds, the team's home run leader, will lace up their cleats for different teams. LaRoche and Reynolds aren't All-Star talents, by any means, but a combination of Juan Miranda, Brandon Allen and Russell Branyan at first base and the past-his-prime Melvin Mora at the hot corner will have difficulty matching the lost production. Although the overall difference may not be drastic, Hudson figures to receive less run support than he did last season, when his 7.6 run-support average with the Diamondbacks and White Sox ranked 29th overall among starting pitchers.
Now that we've sufficiently poked holes in Hudson's 2010 season, let's move on to the good news. Although Chase Field isn't a great fit for Hudson's fly-ball tendencies, the NL West is a great place to pitch. Three of the other four NL West teams (Giants, Padres and Dodgers) ranked in the bottom half of the league in runs last year, and all three of those teams' home ballparks are below-average venues in terms of runs scored, according to ESPN's Park Factors page.
More importantly, the control and strikeout potential that Hudson showed with Arizona last year was noteworthy. His 7.9 K/9 rate was strong, but his 1.8 BB/9 rate (compared to the 5.3 mark he posted in nine games with the White Sox the past two seasons) was particularly impressive. Yes, the sample size is small, but had he qualified, his 4.4 K/BB ratio with the D-backs would have ranked third in baseball, behind only Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay. Fine company, indeed. If Hudson can continue missing bats consistently and maintain close to that level of control -- that he held a 10.6 K/9 and 2.3 BB/9 in 217 minor league innings says he probably can -- there's little reason to think he can't continue being a valuable fantasy starter, even if good luck doesn't swing his way as often this season.
With all of that said, we still have to determine just how valuable Hudson will be in 2011. Because everything essentially went right for Hudson in Arizona last season, some fantasy owners may think he's a future fantasy ace in the making. But that's not really who he is. Entering the 2010 season, Hudson was considered a fine prospect -- and the top pitching prospect in the White Sox's system -- but the general consensus from scouts was that his upside was that of a middle-of-the-rotation starter and that he was more likely to wind up in the back of the rotation or even in the bullpen. It's already looking as though Hudson will surpass some of those less optimistic projections, in part because of how much his changeup improved last season. However, it's important to keep those sky-high expectations in check.
Think of it this way. Even if we determined that Hudson wasn't the benefactor of any good luck in 2010, we still wouldn't predict a full-season repeat of what he did with the Diamondbacks. After all, if we simply prorated Hudson's 11 Arizona starts last year over a full season -- which is never a good way to project performance -- we'd have a 20-game winner with 200-plus K's, a sub-2.00 ERA and a sub-1.00 WHIP. Obviously, that's a completely unrealistic expectation for all but a handful of starting pitchers in the big leagues, much less for Hudson, who doesn't profile as a top-of-the-rotation starter and has only 114 big-league innings under his belt.
Hudson will indeed experience some regression in 2011, but much of that will come from the normalization of last year's unsustainable numbers (BABIP, strand rate, etc.), not because the skills he displayed in Arizona last season weren't legit. There's a small amount of injury risk here because Hudson missed his final start of the 2010 season with a strained tendon in his right middle finger, but the fact that he was throwing in February with no restrictions is a good sign.
All told, this looks like a strong and stable skill set, and one well worth owning in both mixed and NL-only leagues. Sure, Hudson, who turns 24 in March, may not be the future fantasy ace that last year's surface numbers suggest, but he holds top-30 starting pitcher upside and is a safe bet to at least settle into the top 40-50 range in 2011. And there's nothing wrong with that.
Mike Sheets is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com.