Astros AM: What to do about Collin McHugh?

Jul 29, 2016; Detroit, MI, USA; Houston Astros starting pitcher Collin McHugh (31) pitches in the first inning against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 29, 2016; Detroit, MI, USA; Houston Astros starting pitcher Collin McHugh (31) pitches in the first inning against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports /

Obvious statement of the year: good starting pitching is better than bad starting pitching.

A strength of the Houston Astros the past few seasons was the surprise emergence of two starting pitchers: Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh.

Keuchel is the more well-known Houston starter due to his 2015 AL Cy Young award and his magnificent beard, but McHugh has had his moments since the Astros acquired his services a few years ago. And like Keuchel, McHugh’s growth and improvement as a starter has been a catalyst for the Astros recent turnaround.

The same can be said for the team’s recent slide in 2016. And like the team’s regression, McHugh’s is also a little alarming.

Take a look back at McHugh’s statistics the past two seasons, his numbers have underwent a change.

2014: 2.73 ERA/3.11 FIP/3.11 xFIP

2015: 3.89 ERA/3.58 FIP/3.91 xFIP

2016: 5.01 ERA/4.18 FIP/3.94 xFIP

As one can summarize from above, McHugh has not been the same pitcher that he was when he burst onto the scene in 2014. His ERA has seen the largest climb, but his FIP and xFIP have risen as well.

So, what has been the cause for this regression?

Of all his pitches, McHugh’s fastball, curveball, and cutter have seen the largest variance from year-to-year since the beginning of his successful 2014 season. The most notable variances is the decrease of his four seam fastball and the roller coaster usage of his cutter.

Per Brooks Baseball:

2014: Four seam usage – 38.03%; Cutter usage – 31.49%

2015: Four seam usage – 32.91%; Cutter usage – 39.02%

2016: Four seam usage – 32.69%; Cutter usage – 30.71%

And if you dig deeper into his numbers, the two statistics that grabs attention is McHugh’s home run-to-fly ball rate and BABIP.

2014: 9.5% HR/FB; .259 BABIP

2015: 8.9% HR/FB; .310 BABIP

2016: 14.6% HR/FB; .365 BABIP

The increased HR/FB rate isn’t surprising when you consider that McHugh has already surrendered 23 home runs in 142 innings. In fact, he is only nine home runs short of matching his total home runs surrendered from 2014-15 combined.

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And it isn’t just one pitch that has increased his home run rate. In 2016, McHugh’s four seam fastball (0.97%), cutter (1.03%), and curveball (0.83%) have seen higher than home rates compared to last season. His changeup home run rate (1.34%) has decreased but only by 0.07%.

The increased home run rate also correlates with McHugh’s increased fly ball rate of 36.2% in 2016 compared to 33.7%/34.6% in 2014-15. And no surprise that his four seam fastball and cutter have also seen a steady increase in fly ball percentage over the years as an Astro. Perhaps moving away from his four seam fastball and concentrating more on his cutter and curveball has at least partially contributed to these less-than-desirable results.

McHugh’s BABIP of .365 on the other hand could be a sign of either bad luck, poor defense, or him just being simply hittable. I am leaning more towards hittable since home runs are not part of the BABIP calculation and if a pitcher is giving up more home runs than it seems more likely that an increase in other hits would occur. But his steady increase in BABIP over the years is alarming.

There are surely more pitches and statistics to analyze that can provide insight to McHugh’s struggles. But for brevity sake, his home run rate and batted ball profile is the best place to start in my opinion.

Going forward the Astros need the 2014 McHugh to resurface.

Of course, that is easier said than done.

For the Astros sake, an effective McHugh for the rest of the 2016 season would go a long way for the team’s slim playoff chances this year. The same could be said for the 2017 season.

If McHugh manages to cut down his home runs and limit the damage in the early innings, he will give the Astros the pitching boost they need with Lance McCullers still on the mend. For a team with playoff aspirations, a solid pitcher is needed that can provide quality innings.

Next: Astros AM: Leave Evan Gattis at Catcher for Good

Regardless of his results this season though, McHugh is still one of the Astros better pitchers in the starting rotation. Outside of injury, he will remain a fixture in the rotation until further notice.

**Statistics provided by Fangraphs, Baseball Reference, and Brooks Baseball**