Astros: The somewhat positive return of Collin McHugh

HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 19: Collin McHugh
HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 19: Collin McHugh /

The Astros starting rotation has been something of a question mark all season long.

Today’s topic is about Collin McHugh and his recent return to the Astros. And his return has been successful to a certain degree. I will get to that in a moment.

More importantly, I want to remind everyone that this post is just about a silly game. A silly game that many of us enjoy. Life still goes on regardless of a silly game. That said, I implore you to keep the Texas Gulf Coast in your thoughts and prayers throughout the Hurricane Harvey event. Plenty of people are hurting out there. Towns and communities were damaged beyond belief. And it is far from over here in southeast Texas.

You may also be wondering why I am even writing about baseball today?

Well, I believe writing about baseball is a coping mechanism for me. It is strangely therapeutic. And I am fortunate enough to be have power and no immediate threat of flooding. Like I said, it is strangely therapeutic.

Anyway, where was I?

Yes, Collin McHugh’s return.

Let’s just say that the Astros must be pleased with the results. While the veteran pitcher has yet to pitch more than six innings in any of his seven starts, McHugh has failed to pitch past the fifth inning once. That’s a positive.

McHugh’s last three starts have been particularly encouraging as he surrounded just three runs in his last 17.2 innings pitched. For an Astros team that sorely needed quality starts off-and-on all summer, this has been most welcomed.

The more subtle aspect of McHugh’s return has been his ability to generate more swinging strikes – +1.3% since 2016 – and lower his contact percentage – -3.7% since 2016 – in his small sample size this season. McHugh will always pitch for contact more than some pitchers – career 41.9% ground ball rate – but he has regressed each season since his 2014 breakout. This could be a troublesome sign for the future, especially if hitters adjust as they tend to do. But his 3.61 FIP is awfully close to his 3.63 ERA so maybe regression isn’t in the cards? His 4.43 xFIP may say otherwise.

Another interesting aspect of McHugh’s return lies in is his pitch selection. For instance, McHugh’s slider usage per Fangraphs has jumped to 17.6% from 0.5% last season while his cutter usage has sharply decreased to 7.1% from 28.5% in the same period. This could be a difference classification between the Pitch F/x and Statcast data since 2017 as well. This is, after all, the first season of Statcast data usage by multiple analytic sites. And a slider and a cutter are somewhat similar in breaking action.

While the velocity may be down per Fangraphs compared to past seasons, McHugh has been able to generate results. He has also managed to keep the hard hits currently to just 26.6%. On the other hand, McHugh isn’t generating much soft contact – 7.3% this season – compared to his career average of 20.0%. This may be a worrisome sign if the medium hit percentages convert to hard hit percentages. But you cannot take away the results. At least not yet.

Next: Astros home series versus Rangers in holding pattern with Harvey

Anyway you slice this onion, the return of McHugh has provided stability to the Astros starting rotation. When you consider the injuries to multiple starters this season, the veteran’s solid return has to be counted as a positive. How much of a positive will continue to be decided in the coming weeks.

**Statistics and information courtesy of Baseball Reference and Fangraphs**