I fully expected Joel Carreno, not Drew Hutchison, would get the start today. He pitched well in both his first major league start as well as his first Triple-A start, even receiving the top spot on my inaugural Blue Jays prospect hot sheet. Carreno was scheduled to pitch Wednesday night, but the team could easily have limited him to a two-inning/40-pitch tuneup appearance. Instead, he went three innings, threw a lot of pitches and didn’t look particularly sharp, making the situation a bit murkier.
With Carreno out of the running, the field narrowed to three choices; Chad Jenkins, Drew Hutchison, and Jesse Chavez. While Chavez was the veteran of the group – at 28 years old he already had 152.2 major league innings under his belt – I instantly felt like he had a 0% chance of receiving the call. If it was a one-and-done appearance, maybe, but there’s likely at least three to four starts available for the team’s fifth starter over the next few weeks, and that’s far too many innings to hand a journeyman.
In a surprising yet unsurprising move, the Blue Jays handed the start to Hutchison. The move was surprising given his age (21) and experience (234.2 career innings), but at the same time, Hutchison is easily the best pitcher we have in the farm system that is on the cusp of being major league ready. General manager Alex Anthopoulos obviously believes that, with three former or current pitching coaches on the Jays’ staff, Hutchison’s lack of experience shouldn’t be much of a hindrance. With the decision formally made, the questions now turn to results, both in the present and the future.
In the long term, Hutchison projects to be a middle of the rotation starter. His stuff is not overpowering, but the total package of pitches grades out as above average, and he has exceptional command –- the best in the system, according to Baseball America. His bread and butter pitch is his fastball, though he throws multiple variations. The four seamer has nice velocity, sitting at 90-93 mph, but is relatively straight. With the two seamer, Hutchison trades velocity for movement, dropping down to 88-91 mph, but significantly increasing the arm side movement. With his frequent usage of a two seam fastball, it’s unsurprising that he uses a circle grip on his changeup, forcing the pitch to fade down and away in a similar fashion. He has shown good feel for the pitch, and it will be an asset in neutralizing left handed hitters. Hutchison also throws a slider, a pitch he uses comfortably against all batters. At times it has shown excellent two-plane movement, but in other situations, it has slowed down and becomes more of a saggy slurve. The pitch is at maximum effectiveness in the 83-85 mph range, with the problems occurring at lower velocity.
Hutchison is very polished for a 21-year-old, and his biggest obstacle may be finding consistency with his slider. That is not necessarily something you want to figure out at the major league level, so he could rely heavily upon his other three pitches early on, using the slider exclusively counts in which he doesn’t need to be perfect with it. He has benefited greatly by his crossfire action, as during his delivery he will step to the right side of his body with his left foot before finishing the pitch. He further accentuates the deception by working from the third base side of the rubber, which, from a right-handed hitter’s perspective, makes the release point extremely difficult to discern. Also working to his advantage is his pitchability, as Hutchison is capable of adding and subtracting from his pitches to upset timing and set hitters up. Perhaps more than any single pitch, he’ll need to rely upon these traits (deception, pitch sequencing) to find success early on in his career.
Al Skorupa of Bullpen Banter recorded some excellent video of Hutchison and his delivery last season. You can see his delivery from the perspective of a hitter beginning around the 6:30 mark. Additionally, their website has an extensive scouting report as well as animated GIFs of his various pitches in action, so be sure to check it out.
Dustin McGowan is out until at least mid-May, and with no more off days until May 7, Hutchison appears ticketed for four starts. The first, as most know, is today, when the Blue Jays are in Kansas City. It’s still early, but the Royals feature a lineup that is 12th in the AL in runs scored, with only 45 in the team’s first 12 games. Furthermore, they’re dead last in the AL in walks with only 28. It’s hard to suggest that a 21-year-old making his major league debut will find success, but a deceptive delivery against impatient hitters certainly plays in the pitcher’s favor.
The next three starts will see Hutchison facing much more capable opponents. He is currently on track to pitch in Baltimore on the 26th, at home against Texas on May 1, and then in Los Angeles to face Albert Pujols and the Angels on May 6. It’s doubtful Toronto would pull the plug on Hutchison prior to May 7 given that he’s now on the 40-man roster, but these four starts will act as an excellent barometer for the rest of his season. If he struggles, he’ll find himself back in Double-A with a new outlook on what needs improvement. If he succeeds, the Blue Jays will have a very interesting problem to deal with once McGowan eventually returns from the disabled list.