Blue Jays: Don’t Count Drew Hutchison Out


By most statistical measures, Drew Hutchison had a bad year in 2015.  Really bad.  As in dead last in the AL in ERA among 150-inning starters bad.  As a result, many Blue Jays prognosticators are highly pessimistic about Drew in 2016 – even going so far as to say that he should not be among the Jays’ top 5 starters and that the Jays can essentially write him off.

I think that is a mistake.  Here’s why.

Looking past ERA

A 5.57 ERA is “unfortunate”.  But Drew’s advanced stats tell a different story.  His xFIP was 4.21 and his SIERA was 4.09.  Those are both #3 starter level (see aside below).  And his career xFIP of 4.00 and career SIERA of 3.86 both suggest reason for optimism that this level is sustainable.

Velocity up

For many pitchers, the first sign of a decline is a reduced fastball velocity.  This is particularly critical for pitchers who rely heavily on a plus-plus fastball.  But Drew does not have an Aroldis Chapman holy-cow-batman fastball – his career average velocity is only 92.1 mph.  And his 2015 velocity of 92.4 is actually the highest of his career.  So a drop in velocity is not the culprit.

Not hitting him hard

In 2015, 21.3% of balls hit of Hutch were considered “soft”.  47.9% were medium, and 30.8% were hard.  By comparison, the average AL starter had a 18.4%/53.2%/28.5% line.  So Hutch gave up 2% more hard hits, but 5% fewer medium hits.  Not all that terrible, and certainly not bad enough to explain a 5+ ERA.

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The BABIP story

Hutch had a .343 BABIP in 2015 – almost 50 points higher than the AL average .295.  This was made up of a reasonably normal .286 at home, and a Colabello-esque .422 on the road.  That road BABIP is clearly not sustainable, particularly given that only 32% of the balls hit off him on the road were considered hard-hit and 49% medium – both figures close to league average.

Home and away

The greatest anomaly in Hutch’s season was his home and away splits.  In Toronto, he had a 2.91 ERA and opponents batted .238/.288/.357 against him.  Away, he had a 9.83 (whimper) ERA and a .371/.437/.636 line.

Many writers have tried to explain this enormous difference, but there is no obvious statistical explanation.  He was not throwing more softly on the road, and his percentage of strikes thrown was not that different (63% road vs 66% home).  The best explanation that I have found is that Drew had some bad road starts early in the season (7 ER against Baltimore in his second start, 6 each against Boston and Cleveland in his next two) and that it affected his confidence.  Remember that Hutch is only 25, and that he missed the entire 2013 year due to Tommy John surgery, so he had less than 250 career innings pitched prior to the 2015 season.  So the problem became self-perpetuating – because he entered road starts expecting to be hit hard, he was.  Whether this is the explanation, or whether Hutch was just setting mlb records in bad luck, it is unlikely in the extreme that he will experience this level of problem in 2016.

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So what is the bottom line?

Steamer, one of the top baseball projection systems, expects Hutchison to pitch 175 innings in 2016 at an ERA of 4.11.  This is consistent with his advanced stats (SIERA and xFIP), both in 2015 and career-to-date.  It is also consistent with the expectations of him entering the 2015 season:  a solid #3 starter with #2 upside.

It is understandable that the Jays do not want to have to rely on Hutch in 2016, given the magnitude of his meltdown.  For them to look for another starter, so Hutchison can go into training camp as the #6 starter, is just good risk management.  But, in my opinion, it is more likely than not that Hutchison will pitch his way back onto the Jays’ rotation in 2016 – and beyond.

As an aside

People often ask me what a #1, #2 and #3 starter looks like, in terms of ERA.  If you define a #1 as the top 30 starters (and yes, I know alternate definitions are possible) then the #15 pitcher is the median #1 starter.  Similarly, the #45 is the median #2, and #75 is the median #3.  Take these three pitchers for the last 5 years, average them, and you get a median #1 being an ERA of 2.94, #2 being 3.55 and #3 being 3.99.  So if you said 3.00, 3.50 and 4.00 you are certainly “in the right ballpark”.