Blue Jays: On Drew Hutchison, release points and relieving


As the Blue Jays continue to add starting depth ahead of him, Drew Hutchison‘s 2016 picture grows more interesting

It was quite the season for Toronto’s opening day starter. Drew Hutchison slugged through 150.1 innings for the Blue Jays in 2015, putting up an ugly 5.57 ERA and having 13 wins stick to him along the way. With the return of Marco Estrada and the additions of Jesse Chavez and J.A. Happ, Hutchison continues to shuffle down the 2016 depth chart.

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Hutchison’s fastball and slider both experienced significant regressions, which, for a fastball and slider pitcher, is somewhat of an issue. After PITCHf/x rated Hutchison’s fastball at 5.0 and slider at 4.1 in his encouraging 2014 season, those numbers plummeted to -11.8 and -8.1 respectively this past year. Unfortunately for Hutchison, it seemed that his game was never comfortable in 2015, and the consistency of his mechanics and delivery reflected that.

This led to a great deal of inconsistencies with Hutchison’s release points, both on the vertical and horizontal axis. Below you’ll see his horizontal release point compared to 2014. While he was clearly undergoing a level of change during the 2014 season, that progression occurred much smoother and incrementally. In 2015, that release point alternates between rising and falling, especially with his fastball and slider throughout April, May and June. That’s not going to work.

As names continue to be added above Hutchison on the depth chart, I’ll also be keeping an eye on the names added below him at the AAA level. While I’d be entirely satisfied with him opening the season with Buffalo, would the Blue Jays be tempted to use Hutchison in a bullpen role should sufficient depth accumulate atop the minor league system?

After seeing the velocity spike that Liam Hendriks was able to produce with a full season out of the ‘pen, I’d be fascinated to see what Hutch could manage, especially given the relative need for a long man. Being an interesting experiment doesn’t make it a smart one, of course, but it’s worth considering.

Regardless of his role, Hutchison will need to make some sense of his slider. That’s another area where he’s experienced a great deal of inconsistency over the past two years. Optimism was high after seeing the depth that Hutchison was able to create on the pitch late in 2014, but as you can already assume, it was up and down throughout 2015.

As his slider depth improved late in 2014, opposing hitters managed just a .088 batting average against the pitch in August and .118 in September. For the season, Hutchison surrendered a .185 average against his slider with a .286 slugging percentage and .082 ISO. If he can recapture that pitch, he should be just fine. Regardless of his role.

The fastball raked in great results in 2014, too, with an opponent’s average of .236, slugging percentage of .378 and ISO of .142. Where I was surprised, however, was looking at the variations in velocities and outcome percentages (K%, BB%, Foul%, GB%) between 2014 and 2015. None are drastically different.

Regardless, 2015 saw opponents hit Hutchison’s fastball to a .288 average, a startling .510 slugging percentage and .222(!) ISO. Against the slider, Hutchison allowed a .286 average, .415 SLG% and .129 ISO. Pointing to BABIP is often too simplistic an argument, but at some level in 2015, it absolutely abused Hutchison. His fastball BABIP sat at .320, while the slider BABIP was all the way up at .394.

This isn’t to say 2015 was an unlucky season and nothing more. Hutchison pitched poorly, and as you see above, he pitched extremely inconsistently. But what those numbers do suggest are that an offseason turnaround could be helped along by balls finding gloves and his batted ball profile returning to “normal”.

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It’s a delicate time for Hutchison, who is still just 25 years old and entering arbitration. A flirtation with a full-time bullpen role could start he and the team down a risky road of back-and forth, and take away one of Toronto’s few MLB-ready arms that can act as a 6th or 7th starter. At the same time, his still-very-existent arm talent and recent additions make the experiment tempting.

Making adjustments in-season is fine. All players are forced to, and as long as they’re just tinkering, it’s rare that it effects their game too greatly. What Hutchison was dealing with was much more than a tinker, though, so this offseason will be the best thing that could happen to him. An opportunity to put down the ball, breathe, and pick it up again later. Without a spot owed to him in 2016 he’s now becoming a complete wildcard, but it’s hard to look away.