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Trying to Figure Out Drew Hutchison

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Drew Hutchison...

If you're anything like me when you hear that name you don't really know how to feel. There's feelings of hope, feelings of despair. The guy inspires thoughts of what could be or what could have been. Drew Hutchison was one of the most baffling pitchers in all of baseball last year. Here's some of the odd feats that Hutchison achieved in 2015:

  • Becomes youngest opening day starter in franchise history, got sent down to Buffalo in August
  • Makes 28 starts in which he has an ERA of 5.47, still wins 13 games
  • Sees significant decrease in K/9, also reduces BB/9
  • HR/9 increase, so does percentage of ground balls induced

I could continue on like this for a while. Hutchison's splits just become more and more confusing the longer I look at them. The two most interesting are how his numbers change with runners on base, and the drastic difference in Hutchison when he's on the road. In the hitter's paradise, Roger Centre, Hutchison had an ERA of 2.98, on the road his ERA skyrocketed to 9.83. What makes this even odder is that in 2014 he posted a higher ERA at home than he did on the road.

All of this makes the question, "what do we expect from Hutchison in 2016?", all the more difficult to answer. On one hand Hutchison has shown the stuff that he could step up and be a solid number 2 starter behind Stroman. On the other hand Hutchison struggled so mightily last year that it has led many to wonder whether we could be looking at another Rickey Romero situation.

The Good:

There's many reasons to have optimism when looking at Hutchison. The big one is that he's only 25 and doesn't turn 26 until August. He actually isn't much older than many of baseball's top pitching prospects like Steven Matz (24), Mark Appel (24), and Brian Johnson (25). Many of us forget how young he is since he made his major league debut in 2012 at the age of 21. In 2012 he looked sharp and, while he didn't set the world on fire (ERA of 4.60), he did pitch pretty well. He showed good velocity a solid changeup and a slider with a lot of potential. At the end of the 2012 season it was determined he would need Tommy John surgery which caused him to miss all of 2013. In 2014 Hutchison made 32 starts for the Jays in which he had a record of 11-13. That year he pitched in 184.2 innings for the Jays and showed real signs of becoming a top end pitcher. His velocity was up slightly from 2012 and the slider developed into a devastating pitch.

The Bad:

2015 was supposed to be the year that Hutchison became a household name. He was in his second full season and two years removed from TJ surgery. Things seemed to be headed in that direction when he got the nod for the opening day start. He pitched a strong game where he pitched 6 innings and surrendered only 1 run. But after that things got weird. Hutchison only managed a total of 9 inning in his next two starts while giving up 11 earned runs. On April 23 he appeared to find his rhythm again as he went 8 innings of 2 run ball. But his next start would show regression. And so was the season for Hutchison, a few bad starts in a row and then one of two outstanding starts that inspired hope. This went on for the better part of the season until August. In August Hutchison had a few good starts but by that time the Jays had acquire David Price and Marcus Stroman returned from injury. Hutchison was too unpredictable to move forward with and was sent to Buffalo. He made one start in which he only made it through 4 innings. He was called up for a start at the end of August to rest an aging Mark Buehrle. He pitched well, but a few bad starts in September would banish him to the bullpen and one start in a junk game.

So what went wrong?

This is the part in the narrative where things become difficult. For many pitchers when they seemed to regress there's something that we can point to as the culprit. For older pitchers it's usually declining velocity, this can lead to ineffectiveness or lack of confidence in a certain pitch. sometimes it's a matter of a new situation (new coach, team, stadium, etc), in Ricky Romero's case it was his sudden inability to find the strike zone. For Drew Hutchison I have scoured the numbers and watched some footage of him pitching and can find no reason for the sudden regression.

Hutchison's velocity never dips nor does his pitch breakdown. In fact, they're oddly similar from 2014-2015. According to fangraphs, his fastball averaged 92.2 MPH in 2014 and he threw it on 65.1% of his pitches. In 2015 he averaged 92.4 MPH and threw it 65.2% of the time. His slider and changeup show the same trend as his numbers from 2014 and 2015 are nearly identical in terms of velocity and how often he threw them. Watching him pitch there didn't seem to be much different in his delivery. His slider seemed to still have good movement and changeup seemed to have the same look.

What the numbers show

Hutchison's poor year in 2015 might have been the result of bad luck more than anything. Opponents had a BABIP of .343 in 2015. By comparison he BABIP in 2012 and 2014 were .293 and .295 respectively. Hutchison also had a HR/FB rate of 12.6% which is 3% higher than it was in 2014. This shows that maybe things weren't as bad as they appeared. Hutchison had an ERA of 5.57 in 2015 which is an awful number. But, Hutchison's xFIP mark of 4.21 shows that maybe the season wasn't as bad as we thought. In fact, Hutchison's mark of 4.21 ranks ahead of other notable MLB pitchers such as RA Dickey (4.72), Jeff Samardzija (4.31), and Edison Volquez (4.25).

This isn't to say that Hutchison doesn't have some fault in his regression. Hutchison saw a decrease in his ability to strike guys out. His K/9 went from 8.97 in 2014 to 7.72 in 2015. This is a result of his reduction in ability to generate swing and misses. But the silver lining is that we also saw a drop in his BB/9 from 2.92 in 2014 to 2.63 in 2015. Hutchison also generated more ground balls as his GB% went from 36.1% in 2014 to 39.6% in 2015. According to fangraphs Hutchison also progressed in the contact of balls. Hutchison saw a reduction in hard hit balls going from 32.1% to 30.8%. Hutchison also saw a sharp increase in the amount of softly hit baseballs as the mark jumped from 15.7% to 21.3%. When factoring in balls in play Hutchison's SIERA* drops to 4.09.

All of the fancy sabermetrics show the Hutchsion might have had a better year than we might have thought. Obviously, at the end of the day what really matters is actual results and not how we can play with the numbers to get what we want. But, these numbers do show that in many ways Hutchison saw progression in 2015 and many of the things that went wrong for Hutchison in 2015 might have been a result of bad luck as much as anything.

What to Expect in 2016

Hutchison enters 2016 in a competition for the number 5 spot in the rotation. Hutchison will be up against mainly Jesse Chavez and Aaron Sanchez. Other pitchers such as Brad Penny and Roberto Hernandez might get starts in spring training but the battle will really come down to those three guys. Hutchison might enter the competition as the favorite. The Jays still have optimism about Hutchison's ability to be a solid starter for them for years to come. He has a strong slider and good durability. Jays would certainly prefer him to win the job over Jesse Chavez would might be better suited to a long relief role. Aaron Sanchez will have every opportunity to compete but Sanchez also possess the ability to be an effective pitcher at the back end of the bullpen. Some believe that if Hutchison doesn't win the fifth starter job then he would slate into the long relief role. I disagree, I believe the Jays would rather have him in Buffalo getting regular starts instead of sitting in the bullpen.

I see a lot to make me believe that 2015 was an outlier for Hutchison and he should be able to bounce back. Hutchison showed much in 2015 to say that he is due for a much better year in 2016. I for one think he will win the job to start the season and should be a solid pitcher for the Jays this year. His age, durability, and potential all suggest that Hutchison still has the makings of a good prospect for the Jays moving forward. 2016 has the potential to be a breakout year for Hutchison.

*SIERA- Skill Interactive ERA: attempts to show ERA by factoring in xFIP and balls in play, looks at how balls were hit (ie hard, soft, pop up, ground ball, etc)