Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
December 12, 2004
BASEBALL: Hudson Crossing
Another era is ending in Oakland, just as the first Beane Era ended with the departure of Matt Stairs, Ben Grieve, John Jaha, and Jason Giambi. It seems increasingly likely now that Tim Hudson will be traded in accordance with his demand for a new contract by March 1, bringing the era of the Big Three starters to a close.
Hudson, of course, is one of baseball's true elite pitchers, has been since he arrived in the majors in the last century. He's been durable - 2004 was the first time he missed significant time to injury - and unbeatable, 92-39 in his Oakland career.
Of course, I've long been a devotee of Bill James' belief that one thing you have to watch in evaluating pitchers is their strikeout rates; a dropping rate is both a signal (diminishing effectiveness) and has a direct effect on performance, increasing the number of balls in play that can potentially become hits. On the other hand, there are ways for a pitcher to compensate for a loss of strikeouts, at least temporarily, mostly by throwing strikes and keeping the ball in the park.
Tim Hudson in recent years has been one of the most extreme examples of those coping mechanisms you will ever see. Let's look at his season-by-season rates in a number of categories:
It's not an unbroken chain in every category, but the overall pattern is crystal clear: a broad-based improvement in every other aspect of Hudson's game but strikeouts since 1999. You have to admire Hudson's determined adaptability, relentlessly cutting walks and home runs, getting more ground balls, and revolutionizing his ability to set up the double play by eliminating his vulnerability to the stolen base almost overnight in 2002. He's even made just 3 errors the past three years compared to 10 the prior three.
That's the good news. The bad news is, his strikeout rate has been sinking like a stone, and Hudson has all but run out of room to squeeze further improvements out of the rest of his game to compensate. Lefthanders are particularly catching up to him, batting .298/.422/.352 against Hudson in 2004.
It's very possible that the smart, gifted and driven 29-year-old ace will come up with new ways to trick batters and reverse the downward trend in his strikeout rate, keeping him at the elite level to which he's grown accustomed. But any team forking over big bucks and top prospects to get him should understand that, if he doesn't, Hudson's days as one of the league's elite may be numbered.
UPDATE: I recognize, of course, that Hudson's alarmingly low 2004 K rate may have been a function of pitching through injuries. The downward trend is still worrisome.