February 14, 2013 at 11:00 am by Andrew Sisson under Atlanta Braves
Personally, it’s hard to believe that this is Tim Hudson’s ninth season in a Braves uniform. He will enter 2013 pitching his age 37 season. In baseball terms, he is getting kind of old. Among active pitchers, Hudson ranks third in career innings pitched (only five innings behind Roy Halladay for second), and fifth in career pitches thrown. Having thrown 30,000+ in-game pitches, not to mention any offseason, spring training and bullpen work, it is only a matter of time before even the most durable pitchers hit a steep decline. So, on that pessimistic note, I think there are a couple of pressing questions and concerns relating to Hudson and how he will perform in 2013.
It’s no secret that pitchers generally start to show a steeper decline as they enter into their mid to late 30′s. Whether it is injury or just wear and tear on the body, eventually father time catches up to their ability to throw a baseball overhand at speeds close to 90 mph. Looking back at Hudson’s injury history, we have already begun to see some signs hinting in this direction. While having Tommy John is very common these days and has high success rates, it is still a procedure on the elbow of a pitching arm. If there is a bright side, elbows seem to be a less or an injury concern than shoulders. Hudson also had surgery on his back (lumbar spine-fusion) back in November of 2011. It caused him to miss the start of last season, but it supposedly cleared up many back problems he’d been pitching through for the past couple years. Again, it may have cleared up previous issues, but it was still an operation on an important part of an pitching motion. Hudson has also dealt with nagging injuries in his ankle (bone spurs) that reportedly have bothered him over the past couple seasons and caused him to miss a couple of starts in 2012.
In the end, it is almost impossible to predict any type of future injury. As we have mentioned before on here, there will always be an inadvertent risk to pitching. At Hudson’s age, along with some injury concerns we have seen over the past few season, he does seem to carry additional injury risk. I am not predicting any type of injury will occur this season, but the chances of him making 30 healthy starts this year is pretty unlikely.
Stemming from the fact Hudson is getting older, he has begun to lose some zip on his fastball. According to PITCHf/x, Hudson fastball velocity dropped to 89 mph in 2012, after consistently sitting between 90-91 mph for the past number of seasons. This isn’t the end of the world, pitchers can still be effective when velocity drops, especially when they weren’t flamethrowers to begin with. At 37, it is unlikely Hudson will be able to add more movement or better locate the ball like younger pitchers are often able to, to offset any velocity loss.
Jeff Zimmerman, who has done some fascinating work with player aging curves, gave a basic summary about a pitchers velocity drop.
“As long as a pitcher is able to maintain a certain velocity… the player can generally pitch with the same results year after year. It’s only when the pitcher begins to lose velocity that he sees his stats degrade at a higher rate. Sure, velocity isn’t everything with a pitcher — but it’s important.” – Jeff Zimmerman
Hudson saw a bit of a spike in contact rates against him last season, which we could probably relate to the decrease in velocity across the board. But, all of this is what we ultimately expect with age, a decline in “stuff” and therefore performance. Even if Hudson is healthy, we may see an expected increase in BABIP due to aging, LOB and HR/FB rates return to career levels, which could suggest an ERA closer to 4.00 this season (league average). To put it simply, Hudson is a ground ball pitcher and will rely on getting enough ground balls that will have to be fielded and turned into outs by the defense behind him.
Adding onto that point of being a ground ball pitcher, getting those balls in play turned into outs may be a bit harder considering the defense behind him. Hudson will pitch in front of an infield made up of Freeman (
Gold Glove slightly below-average), Uggla (below-average), Simmons (well above-average) and either or both of Juan Francisco (average) and Chris Johnson (well below-average) for most of the season. First off, Simmons is probably close to the best, if not best, defensive shortstop in the game. Yes there are still sample size issues, but so far he has confirmed what the eye test told us to expect. It is somewhat encouraging that the position where most ball are hit to is played by the well above-average defender, but it won’t be enough to negate the three other infielders who resemble something closer to that of Stonehenge. A ground ball pitcher having that collection of infielders behind him doesn’t necessarily project well. On the other hand, it is a very similar alignment to the one he pitched in front of for most of last season.
I think Hudson should definitely be looked at as one of the bigger question marks in the rotation this season. As I alluded to earlier, he has been an innings eater throughout his career, posting above 200 innings eight times. The doesn’t mean he will continue to do so this year or in coming years. There seem to be a lot of different factors working against Hudson. They actually appear to be the same type concerns we were worried about at the beginning of last season, but will this be the year we start to see a significant drop off?
Injury and PITCHf/x data courtesy of Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs.