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Collin McHugh riding his slider to success

Houston Astros pitcher Collin McHugh has gone from a Quadruple-A pitcher to a stud by throwing his slider more than any other pitcher in baseball.

Collin McHugh on the mound, presumably throwing a slider.
Collin McHugh on the mound, presumably throwing a slider.
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

[Editor's Note: This is the site's first piece by new contributor Joe Vasile! Welcome him aboard.]

After years of futility and cellar-dwelling, the Houston Astros have begun to show signs of morphing into a respectable team. They are currently the only team in the AL West with a winning record, and have reeled off 10 consecutive victories. While that alone might qualify as a surprise, the emergence of Collin McHugh as a rotation stalwart is perhaps the most astonishing team storyline.

Coming up through the New York Mets farm system, McHugh was regarded as having the ceiling of a back-end starter. He was a good control pitcher who had a fastball that sat in the upper-80s to low-90s, with average secondary pitches. In a system that featured Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler, McHugh was an afterthought - shuffled constantly between Triple-A and the majors, never showing any consistency.

McHugh was eventually traded by the Mets to the Colorado Rockies for Eric Young Jr. during the 2013 season. At that point in his career, he had a 6.26 FIP and 1.765 WHIP in 28.1 career innings. In the thin air of Denver, McHugh didn’t fare much better: in 19 innings, he pitched to the tune of a 5.26 FIP and 1.842 WHIP. In this small sampling, it didn’t appear that McHugh had the stuff to put away major league batters on a consistent basis.

Things started to change for McHugh on December 18, 2013, when the Houston Astros selected him off waivers from the Rockies. On the surface the transaction was nothing spectacular – a team in rebuilding mode picked up a Quad-A player. After arriving in Houston though, something clicked for McHugh, and he hasn’t been the same pitcher since.

In 186.1 innings with the Astros in 2014 and 2015, McHugh has been spectacular. He has a 3.21 FIP, a WHIP of 1.047 and a K:BB ratio of 3.9. The Astros have won the last 10 games that he has started.

So what has been so different for McHugh in his time in Houston versus the rest of his career? It's actually quite simple: he is using his fastball less, and his breaking balls more.

McHugh uses his slider an astounding 44.6 percent of his pitches, and his curve 22.5 percent of the time. His fastball checks in at only 27.2 percent of his pitches. This pitch selection makes McHugh one of the most unique pitchers in baseball. Here’s how those percentages stack up against all pitchers this season.

Pitcher SL%
Collin McHugh 44.6%
Tyson Ross 39.7%
Chris Archer 39.0%
Nathan Eovaldi 34.0%
Justin Masterson 33.8%
Jason Hammel 32.7%
Michael Pineda 32.2%
Wily Peralta 31.3%
Francisco Liriano 30.6%
Madison Bumgarner 30.1%

Pitcher CB%
Drew Pomeranz 32.6%
A.J. Burnett 31.6%
Nate Karns 28.3%
Adam Wainwright 26.8%
Scott Feldman 23.3%
Edinson Volquez 22.8%
Collin McHugh 22.5%
Brandon McCarthy 21.5%
Jose Quintana 21.2%
Jered Weaver 20.2%

Pitcher FB%
R.A. Dickey 11.1%
Collin McHugh 27.2%
Scott Feldman 29.0%
Adam Wainwright 40.6%
Dan Haren 40.7%
James Shields 41.2%
Kyle Kendrick 42.6%
Jake Odorizzi 44.2%
Mark Buehrle 44.5%
Kyle Lohse 44.9%

I should note that for the curveball table, McHugh is the only pitcher listed other than Jered Weaver that also throws a slider. It’s also interesting that McHugh’s Astros teammate Scott Feldman joins him as the only non-knuckleballers to throw their fastballs less than 40 percent of the time.

It’s easy to be tempted into assuming that McHugh's slider is such a great pitch that its increased usage has led to his success, but that’s not entirely true. Coming in at an average of 87.5 miles per hour, his slider is harder than most and features less movement. McHugh generates a lot of groundballs with the pitch this year, but opponents are hitting .333 with a .203 ISO against it.  So the slider hasn't been a dominating pitch, but its increased usage has correlated with greater success.

The success is coming from a much-improved fastball. McHugh's fastball averages 91.6 mph, but opponents have hit just .105 against it with a .053 ISO. In 2014, they hit .248 against his fastball, which he threw about 38 percent of the time. As McHugh has thrown his breaking pitches more and his fastball less, the fastball has become a better pitch through the benefit of effective velocity.

Effective velocity, outlined by Jason Turbow here, is the theory of pitching where, dependent on location, a pitch can appear to be up to five mph faster or slower than it actually is.  For example, a 90 mph fastball located down and away will appear different slower to a batter than a 90 mph fastball high and inside, despite the same actual speed.  This effect is exacerbated by say, going from an 87 mph slider low and away to a 92 mph fastball high and tight.

By utilizing this principle with great efficiency, McHugh has been able to go from a nobody to a star. Based on what's happened so far, can we really know what the future will bring for him?

Stats courtesy of FanGraphs and Brooks Baseball.