It wasn’t a great start.
Leading the league in walking batters, Dakota Hudson – coming off a promising start against the Cubs – began the second game of the Cincinnati series by walking the first batter he faced.
Things would go mostly downhill from there. Hudson would end up on the losing end of a 5-1 score (box score), and his line wouldn’t be pretty. Dak allowed 5 runs on 9 hits over just 4.2 innings, sparking dialog about his place in the rotation. But the storyline is changing on Hudson. His leadoff walk to Jonathan India was his only walk of the game.
He threw 65.3% of his pitches for strikes – substantially higher than his concerning 59.3% figure for the season. This time, if nothing else, Dakota made them hit their way on. Unfortunately for him, though, they did. Nine times.
Even then, though, these weren’t all rocket shots driven to the far corners of the ballpark. The average exit velocity against Dak was a below average 86.36 miles per hour. During the course of his frustrating evening, Hudson had two groundballs bounce off the third base bag – one that Nolan Arenado make a superior play on, and the second that re-directed sharply off the bag striking Nolan in the cheek.
That last grounder – the second infield hit of that fifth inning – loaded the bases and set the stage for both Hudson’s exit from the game, and Cincinnati’s fifth and final run.
Sometimes It’s Not Location, Location, Location
The Cardinal pitching staff is blessed with several pitchers who can throw as hard as anyone in baseball. Hudson is not one of those. The hardest pitch he’s thrown all season tickled the radar gun at just 94.6-mph. He throws two pitches that average over 90 miles per hour – a four-seam fastball that averages 91.45, and a sinker that averages 91.93. He also throws a slider that, though it averages just 87.97 mph has been thrown as hard as 92.7 mph.
He doesn’t need, really, any more velocity than that. When he’s been most effective, he’s throwing those low-nineties pitches on the bottom edge of the strike zone and letting batters pound them into the ground (which usually works out better than it did last night).
Through the end of July, batters were hitting just .240 (43 for 179) against Hudson when he was throwing in the low-nineties (between 90-92 mph). Only 10 of those hits went for extra-bases (7 doubles, 1 triple, and 2 home runs) – a .324 slugging percentage. Yes, there were some walks – 28 in what would be the equivalent of 51.1 innings (to go along with 4 other batters who were hit by pitches). But Dak also got 10 ground-ball double plays in those innings, to limit the damage. His effective ERA (through July 31) when throwing the ball between 90 and 92.9 mph was a very solid 3.51.
This has all changed in August.
In 5 starts this month, batters are 19 for 48 (.396) against Hudson in that same velocity range. Interestingly, Hudson has only walked 4 of the last 54 batters that he has thrown to at this velocity. But even though the command has been better on these pitches, the results haven’t been.
In Cincinnati last night, 14 of the 22 batters he faced had their at bat end with a Hudson pitch of at least 90 miles per hour. They went 7 for 13, with 2 infield hits, a double and a walk – a .538/.571/.615 batting line.
The two most damaging swings against Hudson may give the most insight to the underlying issue here.
Third inning, Cards ahead 1-0. Cincinnati has a runner on first with no one out and Austin Romine at the plate. With the count 2-2, Dak throws him a slider (this pitch travelling just 87.9 mph) right to the lower outside corner of the zone to the right-handed batter. This pitch was exactly at the spot where the helpful TV-imposed lines that delineate the outside and the bottom of the strike zone meet.
The perfection of the location notwithstanding, Romine flicked the ball just over the wall in right-center (a fly that, I don’t believe, would have left most ballparks in the league).
After India then singled, Jake Fraley (a left-hander) came to the plate. The 1-1 pitch to him was that 91.7-mph sinker that once was again perfectly located at the low-outside juncture of the strike zone. And, once again, the location notwithstanding, Fraley stuck out his bat and lobbed a double down the left-field line for the second opposite-field, run-scoring, extra-base hit against Hudson in the space of three batters.
Some of this is misfortune. If a pitcher consistently hits that spot, he will succeed more often than not. But shifting the odds to the hitters’ favor was the fact that both of those pitches lacked the sharpness that they had earlier in the season. Instead of breaking late and suddenly, both of these pitches rolled into place just as they reached the plate.
Yes, they ended up perfectly placed, but lacking the vigor necessary to truly challenge the hitter.
This, I believe, is not uncommon in dealing with the mental challenges that baseball at its highest level presents. It’s easy to focus so much on one aspect (throwing strikes, throwing to a specific location) that other equally essential aspects of your game can get displaced.
Clearly, Hudson had to make an adjustment. The high volume of walks was complicating his innings and shortening his outings. But, perhaps, in recent starts – and especially last night against Cincinnati, he may have over-adjusted.
Sometimes, it’s more than location, location, location.
While Hudson scuffled, Jake Woodford – a candidate to replace Dak in the rotation – prospered. He finished up the last 3.1 innings, allowing no runs and just two singles. Jake, thus, finished off an encouraging return to the major-league club. Since his recall, Jake has made 1 start and 4 relief appearances totaling 12.2 innings. He was 2-0 with a 0.71 ERA in those games, holding those opponents to a .196/.213/.239 batting line.
Among the many Cardinals whose bat was silenced last night was leadoff hitter Lars Nootbaar. Lars is 2 for 17 (.118) over his last 4 games.
Last night’s game ended with Tyler O’Neill striking out on a slider at 87.9-mph. It was the third time in the game that Tyler had been retired on pitches softer than 93-mph. That is still the book on O’Neill. Slow his bat down.
Tyler is hitting .198 (38 for 192) this year on pitches under 93 miles per hour.
Manager Oliver Marmol went on record saying he will bet on Yadier Molina in September. For his part, Molina isn’t wasting any of those hits in August. He was 0-for-3 last night, and carries an 0-for-20 into tonight’s rubber game against the Reds (the Cincy fans must really be loving this, by the way).
Since his return from his knee injury, Yadi has made 67 trips to the plate. He has 11 singles, 2 runs scored, 2 runs batted in, 2 walks, 9 strikeouts, 1 hit-by-pitch, and 3 ground-ball double-plays for a line of .172/.209/.172.
St Louis only scored one run last night, but it was the first run. They have now scored first in three consecutive games, and 15 of the last 21.
At the start of play this morning, two of the National League’s three best ERAs belong to ex-Cardinal farmhands Sandy Alcantara (who leads the league at 2.13) and Zac Gallen (third at 2.53). Both of these outstanding arms were the collateral damage of the disastrous Marcell Ozuna trade of a few years ago.
Hudson Approaching Career Lows (32 Games Remaining)
The 5 earned runs tallied against Hudson last night bring him to 62 on the season. The most earned runs ever scored of Dak in a single season were the 65 he was charged with in 2019. The runs lift his ERA to 4.43 this season. It has never been higher than the 3.35 he recorded in 2019. He also has one month left to try to get his opponents’ batting average and on base percentage below the .245 and .338 he allowed in 2019. Currently batters are hitting .267 with a .354 on base percentage against Hudson. His strikeout rate has also dropped to what would be a career low at 13.5%. He struck out just 16.1% of the batters to face him in 2018.
With the loss, Hudson ties his career high. He also lost 7 games in 2019.