Houston Astros: Collin McHugh’s return to the rotation going excellently

Collin McHugh of the Houston Astros (Photo by Cody Glenn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Collin McHugh of the Houston Astros (Photo by Cody Glenn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

The Houston Astros shifted ollin McHugh back into the rotation for the 2019 season after 1+ years in the bullpen. So far, his return has gone excellently.

In 2017, the Houston Astros were playing extremely well. The pitching staff was getting the job done and the offense was historic. Jeff Luhnow and A.J. Hinch knew it was time to make a run. So, they decided to capitalize on this and traded for Justin Verlander to bolster the rotation.

During this time, Collin McHugh was on the injured list and when he returned to health in the playoffs, he no longer had a spot in the rotation and the bullpen was full of more experienced guys who were, without a doubt, more ready to contribute when the team needed them.

So, McHugh was left off of the active roster that wound up winning the World Series in 2017. Heading into the following season, the Houston Astros also traded for Gerrit Cole which meant that McHugh was once again out of a spot in the rotation for 2018.

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He spent the entire 2018 season in the bullpen for the Astros to phenomenal results. He threw 72.1 innings over 58 appearances and boasted an outstanding1.99 ERA to go with an excellent 0.91 WHIP. Additionally, he struck out 94 batters for 11.7 strikeouts per nine innings.

He became an amazingly reliable reliever for Houston Astros manager, Hinch. He filled every role that was needed of him, from a multi-inning to the high leverage at the end of games. He could do it all at a very, very high level, as you can tell from the stats above. Unfortunately, his excellence relief wasn’t able to help the Astros become the first team to repeat as champions since the Yankees from 1998-2000.

Heading into the 2019 season the Houston Astros had multiple spots slated to be available in the rotation with Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton departing in free agency and Lance McCullers out for the year after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Thus, McHugh was an obvious choice to return to the rotation.

Unfortunately, his early return to the rotation in Spring Training did not provide much hope for the start of the 2019 season. He started three games and pitched in 5.2 innings but he gave up 10 runs which resulted in a 15.88 ERA to go with a 2.47 WHIP.

Fortunately, those terrible Spring outings were not indicative of his performances in his first four starts of his 2019 season. So far in 2019, McHugh has been simply outstanding for the Houston Astros. He’s pitched in 23 innings across four starts for a 1.97 ERA and a 0.83 WHIP to go with 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings.

Yes, it is still early in the season but he has been extremely dominant, perhaps the most dominant starter on the team with Verlander’s early struggles and Cole’s continuing struggles. McHugh has been steady and reliable and has translated the dominance he saw as a reliever into being a starter.

His curveball has remained extremely elite, resting in the 86th percentile. So far, he’s using it far less often that he has in the past, at 12.3% of the time. He is also using his fastball significantly less than he has in the past, only 32.8% of the time.

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So, this means he’s using other pitches more often. The biggest recipient of this is his slider, which he is 42% of the time. His cutter and changeup have also seen an increase in usage but not nearly as much as the slider. All five of his pitches have been plus pitches so far this season.

McHugh’s advanced metrics paint the picture of how excellent he has been this season for the Houston Astros. He’s been getting very good exit velocity, in the 82nd percentile. His hard-hit rate is in the 98th percentile, his xBA (expected batting average) is in the 88th percentile, and his xSLG is in the 92nd percentile. Lastly, xwOBA, which is formulated using exit velocity, launch angle and, on certain types of batted balls, sprint speed, is in the 93rd percentile.

All this to say, McHugh has been excellent in his return to the starting rotation so far this season. The Houston Astros simply couldn’t have asked for much more upon his return. He has been utterly dominant and he’ll look to continue this on Easter Sunday at 2:05 pm against the Rangers as the Astros will look to win the series in Arlington.

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All stats used in this article to cover Collin McHugh’s dominance are collected from the following three sources: baseball-reference.com, baseballsavant.mlb.com, and fangraphs.com.