Despite having missed 2020 due to an elbow injury, Collin McHugh, signed to a one-year deal for 2021, has emerged as a bullpen ace.
That wasn’t an obvious outcome from the start. First, it was unclear what role McHugh, who has been a starter and a reliever, would play. Then there was a rough spring training and an underwhelming early season appearance against the Marlins, when they crushed the ball off McHugh. He started the season with an ERA above 9, went to the IL with a shoulder injury, and rejoined the team a completely new pitcher.
Finding the perfect role
Since McHugh arrived in Tampa it was unclear how the Rays were going to utilize him. At first, McHugh was used as a one-inning reliever, with mixed results. Since then, Cash and his staff have been using him from 1 to 3 innings, at any point in the game, and he has been nearly flawless. McHugh is one interview was asked: What is the secret sauce in Tampa? He answered: the coaching staff puts you in a position to succeed. Once more Cash and Snyder find a perfect role for a guy that many thought he didn’t have much left in the tank.
Fly ball efficiency
McHugh has found a way to create outs in unusual ways, and here is what he is doing differently. Putting the ball in the air usually is not an ideal scenario, since occasionally it can lead to homers, but McHugh has managed to keep the ball in the park. He has a 37.1FB% which is above average (which is 35%), but he has made the fly ball a weapon in his favor. Fly balls won’t leave the park if they are the result of weak contact, and McHugh has been a weak contact expert by just allowing 4.2 barrel% (average is 7%), also he has a hard-hit rate of just 29.2%. SIERA can reinforce the weak contact narrative — his stands at 2.08, this is another reference that grades below average quality of contact from the opposition. When you create weak contact in the air you limit homers, and that’s exactly McHugh’s formula, he has a 3.8 fly ball to home run percentage.
We also note that 2021 McHugh has a very different pitch mix than did 2019 McHugh.
The big difference is that cutter and fastball usage were switched from 2019 to 2021, the fastball has been used less and for good reason. In 2021 the fastball had -4.9 runs above average. The cutter in 2021 has 4.9 runs above average, the roles from the cutter and fastball from 2019 to 2021 were switched, the only difference is that the cutter has been more effective. This year the fastball has acted as a show pitch, he uses it to put the batter on alert so that the cutter and slider can create the swing and miss. That’s exactly how McHugh has had success with his new repertoire usage, creating whiffs so you can limit contact. He is putting some amazing numbers related to contact and whiffs. In 2021 batters against McHugh swing and miss 15.3% meanwhile in 2019 they did just 11.3%. In 2021 when batters swing the bat they made contact 67.6% of the time, in 2019 they did 74%.
McHugh has been lights out the last couple of months, he has changed his pitching methods and the coaching staff has found a spot to make him succeed. McHugh currently is about to come off the 10 day IL, and that is good news for a team with a lot of injured pitchers. If McHugh can continue his dominance he could be one of the best free-agent pick-ups, and will be a key contributor to this year’s pennant race.