By now you've definitely heard of the Houston youngster who has been among the best pitchers in the American League by counting on a knee-buckling breaking ball to baffle hitters through the first two months of the season. The Astros may be far from a playoff contender this year, but they also may have found themselves a rotation piece for the future.
What's that? You've read enough about Dallas Keuchel this year? Well that's good, because I'm talking about Collin McHugh. Keuchel has justifiably received a ton of attention this season, but he has also overshadowed his rotation mate who has been, by most measures, just as good, and by some even better.
In 45 innings, McHugh has a 2.80 ERA, 2.63 FIP, 0.98 WHIP and 50 strikeouts. He surrendered five runs in a start against the Mariners in early May, and four in a loss to the White Sox two weeks ago. In his five other starts, McHugh has gone at least 6 1/3 innings and allowed two runs or fewer in all of them. He has fanned at least seven batters in five of his seven starts and walked two or fewer in four. Regression could very well slap him in the face, but everything in McHugh's peripheral numbers suggests his breakout is for real.
McHugh dominated the Royals his last time on the mound, tossing seven shutout innings while allowing just five hits and striking out nine. As he has done so often this season, McHugh shut down the Royals with his curveball. Seven of his nine whiffs came by virtue of the deuce, which Fangraphs ranks as the third best in the majors among pitchers who have thrown at least 40 innings this year. Video of the start is linked here:
McHugh's curveball has been his best strikeout pitch this season. The offering has a 19.5 percent swinging-strike rate, and opponents have hit a miniscule .025 with a .075 slugging percentage against it. Part of that owes to the ridiculous vertical movement McHugh gets on the pitch. As shown in the following graph courtesy of Brooks Baseball, McHugh's curveball dropped an average of 9.02 inches in April and 8.61 inches in May. The second graph shows the horizontal movement, which was 8.73 inches in April and 7.73 in May. Positive movement on the curveball indicates how much it moved away from righties and in to lefties.
The sharp movement on McHugh's curveball isn't the only reason it has been so good this year. He has also had great command over it this season. The following heat map shows how frequently McHugh has kept the curveball at the bottom, or beneath, the strike zone.
McHugh's curve has been in one of those bottom two rows 70.7 percent of the time this season. Very rarely is he putting himself in a bad spot by hanging the pitch. When he gets it down in the zone, hitters have had trouble laying off it. Overall, McHugh has dotted one of those rows with 50.5 percent of his pitches. Unsurprisingly, the 26-year-old has allowed just three homers in 45 innings.
Moreover, when McHugh spots his curveball at or beneath the bottom of the strike zone, hitters have barely been able to lay off. Of the 118 curveballs that McHugh has thrown at or below opposing hitters' knees, they have swung at 53 of them and come up empty on 29 of those swings. The information is reflected in the two graphs below.
McHugh's curveball has helped make him a fixture in the Houston rotation and made him an asset in fantasy leagues. Despite this, he's widely available regardless of where you play your fantasy baseball. McHugh should be owned in nearly all mixed leagues.