Veteran major league starting pitcher Tim Hudson signed a free agent contract with the San Francisco Giants earlier this week, for $23 million over two years. What can be reasonably expected from him at age 38? Let's examine his career and see if we can come to some conclusions.
Tim Hudson was drafted by the Oakland Athletics in the sixth round in 1997, out of Auburn University. He was very successful in college, going 15-2, 2.97 with a 165/50 K/BB in 118 innings in ’97. Scouts liked his approach to pitching, but lack of plus velocity kept him out of the first five rounds.
He pitched well in his pro debut, going 3-1, 2.51 with a 37/15 K/BB in 29 innings for Southern Oregon in the Northwest League. I didn’t grade many short-season players then, but nowadays a guy with this profile (average velocity, good secondary stuff, good college and short-season success) would probably get a Grade C+.
Hudson began 1998 with Modesto in the California League, going 4-0, 1.67 with a 48/18 K/BB in 39 innings. Promoted to Double-A Huntsville, he found the going a bit more difficult. He went 10-9, but with a 4.54 ERA and a 104/71 K/BB in 135 innings with 136 hits allowed. Scouts were very impressed with his splitter, but his command wobbled, shown by the high walk rate and 13 wild pitches. Scouts praised his tenacity, but his fastball excited no one, he walked too many guys, and wasn’t rated among the best prospects in the Southern League by Baseball America.
I gave him a Grade C in the 1999 book, noting that he had decent stuff, but that the command issue would prevent success unless he solved it. I also wrote that he would probably do better as a reliever than as a starter.
Insulted by my analysis, Hudson took matters in hand in 1999, going 3-0, 0.50 with a 18/3 K/BB in 18 innings for Double-A Midland, then 4-0, 2.20 with a 61/21 K/BB in 49 innings for Triple-A Vancouver, then 11-2, 3.23 with a 132/62 K/BB in 136 innings for Oakland. His K/IP and K/BB ratios took a huge step forward, and he ended up as one of the best young pitchers in baseball.
As a prospect, Hudson had just one full season and two partial seasons in the minors. His A-ball numbers were very good, and his limited Triple-A exposure went well, but his Double-A performance in ’98 wasn’t very impressive, with mediocre K/BB and K/IP marks and so-so scouting reports that resulted in a Grade C rating. If you look at the totality of his career, college, minors, and majors, it was the Double-A performance which was the aberration.
Hudson's sophomore campaign resulted in 20 wins, although his other numbers actually deteriorated a bit and his fWAR slipped from 3.7 to 3.5. He picked it up from that point, running off seven strong seasons in a row, with 2003 (5.9 fWAR) and 2001 (5.0 fWAR) particular highlights. He didn't have a "bad" year (4.86 ERA, 92 ERA+, 4.55 FIP) until 2006 with the Braves , and even then he still threw 218 innings and led the NL with 35 starts.
His health eventually gave out and he needed Tommy John surgery in 2008, but he returned to full effectiveness after rehab. An ankle fracture cut short 2013. While his ERA was worse than league average for only the second time in his career this year, his components showed little slippage.
Although his age poses obvious risks, Dave Cameron points out that Hudson's 2013 season, properly understood, was very similar to his other recent seasons and catastrophic collapse in 2014 should not be assumed. Cameron says "He’s a strike-throwing ground ball guy who gets the occasional whiff, and that skillset seems to have not changed much at all as he’s gotten older. That doesn’t mean he won’t get worse over the next two years. In fact, we should expect 38-year-old Hudson to be worse than 37-year-old Hudson, because eventually, skills do start to erode. But Hudson can decline from where he’s been and still be a very effective starting pitcher." That seems reasonable to me.
Hudson currently has 205-111 record with a 3.44 ERA over 2813 career innings, with a 124 ERA+ and 48.3 career fWAR. If his career ended today, his WAR value would put him in the Hall of the Very Good territory with guys like Babe Adams (50 in 2995 innings), Mordecai "Three-Finger" Brown (47.6 in 3172 innings), Chief Bender (47 in 3017 innings), Milt Pappas (46.3 in 3186 innings), and Dave Steib (46.2 in 2895),
Looking at historical parallels, through 2013 and age 37 Hudson's Sim Score comparables are Kevin Brown, Jimmy Key, David Cone, Bob Welch, Luis Tiant, Andy Pettitte, Jim Perry, Mike Mussina, Bob Lemon, and Stieb. Brown was an above-average pitcher at ages 38 and 39 but fell apart at 40. Key retired at this stage but was still a decent pitcher when he did so.
Cone had a terrible season at age 37, rebounded to some extent at age 38, didn't pitch at 39, and was terrible in a brief comeback at 40. Welch and Lemon both retired after having poor seasons at 37. Tiant was an above-average pitcher at 38, began to fade at 39 but held on as a below-average roster filler until 41. Steib was actually retired at this point but made a brief and ineffective comeback at age 40.
You know what happened with Pettitte: he remained effective until retiring this year at 41. Jim Perry was the brother of Gaylord Perry and while not as good as his sibling, he was a star in his own right during his time and won 215 games. He was excellent at age 38 and won 17 games but collapsed at 39 and retired. Mussina got roughed up at age 38, but rebounded to win 20 games at age 39, post a 131 ERA+, and retire on an up note.
So, if history is any guide, by having a solid season in 2013 at age 37 and returning to pitch in 2014, Hudson has already gotten beyond what five of his ten most comparable pitchers (Welch, Lemon, Cone, Key, and Stieb) were able to accomplish. Of the remaining five, Brown, Tiant, Pettitte, Perry, and Mussina all contributed at least one more season with useful results.
I think the history lesson dovetails well with Cameron's analysis. Overall, while some slippage is likely, I'd expect Hudson to remain decently effective for at least one more year. The Giants seem like a good fit for him.
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