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A sleeper who woke up: Collin McHugh, RHP, Houston Astros

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With no pre-season fanfare, Houston Astros starter Collin McHugh was the top rookie pitching prospect in baseball in 2014.

Collin McHugh
Collin McHugh
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The top rookie pitcher in Major League Baseball this year was Collin McHugh of the Houston Astros, at least according to his Fangraphs WAR at 3.3. By any standards, traditional or sabermetric, it was an excellent season: 11-9 (.550) for a 70-92 team, 2.73 ERA in 25 starts, 157/41 K/BB in 155 innings, 117 hits allowed, FIP 3.11, ERA+ 143.

Okay, so Collin McHugh? Where did this one come from?
Like Jacob deGrom (who we looked at yesterday), McHugh is a product of the New York Mets system. McHugh was drafted in the 18th round in 2008 from Berry College, where he was adequately effective but not dominant over a three-year career (4.29 ERA in 172 innings, 162/66 K/BB, with little year-to-year variation in his numbers).

The Mets put a lot of resources into scouting smaller colleges and McHugh was one of the better finds. He had a very good year for Savannah in the South Atlantic League in 2010 (3.33 ERA, 129/38 K/BB in 132 innings, 139 hits) but scouting reports were muted and I didn't put him in my 2011 book. However, after some rough early outings in High-A, his overall 2011 season was very good (2.89 ERA, 100/32 K/BB in 93 innings for Double-A Binghamton) and he did make the cut in 2012, generating this comment:

McHugh was an 18th round pick in 2008 from Berry College in Georgia. He was getting hit hard at St. Lucie last spring, but was promoted to Double-A to make an emergency start in late May. He pitched well, kept pitching well, and never returned to St. Lucie. McHugh has an average fastball at 88-92 MPH. He has a diverse set of secondary pitches including a cutter, a slider, a traditional slow curve, and a changeup. He is also intelligent and articulate, and runs his own blog at www.adayolderadaywiser.blogspot.com.  McHugh doesn’t have spectacular stuff, but he works the strike zone efficiently and picks up plenty of ground balls. He’s fanned more than a hitter per inning in his career, and he’s got a shot to be a useful fourth starter or bullpen asset. Grade C+.

2012 was also good: 2.41 ERA in 75 innings for Binghamton, 65/17 K/BB, then a 3.42 ERA with a 74 innings with a 70/29 K/BB. Promoted to the majors, he was brilliant in his first start but was hit hard after that, finishing with a 7.59 ERA in 21 innings, although his K/BB wasn't awful at 17/8. I wrote this for 2013:

McHugh made his way through the Mets minor league system without much fanfare, but reached the major leagues last year with a brilliant debut on August 23rd (7 shutout innings, 9 whiffs against the Rockies). He got hit hard after his first game, but he has little left to prove in the minors and will likely get more chances as a fifth starter. McHugh’s fastball comes in anywhere between 86 and 93 MPH, depending on what grip he’s using. He mixes in a curveball, a cutter, and a changeup. Although he doesn’t burn the radar guns, he changes speeds well and his pitches have some movement. That said, major league hitters weren’t fooled as readily as minor league hitters were, and took advantage of location mistakes after his first appearance. In the minors, McHugh has shown the ability to eat innings, adapt, and learn from his mistakes. You could do worse for a back-end starter, and he could pick up some innings until the Mets determine that Zack Wheeler is ready. His window of opportunity is small, but it’s there. Grade C.

Wheeler was ready and McHugh was shuffled off to Colorado. He got beat up some more, giving up 33 hits in 19 innings for the Rockies, who let him go on waivers to the Astros last December.

And as you know, he's thrived in Houston.

So, what's the explanation here? McHugh's fastball is a little faster these days, as high as 95 and averaging 91.5 MPH, up about one MPH from what he was doing in the past. That's not huge but it's something, giving him a slightly greater margin to work with. David G. Temple at Fangraphs points out how McHugh's mechanics and release point are slightly different this year, which seems to boost the movement on his pitches, particularly the curve and slider. He's always thrown strikes, even during rough periods with the Mets and Rockies, and hasn't lost the ability to locate his pitches even with a slightly different delivery. If anything, both his stuff and his command have been enhanced.

McHugh has a large arsenal: different grips can put his fastball anywhere between 86 and 95 MPH. Pitch f/x identifies his slider anywhere between 75 and 89 MPH. He also has a change-up in the 80s and a slow curve in the 70s (and occasionally lower). The key to good pitching is disrupting the timing of the hitter. Such a wide variety of available velocity spots can be tough for batters to deal with if the pitcher commands his offerings well and avoids telegraphing his pitches. McHugh obviously does those things.

Will he regress? Sure; few pitchers can sustain a 143 ERA+ year after year, although I would not expect a total collapse by any means. He posted an incredible 31/1 K/BB ratio over 36 innings in his last five starts, giving up just seven earned runs. The league was not catching up with him, not yet.

Although some regression is likely, I don't see any reason why McHugh won't remain an above-average starting pitcher as long as he avoids health concerns. He simply knows how to pitch.