I'm writing about some first half surprises this week, and there are few better than Houston Astros right-hander Collin McHugh. Currently on the disabled list with a finger injury, he was having a solid season before getting hurt, posting a 3.28 ERA with a 93/33 K/BB in 82 innings, allowing just 58 hits. The components are solid enough to result in a 3.53 FIP and a 3.44 xFIP, not far off from the ERA and meaning that the ERA is a reasonable approximation of how well he's pitched.
So, did you see this one coming? Among pitchers with 80 or more innings this year, McHugh's 10.17 K/9 ranks sixth, behind Clayton Kershaw, Yu Darvish, Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, and fellow rookie strikeout surprise Jake Odorizzi. McHugh doesn't rank nearly as well in FIP or WAR terms, ranking 47th and 53rd by those metrics. But still, that's a hell of a return for an unheralded prospect.
An 18th round pick in 2008 from Berry College, he moved through the Mets system steadily and was consistently effective, with no slippage in his numbers when he reached Double-A and Triple-A. He made four starts with the Mets in 2012 and got beat up after a strong debut, leading to this comment in my 2013 book:
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.
Well Wheeler was ready and McHugh was shuffled off to Colorado. He got beat up some more, but now he's in Houston and pitching well. His velocity is a little higher this year, up about one MPH, and his breaking stuff looks crisper to me than what he was doing in the past. David G. Temple at Fangraphs shows how McHugh's release point and positioning on the mound have changed a bit this year, which seems to have enhanced everything.
Adapting, learning from your mistakes, that's the key to success in any endeavor of course. The hitters will adapt too and we'll have to see if McHugh can keep the magic going when that happens. But I wouldn't put it past him. His strikeout rate this year is the best of his career, including what he did in college. He's doing something very right, and I'm sure Mets fans would like to have him back.