Tampa Bay has little to be more proud of that their ability to produce homegrown starting pitchers of very high quality, if anything at all. The latest in that string of promising pitchers poised to impact the Majors is 23-year-old Taiwanese righty Chih-Wei Hu. The Rays called up Hu from their Triple-A team, the Durham Bulls, on Sunday to replace the injured Tommy Hunter who is now on the DL.
Hu was signed out of Taiwan by the Minnesota Twins in 2012 for a paltry $220,000 and was sent to Tampa Bay in the Kevin Jepsen trade of 2015. That trade looks fairly lopsided now, however, with Hu’s stuff taking a leap forward and Jepsen pitching very poorly after the trade.
Used as a reliever in the bigs for now, Hu features an arsenal that is fuller and more varied than most pitchers can offer. He will start hitters off with a fastball that was once clocked at 97 mph, but sits at 93 mph and generally doesn’t get much higher. In his debut, he pitched his best fastball to Jonathan Schoop, a 95 mph gem that he placed high and inside.
He backs up the heater with a wide range of offspeed offerings, but first among these is his plus changeup. The fading change-piece has very good motion away from lefties and towards righties, and he uses it to great effect. There was little separation from the fastball in his debut, an ideal changeup will be 10 or so mph slower than the fastball, and Hu’s was only about 4 or 5 mph different, sitting at 88 to 89 mph. However, the venomous arm-side bite he gets on it well makes up for the difference and adds up to a potent weapon.
He struggled to command the offering during his first game as a major leaguer, but his best of the night came against a fellow personal favorite of mine, Hyun-Soo Kim.
While my eye is far from a fine-tuned one, I only spotted the fastball and changeup during the inning that Hu pitched on the 24th. However, that is far from all that he has to show batters, with his arsenal extending a full five pitches deep. After the fastball and change, his best pitch is an above average slider that he can craft into more of a cutter. His last breaking pitch is a curveball that he has some feel for, but it is not as advanced as the slider and isn’t even on the same plane as the changeup.
The last weapon that Hu has at his disposal is a palmball, the predecessor to the modern changeup. Thrown with the same arm action as a changeup and traveling at roughly the same speed, a palmball is differentiated by how it is gripped. A palmballer will hold the baseball in the same location as a straight change. However, instead of squeezing with the three fingers that cross the seams, he applies pressure in a “backwards” direction, pinching it against his palm. This creates a splitter-like motion.
The pitch is nearly dead, and because of that, one might think that Hu uses it simply as a throwaway pitch to give hitters a different look. That thought process would be incorrect, however, as his palmball is just as valid as his curve and he uses it as an alternate to his change for outs.
Hu has never really had any issues locating his pitches, and it is not really normal for him to let pitches get away from him like they did at times on Monday. He puts this ability to good use, generating a myriad of ground balls. In fact, as you can see in the bar graph below, in his time in the Rays organization, Hu has had a substantial 45.29% ground ball rate.
That ability is one that he is bringing to the majors, as he induced a ground ball out of Hyun-Soo Kim, the first batter that he faced in an MLB uniform. All of this is not to say that he is unable to strike batters out, however. In fact, after being traded in 2015, Hu has sent down 19.22% of batters he has faced down on strikes. That number is particularly impressive when taken in context of how stingy he is with his free passes, pitching to the tune of a 6.27% walk rate in that same timeframe.
While many think of Hu as a #4 starter long-term, John Sickels and I both see his future being a bit brighter. His stint in the majors will likely be only as long as Hunter is on the DL, but he is a promising player and it will be interesting to see how he fares in his time at the highest level.