The Atlanta Braves signed reliever Collin McHugh last March and he quickly became one of their most versatile and reliable options.
The Braves signed McHugh to a two-year, $10 million deal that also includes a $6 million club option for 2024.
What were the expectations?
McHugh was coming off of a great season for the Rays and the hope was that he would add depth to Atlanta’s bullpen and give them another multi-inning relief option that could fill a number of roles.
He put up 1.8 fWAR in just 64 innings in 2021, and if there was any concern about him, it was probably with his durability. McHugh’s 2022 would be his age-35 season, and he’d had to transition to relief a few years earlier, while missing all of the shortened 2020 season. It seemed like a reasonable expectation was that he’d provide quality relief innings, something between 0.5 and 1.0 WAR, with quantity being a far bigger question than quality.
McHugh’s 2022 season with the Braves got off to a bit of a rough start, as he allowed eight hits and five runs over his first six appearances. That was deceiving, though, as he produced a 2.28 FIP over that stretch while piling up 12 strikeouts, and his xFIP was a stellar 1.35.
His results settled in from there, as he allowing just four runs combined over his next 15 appearances before landing on the COVID-Injured List on June 7. He returned to the active roster nine days later and allowed a run in two straight appearances before getting his feet back under him. From that point on, McHugh allowed just nine runs and racked up 44 strikeouts over his final 43 innings.
For the season as a whole, McHugh racked up 1.4 fWAR in 69 1⁄3 innings of work, with a 63 ERA-, 69 FIP-, and 82 xFIP-. That 1.4 fWAR was the second-most among Braves relievers, trailing only A.J. Minter. He really did work a variety of roles: of his 58 appearances, 24 had him get more than three outs, and he entered 10 games in high leverage while entering 25 in low leverage. He finished the year with +1.25 WPA and 22 shutdowns to just six meltdowns, so there was basically nothing to complain about, in any respect, about either his inputs or the outputs on his statline.
What went right? What went wrong?
Pretty much everything went right with McHugh for the Braves, as he was one of the best signings of the previous offseason. He threw his cutter and slider at almost an even split with an occasional curveball mixed in. Opponents hit just .150 with a .220 wOBA (.227 xwOBA) against his slider.
One huge reason for his success was that he actually fared better against lefties (2.40 FIP, 2.85 xFIP, .270 xwOBA, .227 wOBA) than same-handed batters (2.96 FIP, 3.56 xFIP, .276 xwOBA, .261 wOBA). His big, slow, sweeping two-plane slider was just impossible for lefties to handle, despite ostensibly breaking towards their barrels. It wasn’t really a banner year for his cutter, which functioned more as a get-me-over pitch that lost some of the late gloveside break it had last year, but the slider neutralized pretty much everyone despite its 80 mph velocity tag.
If one were to nitpick, they could point to some minorly-concerning aspects of McHugh’s 2022 profile: he was way less around the zone than in his previous relief stints, and hitters identified and swung at more strikes than before. But they also whiffed on those strikes more often, chased more, and made poor contact while chasing a ton. Even though he was largely a two-pitch guy, hitters just failed to do any real damage against his slow (and slower) stuff.
McHugh had one of the most epic relief appearances for a Brave during the 2022 season on July 10. He pitched two full innings in Manfredball without allowing the Nationals to score a single run. In the 11th, he gave an intentional free pass to Juan Soto before getting Nelson Cruz to hit into a double play, and then struck out the next batter. In the 12th, he did the trick with a few grounders and a fly out, working around an infield single. The Braves walked it off in the bottom of the inning. Here’s that double play ball from Cruz, showcasing how the cutter could get him out of jams despite not being a great offering overall:
There was also the bizarre minor narrative this season about Collin McHugh, the guy that new Met Mark Canha had no idea how to hit. They haven’t faced each other that often, but Canha has a sub-.200 wOBA and xwOBA for his career against McHugh, and is generally just perplexed by the latter’s existence. This three-clip sequence speaks for itself:
Pitch 1, a cutter down the middle for a called strike.
Pitch 2, a... cutter... down the middle... for a called strike.
Pitch 3, a waste 0-2 slider in the dirt.
And then Pitch 4... a cutter... down the middle... that Canha somehow completely misses. I understand none of this, but it’s hilarious.
That said, McHugh did have some bad moments. Not many, but some. Probably the most memorable of his “bad” outings was the one in Cincinnati on July 3. Charlie Morton had just dominated the Reds, striking out 10 while allowing only two baserunners and no runs in seven innings. The Braves held a slim, 1-0 lead, and McHugh came out for the eighth. Things soured quickly, as with one out, three straight singles to center tied the game. Brandon Drury then doubled to right, turning what was once a one-run lead into a two-run deficit.
So yeah, that was horrible. But was it really? The first single in the inning was a flare into center; the game-tying single was also not hit that hard and just happened to get through up the middle and is probably an inning-ending double play if the infield were positioned differently. It was a brutal outing for McHugh and the Braves, but more just the sort of thing that happens to a pitch-to-contact guy sometimes.
Another thing that sometimes happens to pitch-to-contact guys? Whale-and-bail hitters can sometimes get one over on you. That happened exactly a month later against the Phillies, as McHugh came on in a first-and-third, one out, one run lead situation in the eighth. He got J.T. Realmuto to hit into a game-tying fielder’s choice (Realmuto beat out the relay), and then, sometimes, not very often, but sometimes, a guy is strong enough, or perhaps hapless enough, to have a more than a chance against that tricky slider:
It was another Charlie Morton start that featured a 1-0 lead that turned into a loss due to a McHugh meltdown, and unlike the other game, where the Braves came back just to lose again, they didn’t manage anything else in this one.
The Braves will be looking for more of the same from McHugh in 2023. He will turn 36 in June, but hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down since shifting to a full-time relief role. He’ll probably again be projected in that 0.5-1.0 WAR range, but the durability concerns are somewhat lower now given his 2022, so he could be primed to have another big year if the slider is still as nasty and befuddling as it has been.