The 2023 Atlanta Braves bullpen was a good unit overall, but it had some weak spots. Collin McHugh was thought to be a relief corps anchor coming into the season, but turned in an underwhelming campaign that put pressure on other hurlers.
The Braves signed McHugh to a two-year deal with a club option ahead of the 2022 season. The veteran righty was guaranteed $10 million over the two years, and the club option would have paid him $6 million to pitch in Atlanta in 2024, with a $1 million buyout. No need for suspense: the Braves have already declined the club option on the heels of McHugh’s season, paying the buyout amount.
What were the expectations?
Coming off a 1.4 fWAR relief season in 2022, and a 1.8 fWAR relief season in 2021, there was little reason to think McHugh wasn’t going to be a key, highly effective, bullpen cog for the Braves in 2023 — other than the usual reliever volatility shenanigans, that is. Given his ability to provide multiple, effective innings, he seemed like he could at least pull off another 1ish WAR relief season, akin to preventing runs on the order of 25 percent better than league average.
But, that’s not what happened. McHugh’s strikeout rate? Cratered, falling by ten percentage points. His walk rate? Jumped from around five percent to around eight percent. His pitching triple-slash (ERA-/FIP-/xFIP-) was 63/69/82 in 2022, and it ballooned to 97/95/105. Across 58 2⁄3 innings, he was worth just 0.3 fWAR; his least productive season since he was just getting his ears wet in the majors in 2012-2013.
McHugh also missed big chunks of April and September with inflammation in his throwing shoulder. Was he pitching hurt the whole year? Who knows. He also had an Injured List stint with the same ailment in the middle of 2022, and that was a highly successful year, so we probably can’t glean anything from that. But, whatever the reason, his 2023 season was a bummer.
What went right?
Not too much. McHugh did manage to only allow five homers on the year, which helped him outpitch his xFIP on both an FIP and ERA basis. He had some nice stretches — his June-and-July pitching triple-slash was 98/83/85, which was a huge improvement from his early-season work — and his overall post-All Star Break performance of 132/86/90 was fine but for things he couldn’t control. But his start to the season was so brutal that it tanked basically everything else, and he never pitched quite well enough to put that firmly in the rearview mirror.
Still, there were flashes of the old McHugh in there, at times. Even amid his struggles early in the year, he had a great outing on May 7 against the Orioles. Relieving Bryce Elder in a tie game with two on and one out, he struck out two around a walk to Adley Rutschman, and then stayed in for a 1-2-3 inning that included another strikeout. The Braves ended up winning that close game in walkoff fashion in extra innings. The next month, against lesser competition, McHugh pulled another vintage outing out of his hat — coming in after Dylan Dodd lasted just four innings against the Tigers, McHugh threw three perfect innings with four strikeouts; the Braves broke a tie with a solo homer after his first inning of work, and ended up winning by that same score.
And, even though a lot of his outings went awry, there were still cool moments like this, even as part of a broader meltdown:
What went wrong?
McHugh was horrendous when active for the first two months, with an 11/10 K/BB ratio in his first 95 batters faced of the season. His strikeout rate plummeted largely due to a big dip in chase rate, which in and of itself was caused by a lack of consistency with his sweeper. Whereas, in 2022, his sweeper could more consistently hit the corner and only occasionally run out of the zone for a whiff (left), it all went haywire in 2023, as the sweeper was either too far over the heart of the plate, or off of it.
The command issues also extended to his cutter, which also started to drift gloveside, taking away some of its separation from the sweeper. His pitch shape and velocity didn’t change much, but that lack of crispness was apparently what it took for him to go from a dominant reliever to a pretty mediocre one.
When things got bad for McHugh, they got really bad. August 27 was probably the low point of his season, and may drive perceptions of his entire campaign. In that game, he relieved Jared Shuster in the fifth with two on, two out, and the Braves clinging to a one-run lead. He walked the first guy he faced on five pitches, including four straight balls. Then he walked in the tying run on five pitches. Then there was a bases-clearing double that was played poorly by Matt Olson, which wasn’t exactly a screamer, but was still pretty brutal. But that’s not all. Despite being down by three runs, the Braves clawed two back to make it a one-run game. McHugh went back out for the sixth, walked two of the first three batters he faced, and then gave up back-to-back RBI singles, with the latter being a bunt comebacker that he couldn’t do anything with. Here’s that bases-clearing double. Oof.
McHugh failed to make the playoff roster, as he was shelved with shoulder issues. His final appearance of the season was a three-inning soak in a blowout loss to the Cardinals, where he gave up a solo homer and three other runs, despite a 3/0 K/BB ratio.
Going into 2023, it seemed fairly likely that McHugh would have another good season that warranted the $6 million commitment to him for 2024 via club option. But, the veteran right-hander is now a free agent.
McHugh’s outlook isn’t too bad, provided he gets the command challenges under control, and his shoulder feels good enough to allow him to do so. Steamer is pretty pessimistic in its early projection, seeing him as little better than a replacement-level option for his age-37 season, but it’s very possible that 2023 was just a blip rather than his new normal. Maybe someone will even pay him something close to the $6 million the Braves turned down to find out; considering the prices relievers fetch these days, it doesn’t seem like too bad of an investment.