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A closer look at what is behind Collin McHugh’s struggles

It is safe to say McHugh is struggling this year. Even so much as to some wondering if he will make the playoff roster. What is going on this year?

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Detroit Tigers
Collin McHugh is struggling
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Braves are virtually a lock to win their division. That being said, it is time to start considering which players will be on the post-season roster.

Fortunately for the Braves, there may be some hard decisions because as a whole, they have a very solid roster.

Once the post-season starts, there is less emphasis on depth, and more emphasis on role players. This is why we typically see that teams don’t carry a fifth starter, and swap out bench players for guys like Terrance Gore who have a single role.

This also means that we may see some bullpen arms that have been on the roster for most of the season not make the cut for the post-season.

It is safe to say that Collin McHugh may be one of those fringe players. He has struggled this year in terms of what we have come to expect from him. We knew this was probable back on June 7th when we did a deep dive on his sweeper. Back then he had a very good ERA of 3.18, but his xERA was almost two runs higher at 5.06. It was only a matter of time that he was going to start giving up more earned runs if he did not make adjustments.

In June we were seeing a lot of career worsts or some major red flags with McHugh. He had a strikeout rate of 13.6 percent which was the lowest of his career, his 9.7 percent walk was the highest of his career, and his 11.9 hits per nine innings and his WHIP of 1.765 were his worst since 2013 when he pitched 19.0 of his 26.0 innings for the Rockies.

Since then, his ERA has gone up to 3.88, which inevitable. His WHIP is down to 1.545, his hits per nine innings is down to 10.3, his strikeout rate is up to 17.5 percent, and walk rate is down to 8.7 percent. However, his strikeout to walk ratio is still the worse of his career (2.0).

So, what is the root cause of McHugh’s 2023 drop-off?

From a high level, it is easy to point to his strikeout to walk ratio being an issue, but it is deeper than that. Specifically, he has not made the adjustments needed on his sweeper.

His sweeper is his most used pitch. He pitches his sweeper 48.5 percent of the time. Yet, he is only throwing in the zone 39.3 percent of the time. Of course, when your most used pitch is hitting the strike zone so few times, it will result in more balls (vs strikes), which over time will produce more walks and fewer strikeouts.

His struggles with his sweeper seem to have a cause and effect beyond just strikeouts and walks. McHugh is doing a decent job at limiting quality contact. In fact, his barrel percentage is the best 16.0 percent of MLB and hard hit percentage is best 25.0 percent of MLB.

We can see this with his sweeper limiting hitters to an xSLG of .403 and an xBA of .252 which is better than average. The league average xSLG in 2023 is .450 and the league average xBA is .266.

Of course, this is a drop off from his xBA of .150 and xSLG of .247 against the pitch in 2022, but it is still decent.

However, hitters are having success hitting his second most used pitch (cutter), in which he has pitched 45.6 percent of the time. Hitters have a much better xBA of .310 and slightly better xSLG of .409. We can see that hitters are not hitting the ball for a high slugging versus the cutter, but they are getting hits much better than average. In fact, a .310 xBA is 14.2 percent higher than league average.

McHugh has seen 44.75 percent of his batted ball events come against his pitch that has an xBA of .310 against it.

McHugh’s cutter is being thrown in the strike zone 56.1 percent of the time, and his edge percentage dropped from 48.4 percent in 2022 to 45.9 percent in 2023.

Hitters are chasing his sweeper at 29.2 percent (lowest of his career) this season which dropped from 36.5 in 2022 and chasing his cutter at 26.4 percent in 2023, dropping from 31.5 percent.

Combine that hitters are chasing McHugh’s sweeper and cutter less in 2023 and that McHugh’s cutter appears to be in the strike zone and not on the edge as often, and we can see a trend.

Hitters have seemed to figure out that they can lay off the sweeper more often and wait on the cutter. Hitters are only swinging at the sweeper 42.7 percent of the time, which is the lowest rate since 2018.

McHugh does have five pitches, but the sweeper and the cutter occupy 94.1 percent of the usage. So, with hitters being able to sit back and let McHugh pitch a high rate of his sweepers outside of the zone and wait for a cutter they can hit, they have a higher probability of success.

McHugh has adjusted some as the season has gone on, with his xERA on June being 5.06 and now it is 4.90 on the season, but it has not been a huge difference.

In Summary

McHugh may be fighting to make the post-season roster with time running out to make necessary adjustments.

His strikeouts are down, his walks are up, and hitters (on average) have figured out his approach. It seemed that with such good peripherals against hard contact that McHugh could make some minor adjustments to his sweeper and right the ship. However, that does not seem to be the case.

In will be interesting to see how well he does in September to see if he makes adjustments and makes it at least plausible that he could be counted on in the playoffs.

This is not truly a knock on McHugh, more so that the Atlanta bullpen is so good that McHugh may not be able to meet what is required for such an elite group.

It would not be shocking if we see McHugh in quite a few high leverage situations as the season draws to a close as an audition for solidifying his playoff roster spot.

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