The phrase “what have you done for me lately” generally carries a pretty negative connotation. If you don’t believe me, one listen to Janet Jackson’s 1986 Soul Train Award-winning single of the same name should quickly change your tune on the matter. It usually implies that a person who was once reliable or productive is no longer living up to that prior reputation. However, it’s equally true that we as humans are sometimes susceptible to the opposite; we ignore individuals who have improved out of previously dire circumstances. We take a set of early results and stand by those outputs a little too long. As Janet would say, our dancing feet are always on the couch. We get complacent.
Not today. Today we open our minds. Today we look past the easy surface answers. Today we break down two pitchers who have been out-performing their season-long splits the past couple of months.
WADE LEBLANC: .347 wOBA TO RHBsIt’s understandable to assume the worst about a starter with an ERA (5.05) and a FIP (5.22) above 5.00 in late July, but the fact of the matter is stacking against LeBlanc hasn’t been profitable for some time now. Sure, for the year, the veteran’s .347 wOBA surrendered to right-handed batters is the seventh-worst mark among qualified pitchers, yet things have been very different for the 34-year-old journeyman dating back to the start of June. Where LeBlanc had allowed righties to compile a massive .401 wOBA across his first six appearances of the campaign, he’s limited them to a underwhelming .310 figure since Scott Servais began primarily using him in tandem with an opener on June 3 against Houston. In the 48.1 innings he’s thrown following the switch, LeBlanc has also mitigated the amount of dangerous contact RHBs have been able to muster. Where he gave up a whopping 10 barreled balls on his first 486 pitches within the split in 2019, righties have managed only four more barrels in his last 785 offerings. LeBlanc’s expected wOBA, registering at an eye-popping .438 to right-handers at the end of May, has fallen .138 points over his past nine outings.
So, what’s changed aside from coming in out of the bullpen? Well, as counter-productive as this might sound for someone who’s recently had more success inducing ground balls, LeBlanc has begun to shy away from his sinker. Honestly, it’s not like the pitch was living up to its name, anyway; unless you’re counting the sinking feeling it left in LeBlanc’s stomach as he watched another home run leave the park. The lefty threw the pitch in 28.9% of counts to RHBs in March, April and May, with right-handed opponents clobbering the offering at a .633 slugging percentage. That’s kind of what will happen when your sinker is 86.3 mph and produces a meager ground ball rate of 34.6%. I mean, it’s not even as if LeBlanc’s sinker has become any more effective the past two months, either. Despite this positive run of results, righties are still slugging .700 off the pitch since June 3. It’s just that LeBlanc now only features his sinking fastball 18.7% of the time, instead choosing to utilize his change-up – a pitch that’s garnered a 53.2% ground ball rate within the split for the entire season. This is the main reason LeBlanc’s overall ground-ball rate has risen from 34.3% in his first six starts of 2019 to a far more respectable 44.1% across the past seven weeks. He’s been controlling launch angle and quietly ruining right-handed stacks because of it.
DAKOTA HUDSON: .380 wOBA TO LHBsOn the surface, Hudson is about as much like LeBlanc as a giraffe is like a can of coke, but the two share more similarities than you might realize. Despite the 24-year-old’s obvious pedigree – he’s a former top prospect and first-round pick of the Cardinals – Hudson has been forced to turn his season around following a disastrous start to 2019; a start almost entirely caused by the ineffectiveness of his sinker. Hudson is a ground-ball pitcher through-and-through. In 2017 in Double-A, the right-hander induced a 57.6% ground-ball rate across 118 innings of work. His 57.5% mark from his 19 starts in Triple-A during the 2018 season then reinforced the archetype, only for it to be cemented in the majors with a career ground-ball rate of 59.4%. Now, obviously, there’s a price that comes with a pitching style that invites contact. Generally speaking, grounder-oriented pitchers are left to battle the whims of the BABIP Gods, which is exactly what happened during Hudson’s first six outings of the year. Left-handed batters wrecked havoc on the young starter, with the 67 he faced within that span benefitting from a massive .432 BABIP. Still, Hudson’s issues weren’t simply contained to balls in play. In fact, you could argue that it was batters putting balls out of play that was his biggest problem.
Hudson’s HR/FB ratio against LHBs was a mind-boggling 50.0% in March and April. That’s an insane number. It was his sinker that was responsible for a majority of the damage, too. Following an April 27 start versus the Reds, left-handed opponents of Hudson were hitting .536 off of the offering. Additionally, they had turned around five of Hudson’s sinkers for home runs, culminating in lefties possessing a 1.143 slugging percentage on the pitch. Again, to clarify, that’s slugging percentage. Not OPS. Now, before questioning the viability of Hudson’s sinking fastball completely, consider how effective the offering has been in right-on-right situations in 2019. Hudson is the lone qualified pitcher in baseball inducing a ground-ball rate of above 62.0% within the split and his actual mark of 67.8% clocks in well above that threshold. RHBs have also managed just a .080 ISO off of Hudson’s sinker so far this season. It’s a good pitch, yet it’s one that will simply never be as great to left-handed batters.
Normalization has taken hold of Hudson’s perceived struggles with lefties since the beginning of May. While LHBs remain hitting a robust .339 off of Hudson’s sinker, a 58.0% ground-ball rate on the pitch has limited left-handers to a single long ball. That means an ISO that was once .607 has dropped down to a much more acceptable mark of .179. You can live with seeing-eye singles and that philosophy has played out in Hudson’s raw splits. Where lefty bats enjoyed a .527 wOBA versus St. Louis’ RHP in March and April, that figure is a relatively unremarkable .317 dating back to May 2. Overall, Hudson has a 2.95 ERA in his last 14 outings; a stretch where he’s never surrendered more than three earned runs in a single start. Sure, his FIP is a 1.50 higher than that ERA, but some metrics tend to fail when dealing with pitchers on the far end of the batted-ball spectrum like Hudson. In any case, this does not sound like the profile of a man who you should be stacking against.
Put your knowledge to the test. Sign up for DraftKings and experience the game inside the game.
I am a promoter at DraftKings and am also an avid fan and user (my username is theglt13) and may sometimes play on my personal account in the games that I offer advice on. Although I have expressed my personal view on the games and strategies above, they do not necessarily reflect the view(s) of DraftKings and I may also deploy different players and strategies than what I recommend above. I am not an employee of DraftKings and do not have access to any non-public information.