At first glance, Cardinals right-hander Dakota Hudson had a great showing in 2019, posting a 3.35 ERA in 174 ⅔ innings spanning 32 starts and one relief appearance. That was good enough to rank 11th in ERA among qualified NL starters. After adjusting for ballpark and league, Hudson’s 128 ERA+ ranked 12th among qualified NL starters. However, he threw out plenty of red flags that cast doubt on his ability to maintain that success in the future.
Hudson was drafted by the Cardinals with the 34th overall pick in the 2016 draft and had a good prospect pedigree ranking as high as the 74th overall prospect in baseball prior to 2019, per Baseball America.
Hudson got a brief audition in the lower levels of the minors in 2016, before pitching his first full minor league season in 2017. He dominated his way through AA in 2017, posting a 2.53 ERA in 114 innings spanning 18 starts. The success didn’t initially carry over to AAA, as he posted a 4.42 ERA in an admittedly small sample of 38 ⅔ innings in 2017 before getting another shot at AAA in 2018.
The second go-around went much better for Hudson, as he posted a 2.50 ERA in 111 ⅔ innings, earning him a promotion to the Majors. That success continued in 27 ⅓ innings out of the Cardinals’ bullpen, as he posted a 2.63 ERA. Then, he followed that up with the 3.35 ERA in 2019 as a starter.
If you stop there, it looks like Hudson has had a pretty successful career thus far, and it’s easy to get excited about his future. It’s the underlying numbers associated with that success, though, that gives reason for pause.
Even throughout his minor league career, Hudson was never one for posting eye-popping peripheral numbers. Disregarding his 2016 cup of coffee in the lower minors, Hudson never posted a FIP below 3.54 or a sub 3.83 xFIP. He has also never posted a strikeout rate better than 18.4%. He has always made up for that by generating a low BABIP, with only one season, his 2018 time in AAA, being over the league average of .300.
Normally, that would indicate that Hudson has gotten lucky and isn’t likely to sustain such success, but in this case, his low BABIP can at least partially be explained by the fact that he is very much a ground ball pitcher. In 2019, he posted a 56.9% ground ball rate, which would grade out as the lowest of his professional career. However, his .274 BABIP in 2019 would still be below his minor league career average, so it’s likely that luck was involved to some degree. Additionally, Hudson allowed a hard-hit percentage of 40.5%, per Fangraphs, that ranked 17th among qualified starters. That would also seem to indicate he could be due for some regression in BABIP.
Hudson’s peripheral numbers continued to doubt his success in 2019, as he posted a 4.93 FIP, 4.55 xFIP, and 5.08 SIERA. He also had an xERA of 4.99 and an xwOBA of .334 compared to an actual wOBA allowed of .316. A lot of that is due to the poor strikeout and walk rates Hudson has posted, a trend that has existed for his entire professional career. In 2019, he posted a strikeout rate of 18.0% along with a walk rate of 11.4%. Hudson has never posted stellar strikeout rates, topping out at 18.4% in AAA in 2018. The issue with walks, however, never manifested itself until his Major League debut. He never posted a Minor League walk rate over 9.3% but has posted a combined 11.9% walk rate in his Major League career thus far.
Some pitchers do have a legitimate ability to consistently outperform their advanced metrics, and it remains to be seen if Hudson will become one of those pitchers. For now, though, it is best to treat Hudson’s success with at least some skepticism, rather than expecting a repeat performance.