Tim Hudson is 38 years old. He measures 6-foot with the assistance of the Yellow Pages. He missed almost half of last season when he broke his ankle covering first base in an injury universally described as gruesome, which may well be the last adjective any athlete wants attached to his injury. Among his age, height and health, Hudson cuts the sporting profile of Three Mile Island: stay away at all costs.
Only they didn't. They couldn't. Something about Hudson makes teams acknowledge the risks and ignore them completely. It's not just his reputation nonpareil or his Bruce Willis-level ability to pull off a shaved head. Hudson is the greatest groundball pitcher of his generation, and so long as he plays murderer of fine fescue everywhere, no warning sign will scare teams away.
Once again Hudson finds himself among the league leaders in groundballs, with 57.4 percent of his balls in play categorized as such by FanGraphs. Pitchers love groundballs, and they should. Even if more sneak through for hits, they are piddly morsels, almost always singles, occasionally doubles. While fielders convert flyballs into outs more frequently, the ones that drop do serious damage, with a slugging percentage almost 2 ½ times that of groundballs.
At the same time, the public tends not to appreciate the mastery of a groundball pitcher because, well, a litany of 6-3 outs doesn't titillate quite like strikeouts or any type of offense. The groundball is baseball's version of the hot dog: The end result is delicious, so long as you don't have to see how it was made.
Some, of course, relish in watching Hudson go to work for his newest team, the San Francisco Giants, and they should. He is Napoleonic in his control of a plate appearance, pummeling the strike zone with sinkers, changeups, cutters and splitters. He is a voracious tinkerer, a master technician and owner of the single best earned-run average in baseball: 1.81. And even though his peripheral numbers peg that figure as spurious and unlikely to continue, the fact that an almost-40-something twerp less than a year removed from a busted ankle finds himself anywhere near the top of the major leagues in a desirable category makes him a freak worth appreciating.
And that's the aim of 10 Degrees this week: shine a light on those who traffic in the darkest corners of the baseball world, doing yeoman's work that, for one reason or another, goes relatively unnoticed. Because of his ERA …
1. Tim Hudson is garnering the sort of love he did once upon a time when he anchored the Moneyball A's rotation. Never did Hudson generate the love lavished on Barry Zito or carry the upside of Mark Mulder. He was just better than both of them – back then, yes, and long-term unquestionably.
Today he's nearly halfway through a season that would place him in remarkable company. His adjusted ERA – a measure that places him against his peers and corrects depending on his home park – is 187, where 100 is average. In history, only eight pitchers have posted an ERA+ of 150 or better in their age-38 seasons. Roger Clemens did it twice. Randy Johnson did it twice. Ted Lyons did it twice, though he pitched only once a week. And then there are three Hall of Famers (Lefty Grove, Whitey Ford and Red Ruffing), another guy whose numbers make the case he at least should still be on the Hall ballot (Kevin Brown) and another undersized right-hander (Dennis Martinez).
The best part of Hudson: He's not done improving. In 89 1/3 innings this season, Hudson has walked 13 hitters. The 3.7 percent walk rate is about half his career average, and only six starters are better. Atop the list, rather improbably, sits …
2. Phil Hughes and his otherworldly command and control. It's not as though Hughes were some Steve Dalkowski coming into this season, when he absconded for Minnesota after six topsy-turvy seasons with the Yankees. His career walk rate of 7.3 percent from 2007-13 ranks 100th among the 222 qualified starters.
Walking just 2.4 percent of batters, though, as he has done this season? Nobody saw that coming. He's a different pitcher, certainly, scrapping the slider on which he relied so much last season for a cutter with 8 mph of added velocity. While it's not getting the swing-and-miss counts the slider did, Hughes' curveball, heretofore considered his best non-fastball pitch, has seen far more whiffs than in seasons past.
More than anything, Hughes is actually throwing his pitches in the strike zone, a not-so-novel-but-wildly-effective approach. Though the transition started last season – he especially pounded the zone with his fastball – Hughes has ramped it up this season with upward of 60 percent of his heaters inside the strike zone. It led to six straight starts without walks – the fourth-highest number in a row ever for a starting pitcher – and just eight walks total in 82 1/3 innings. Hughes is making a strong push to play at home in the All-Star Game, though …
3. Corey Kluber presents a good case to steal one of those precious pitching slots. His 10.06 strikeouts per nine innings ranks fourth in baseball behind Stephen Strasburg, Yu Darvish and Max Scherzer. His strikeout-to-walk ratio beats Darvish and Scherzer's, along with that of Jon Lester, to whom he compares almost equally.
Kluber, of course, is not a $100 million-plus pitcher like Scherzer or Lester. He makes $514,000 this year and will get a slight raise next year, the product of six seasons spent in the minor leagues and a full-time rotation spot not locked down until after his 27th birthday. A year later, Kluber is the Indians' best pitcher thanks to sinker-cutter-curve repertoire with the latter two both plus pitches.
He came to Cleveland in the three-way trade in which they shipped Jake Westbrook to St. Louis and the Cardinals sent Ryan Ludwick to San Diego. Between Kluber and …
4. Anthony Rizzo, the Padres can look at their major league-worst run differential of minus-57 and kick themselves for dealing a pair of high-impact players who have thrust themselves into a different stratosphere this season.
Following a disappointing 2013, Rizzo could make a reasonable argument he's been the best first baseman in the big leagues this season – or at least the National League. Rizzo's .406 on-base percentage does best Miguel Cabrera's. Cabrera beats him in batting average and slugging percentage, and his otherworldly numbers with runners in scoring position – .413/.446/.651 in 63 at-bats – and solid glove at first base probably give him the advantage. Rizzo has been every bit the hitter of Paul Goldschmidt, a better glove and runner than Adam LaRoche and a superior all-around player to Freddie Freeman.
Only 24, Rizzo is the linchpin the Chicago Cubs envisioned him to be when they dealt Andrew Cashner for him. The best part: He's tied up for another five years at $37 million, and the Cubs hold options that would make it a seven-year, $64 million contract. With the incredible Kris Bryant (.355/.458/.702 with 22 home runs in 68 games at Double-A) across the diamond and Javier Baez, Albert Almora and Jorge Soler coming as well, the Cubs' future is as bright as their present is dim. It's why players like …
5. Todd Frazier matter so much to the Cubs' division rivals such as Cincinnati: A good Cubs team could mean more Cubs spending, and having a homegrown core built around Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Frazier makes it a lot easier to counter Wrigley's sleeping giant.
And while we're on the subject of giants, nobody hits more unassumingly long home runs than Frazier. Last season, he walloped one 470 feet off Jeff Samardzija. And this season, five of his 15 home runs have gone at least 428 feet. His peers in that group: Giancarlo Stanton (eight), Michael Morse (six) and Juan Encarnacion, Jose Abreu and Juan Francisco (five). Pretty heady company.
His shot Sunday that tied him for 10th in the big leagues wasn't of the tape-measure variety. It was an absolute seed, pilloried over the left-center-field wall in Milwaukee, and all …
6. Jonathan Lucroy could do from behind the plate was watch and admire. Which, granted, is what catchers across baseball have done with him this season at the plate. Lucroy's .336 batting average is second in baseball behind Troy Tulowitzki. Among catchers, only Derek Norris has a better on-base percentage than his .397 and Evan Gattis a superior slugging percentage to his .516. Lucroy has been the best catcher in baseball this season. It's not particularly close, either.
Combining that offensive profile with the strength of his glove is almost unfair. The modern appreciation of Lucroy stems from research done in recent seasons to ascertain who among catchers frames pitches the best. It's a nifty sleight of hand, pulling a ball outside the strike zone into it, or at least catching it so an umpire sees it as such. The consensus is nobody does it quite as well as Lucroy, and it's no wonder he has played in 65 of Milwaukee's 70 games and they find themselves atop the National League Central.
Fielding matters – we'll find out just how much soon enough – and if any player personifies that belief, it's …
7. Alex Gordon on behalf of the entire Kansas City Royals' roster. The Ultimate Zone Rating metric says Kansas City is by far the best defensive team in the major leagues, and Defensive Runs Saved places them among the top five as well. Gordon may well be the best defensive outfielder in the major leagues, a strong statement considering he plays left field and such an honor usually is reserved for center fielders.
Atlanta right fielder Jason Heyward may argue otherwise, and the Mets' fantastic Juan Lagares and some guy named Trout are in the discussion, too. Gordon happens to blend the athleticism of an A.J. Pollock with a Cespedes arm – and a particularly hot June at the plate (.293/.420/.610) has spearheaded the Royals' seven-game winning streak that leaves them just a game and a half behind Detroit.
It took the Royals' bats awakening to complement their excellent starting pitching and strong bullpen, especially the back end, which doesn't miss …
8. Joakim Soria even though he's back to his old self in Texas: 25 innings, 13 hits, three walks, 34 strikeouts, a 1.80 ERA and zero home runs surrendered. And to think he didn't even start the season as closer, going into spring training behind the since-deposed Neftali Feliz, who at last check sat at Triple-A with a 4.35 ERA.
As good as Soria's ascent into the closing role is, his season doesn't stack up to that of Zach Britton, who seems to have grabbed Baltimore's ninth-inning gig and looks in no danger of relinquishing it. Britton's ERA: 0.76. His home run total: one. The best of his numbers: a 78.3 percent groundball rate, which, if it held, would rank as the single best groundball season of the PITCHf/x era, toppling Brad Ziegler's 75.5 percent rate in 2012.
And as if Soria and Britton weren't good enough …
9. Sean Doolittle beats them all. Forty-four strikeouts, one walk. Let's try that again, numerically: 44-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. And one more time, for good measure, enunciated: fôrtē-fôr too wun.
This is not just unprecedented. It is beyond absurd. In 32 innings, Doolittle, a former minor league first baseman-turned-reliever, has struck out more hitters than four starting pitchers with more than twice the innings. (We will withhold their names out of respect, though if you want to check the statistics of Chris Young, Eric Stults, Kevin Correia and Kyle Gibson, they might be of interest.)
He's one of the many unsung on the A's pitching staff, and the entire A's team, really, which annually gifts us a group of criminally underappreciated. This year it's Scott Kazmir (2.05 ERA after six innings and no earned runs against the Yankees on Saturday) and Jesse Chavez (2.93 ERA following six innings and one earned Sunday).
There are plenty more across baseball who merit a mention. Garrett Richards (2.87 ERA, 87 strikeouts in 87 2/3 innings) deserves an All-Star spot. Same goes for Dallas Keuchel (2.38 ERA, MLB-best 65.6 percent groundball rate). Henderson Alvarez is a lot like Keuchel (2.56 ERA, 53.7 percent groundballs) and Tanner Roark (2.92 ERA) is nothing like Richards aside from the ERA, though he's had a very good one now two years running.
Wade Davis (1.19 ERA, 14.5 strikeouts per nine innings) has been every bit as good as Greg Holland for Kansas City and could be a perfectly excellent closer if another team wants to go Dutch. Michael Brantley (.322/.390/.519) is fifth in baseball in average, fourth in on-base percentage and ninth in slugging and would be a great choice to start the All-Star game if not for Nelson Cruz, Mike Trout and Jose Bautista. And then there's good ol' reliable, Chase Utley (.303/.361/.482), who's healthy, hitting and likely to start at second base for the NL. It could be in front of …
10. Tim Hudson if he keeps up this pace and Johnny Cueto falters enough to drop his 1.85 ERA further below Hudson's. With Adam Wainwright on the shelf for at least one start and nobody else in the running, the All-Star Game start may be Hudson's to lose.
He wouldn't be the game's oldest starting pitcher. That was Clemens at 41. Hudson turns 39 on July 14, the day before the game, and it would be some sort of a birthday present for NL manager Mike Matheny to give him the start in his first appearance since 2010 and just his fourth overall.
Even among the players who vote and understand the value of a groundball, Hudson doesn't get the appreciation he deserves. His sinkerballing peers each came equipped with a fault. Brandon Webb couldn't stay healthy. Derek Lowe couldn't throw strikes. Jake Westbrook couldn't strike anyone out. And nobody else with at least 15,000 pitches since PITCHf/x began tracking numbers in 2002 induced more groundballs than Hudson's 58.5 percent.
He is a marvel and a machine, the enemy of lawns everywhere, and it doesn't matter how old or short or gimpy he may be. He's still great, and it's high time he got the recognition saying as much.