In 2019, the season in which he threw 70% of his Major League Baseball innings to this point in his career, St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Dakota Hudson accomplished something that had not been seen in Major League Baseball since 2003 and which no pitcher came particularly close to accomplishing in the two subsequent MLB seasons. Dakota Hudson’s entire MLB career and polarized opinions about the pitcher has been defined by it.
In 2019, his rookie season in St. Louis, Hudson threw 174 2/3 innings, and thanks to a 3.35 ERA and a 16-7 win-loss record, Hudson even picked up some Rookie of the Year votes. By these metrics, the young pitcher, who turned 25 late in the 2019 season, appeared to be a promising mainstay of many future Cardinals rotations. But by other metrics, despite very favorable results, Dakota Hudson appeared borderline unplayable. Hudson walked nearly one runner every two innings–his 86 issued walks were tops in Major League Baseball in 2019–and his strikeout rate of 18% ranked tied for seventh-worst among the sport’s sixty-one pitchers who threw enough innings to qualify for the ERA title. Hudson’s lack of control or his lack of swing-and-miss stuff should have been survivable, but not both. And yet it was. Which is why despite Hudson’s 4.93 Fielding Independent ERA, bottom five among qualified starters, his actual ERA was in the best third of the sport’s starting pitchers. The 1.58 run gap between Hudson’s ERA and FIP was the most favorable gap for a pitcher since Ryan Franklin’s 3.57 ERA and 5.17 FIP in 2003. Franklin’s ERA, it should be noted, ballooned in each of the next two seasons to levels far more reflective of his 2003 FIP than his ERA, and he was relegated to bullpen duty for the rest of his career.
Professional baseball, of course, is a results-oriented business, and neither Hudson nor any reasonable Cardinals fan would object to the end results of Dakota Hudson’s 2019, but evaluations of what the results meant for Hudson’s future performance varied wildly. Going by ERA (or win-loss record, though I suspect very few readers of this blog adhere to a pitcher’s record as an especially meaningful barometer of even pitcher results, much less pitcher ability), Hudson was, if not a star, a really good pitcher who would be very useful to any starting rotation. Going by FIP, he was awful. Rarely is there such a stark difference.
There are plenty of arguments beyond the simple raw ERA and FIP numbers to defend or degrade Dakota Hudson. It’s not as though Hudson was just some random guy who came up and fluked into good results out of nowhere–those who remember Jason Simontacchi’s age-28 rookie season of 2002 can likely imagine this phenomenon at play. Dakota Hudson was a first-round draft pick out of college who never walked batters at the near the rate of his 2019 in college or the minor leagues, and he was a Top 100 MLB prospect (#74 per Baseball America prior to the 2019 season). While it is true that Hudson was never an overpowering pitcher, he has had consistently high ground ball rates, which is particularly beneficial on a team with as impressive of an infield defense as the Cardinals (and keep in mind that the 2019 season had third base primarily manned by Matt Carpenter rather than Nolan Arenado). But on the problem side for Hudson is that FIP isn’t the only advanced metric which looks unfavorably towards him: in 2019, Hudson’s SIERA, a statistic with similar intentions to FIP but which takes how hard of contact a pitcher surrenders beyond home runs into account but still scaled to ERA, was even worse than his FIP (5.08), and over his career, Hudson’s SIERA stands at 4.96.
Arguing that Dakota Hudson’s true self likely falls somewhere between his 3.14 career ERA and his 4.55 career FIP feels like a cheap hedge, and simply splitting the middle assumes that both of these metrics are equal, which is a nice way to not be as wrong about whatever conclusion you reach but which is almost certainly not actually the truth. So I’ll admit where I fall–I think he’s closer to a 4.55 pitcher. I don’t think he’s quite that bad, and I don’t think, especially with the defense on the Cardinals’ infield, that some ERA-FIP gap is unsustainable, but I think Dakota Hudson is a perfectly reasonable #5 pitcher, an okay #4 pitcher, a reasonable #3 pitcher if your other guys far outperform their rotation ranking, and not at all a top two pitcher. But also, when it comes to assessing Hudson’s role in the 2022 rotation, I’m not sure that where anybody ranks him should matter all that much.
St. Louis Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak has told St. Louis Post-Dispatch beat reporter Derrick Goold that the team could “think of four starters right now” and that the team intends to allow for plenty of candidates for spot #5, including relief pitchers Jordan Hicks and Alex Reyes. From a pure human resources perspective, this is absolutely the right thing to say. What benefit would it serve to suggest that any of Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson, Miles Mikolas, or Adam Wainwright, all four of whom have grown accustomed to a spot in the rotation, that they are on thin ice three and a half months before Spring Training even begins? By the same token, even if the Cardinals are not seriously considering Jordan Hicks or Alex Reyes for a spot in the rotation (which, as a brief aside, they should not be, for various reasons), promising them an opportunity is a great way to placate them while not promising them too much so as to risk alienating them down the line.
But as an actual strategy, even if you are a believer in Dakota Hudson as, say, a #3 starter (which I am not, but I don’t think this is a completely irrational belief to have), this strategy would be a giant risk at the single riskiest position in the sport. The reality is that starting rotations almost never hold up the way teams intend. Any team serious about contending in October should recognize that maintaining the same starting five pitchers throughout a season borders on impossible.
In 2021, eleven pitchers started eight or more games for the St. Louis Cardinals. The guy who started the second-most was relegated to the bullpen following a September 4 start. The guy who made the third-most starts made his final start for the team before the All-Star Break. The only thing that really makes the eleven number slightly deceiving is that the guy who made the eighth-most starts was only acquired because the Cardinals traded the guy who made the fifth-most starts to get him.
Even by the standards of pitcher attrition, the 2021 Cardinals were a fairly extreme example–normally, I would consider the praise heaped on Jon Lester for his 4.36 ERA and 5.40 FIP to be a sign of a greater propaganda machine, but after the first few months of the 2021 season, I think it’s just a sign of desperation. But to treat what happened in 2021 as a pure anomaly, particularly when many of the pitchers whose injuries led to such chaos remain in the organization, is faulty logic. Pitcher injuries, unless you are the 2012 Cincinnati Reds, are simply a fact of life. The 2021 Cardinals were able to survive (and not exactly thrive, mind you) because, for their many faults, they did have some depth to start the season, but only three of the team’s eight most prolific starters remain in the organization, and one of them is Johan Oviedo, whom the team surely is hoping will not be as necessary in 2022 as he was in 2021. But without changes, it is inevitable that he would be.
Even if you are a hardened cynic regarding Dakota Hudson as a pitcher, he does have at least one major advantage over Adam Wainwright and Miles Mikolas–he doesn’t have to be a MLB starting pitcher. I mean that both socially–Wainwright and to a lesser extent Mikolas have a higher status within the clubhouse that would make relegating one to the bullpen without ample evidence that he is holding the team back in the starting rotation would be nearly impossible–and semi-literally, which is to say that the Cardinals could theoretically demote Dakota Hudson to the minor leagues. There is a flexibility with Dakota Hudson that should be viewed as liberating–he can start, he can pitch in relief, or he could wait in the wings in Memphis–it is a flexibility that makes him a valuable player beyond what the numbers say he is (or say he isn’t). But if the Cardinals forfeit this advantage, they are likely holding themselves back in the future.
It is relatively easy to acquire a Miles Mikolas, a perfectly fine starting pitcher who is guaranteed a spot on the team’s MLB roster and is effectively marked with pen into the MLB rotation. But signing Dakota Hudsons is a tougher task, and the Cardinals ought to take advantage of the one they already have.
Let’s say, for example, that the Cardinals sign Max Scherzer–I doubt it happens, but really for the purposes of this exercise, I just mean “they sign a free agent starting pitcher”, and we might as well aim big since this is a reality we are devising in our own minds anyway. Let’s also assume they don’t sign any other starting pitchers of consequence–maybe some minor league free agent, maybe some reliever who could technically start but it wouldn’t be ideal. How do you feel about a starting rotation of Max Scherzer, Jack Flaherty, Adam Wainwright, Miles Mikolas, and Dakota Hudson? Personally, I love that rotation. I love it a lot.
But the problem is who the next men up are in case of injury, and there is plenty of injury risk here–Scherzer and Wainwright are into their late thirties or beyond, Jack Flaherty made two total starts of more than two innings after the month of May in 2021, Miles Mikolas made one start between October 11, 2019 and August 20, 2021, and Dakota Hudson missed over a full year, between Septembers of 2020 and 2021, recovering from Tommy John surgery, and in his two appearances in 2021, Hudson’s workload was very much micromanaged. The next pitcher up, if their depth chart from their official site is to be believed, would be Jake Woodford. Now, Jake Woodford isn’t a horrible option, but ideally, he would not be a contending team’s sixth option to start a game. But then the options get shakier and shakier. There is Johan Oviedo, who has made 18 starts over the last two seasons and holds both an ERA and FIP above five. There are Jordan Hicks and Alex Reyes, the aforementioned extremely wild relief pitchers who are also major injury risks. We can, of course, wish for the further development of 22 year-old prospect Matthew Liberatore, but given that he has just one professional season spent above A-ball and he wound up with an ERA over 4, expecting him to be effective at the Major League level in 2022 may be a bit wishful.
Kwang-hyun Kim is gone. Carlos Martínez is gone. Jon Lester and J.A. Happ are gone. Perhaps these names were never all that intriguing to you for the 2022 season, but they were something. The Cardinals’ rotation is paper-thin, and relying upon Dakota Hudson not as a potential contributor but as an inherently necessary one is a major risk. In the name of safety, the Cardinals should sign two free agents, even if one of them isn’t a super inspiring one (you wanna take a shot at revitalizing Michael Pineda? Sure, why not, go for it). Dakota Hudson staying on call as a relief pitcher for the Cardinals and filling in eventually as a starter, and he certainly will at some point fill in, while a rotation with Mikolas and Pineda at the back end of it starts off the season would be, as a nice side effect, a nice way to ease Hudson back into pitching after a major surgery stifled his 2021 season. And then Jake Woodford, Johan Oviedo, and the ascending Matthew Liberatore can compete in Memphis for who would be the next man up. This is the kind of natural competition that a strong organization should have.