The Pittsburgh Pirates did not make many big splashes over the offseason, but they did make a significant investment in reliever Daniel Hudson. How will he fare in 2017?

The Pittsburgh Pirates’ bullpen went from a finely sharpened weapon in 2015 to a dull, lifeless instrument last season.

The team feels that it may have found the remedy in reliever Daniel Hudson.

Are they right to think that?

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An Inspiring Story

By now, you’ve likely heard that Hudson has had two Tommy John surgeries to his pitching elbow within consecutive seasons back in 2012-2013. After finially making his way back in late 2014, Hudson accepted a new role as a reliever and has been sturdy ever since. Hudson has totaled 134 appearances over the past two years,

It is truly remarkable that Hudson has fought his way back from the brink, and if any team can appreciate the intricacies of the elbow, it would be the Pittsburgh Pirates. Well-versed in the mystical UCL arts, the Pirates had to be encouraged – if not full on gobsmacked – that Hudson’s velocity maintained an average in the mid-to-high 90s. In fact, on average Hudson gained nearly two full miles per hour on his four-seamer since his last full season pre-surgery.

Hudson’s other offerings aren’t so bad either, with a high-velocity sinker ball with good break to go along with a complementary change and slider.

Not Afraid to Go High

One thing I found particularly striking about Hudson was his ability to pitch up in the strike zone.

On pitches in the upper third of the zone, Hudson saw the following results:

image and data courtesy of Statcast

Though Hudson threw just eight percent – 89 total – of his pitches up high, he got fantastic results by percentages. Whether they were mistakes or pitches with intent, Hudson did a fantastic job of keeping hitters off-balance, as seen by the amount of whiffs and fouls.

77 of those 89 pitches were fastballs.

High heat, anyone?

It will be interesting to see if the Pittsburgh Pirates start to pitch up in the zone a bit more than they traditionally do. Changing eye levels of hitters on the fly late in games, possibly after seeing so many pitches from Pirates starters down in the zone, could be a huge boon. It could also just plainly be a new wrinkle that teams might not expect from the Pirates.

A Defined Role…Sort Of

Pittsburgh Pirates GM Neal Huntington has already dropped a pretty big hint as to Hudson’s role in 2017.

In an interview with our friend David Todd of ESPN Pittsburgh, Huntington let slip that Tony Watson is still the incumbent closer, with Hudson serving as the primary setup man.

With Watson’s infamous late-season swoon, many feel this to be shortsighted. Some believe it to be a case of Clint Hurdle sticking with “his guy” to the detriment of the club. That certainly is another way to look at it, Another way would to be expect that the majority of hitters that Hudson would face in the eighth inning could be higher quality bats than in the ninth.

Of course, that notion would be wrong, due to the fact that Watson actually performed better against the same subsets of hitters than Hudson did.

I found this just as surprising as you did. Perhaps what gave us that perception was that Watson did give up a bit more in terms of slugging to the traditionally power-heavy parts of lineups while making more mistakes.

After seeing this data, it is clear that the Pittsburgh Pirates have a case to keep Watson in the closer’s role to see for themselves if the Watson they saw in 2016 was truly an outlier.

However, there is a ‘games finished’ incentive clause in Hudson’s contract, and the team will undoubtedly have a quicker hook than they have had in the past.

The Warts

Hudson is not without his warts.

His walks per nine innings registered at 3.28 last season, which by itself might be innocuous relative to runs allowed, but he also had a 10.4 percent HR/FB ratio. Both of those numbers are improvements over what would have been his 2016 counterpart in Neftali Feliz– who allowed 3.34 BB/9 and a HR/FB of 19.2.  What this tells us is that Hudson could be prone to mistakes if hitters can get under his pitches.

Hudson did just give up six home runs on the season in 2016, and they were weird ones.

Overall, this is much to do about nothing, as two of the six were likely mistakes in the dead center of the plate, while three more were in very pitcher-friendly zones.

His control will be something to keep an eye on, but if the Pittsburgh Pirates set out to improve their eighth-inning relief options, they should consider that mission an accomplished one.

Jason Rollison

Jason Rollison has been analyzing baseball and the Pirates in one way or another for 4+ years. Jason's previous stops include rumbunter.com, Pittsburgh Sporting News, Call To The Pen and several print publications. He also covers the State College Spikes for the Centre County Gazette (State College, PA) When it comes to analyzing baseball, he likes to take a middle-of-the-road approach, with one foot on the analytics side of the fence and the other on the old-school side. Having said that, he is a sucker for pitchf/x. Jason has appeared as a phone-in and in-studio guests in numerous outlets, including Trib Live Radio and 93.7 The Fan (CBS Sports Radio)