Fact or fluke? Hudson feels like old self in his 4th straight 'W'

August 21st, 2023

ST. LOUIS -- Sometimes, the road back doesn’t end where it seems to end.

Although Dakota Hudson returned from Tommy John surgery to make a couple of appearances in September 2021 and continued to take the mound throughout 2022 and 2023, it wasn’t until his past few starts that he has felt like his old self again. That comes as reassuring news to an organization that has made fixing its pitching problems priority No. 1.

Perhaps Hudson was an answer hidden in plain sight all along?

That conclusion may be a bit premature, but Sunday’s 7-3 win over the Mets at muggy Busch Stadium offered more evidence that Hudson may have a fast track to one of the vacant rotation spots heading into 2024. It’s easy to forget these days that, from 2018 to 2021, Hudson went 24-10 with a 3.14 ERA. If he’s a reclamation project, it’s a small job rather than a massive overhaul.

Hudson said a neck injury in 2022 caused him to alter his pitching motion simply to feel good enough to make his starts, causing his command to go awry and his stuff to lose oomph. After striking out seven batters for the second time in his past four starts Sunday, he said he feels both are moving along in the right direction, at long last. Hudson called it a “tough road” to get his mechanics back in order, one that has taken nearly two years.

“I think if you watch my games, my stuff’s starting to come more over the plate, my misses aren’t as big, and I’m starting to hone it in,” Hudson said. “So, I just feel more comfortable with where I’m at.”

Of the pitchers already on the roster vying to win a rotation spot for 2024, Hudson (5-0) has been one of the most consistent in this audition period. Sunday was his fourth straight win, and he hasn’t allowed more than three runs in a start since July 27. 

“I think he’s done a really nice job of showing well,” manager Oliver Marmol said. “He’s had several starts in a row now where it’s looked good. He knows what’s going to give him success. There are going to be days where some of these balls find holes, and it’s not going to go his way, but not allowing free passes is going to be important for him, and using the slider is going to be important for him, and I think he’s done that consistently the past few starts.”

Even when he was pitching well in the big leagues, the Cardinals implored Hudson to pound the strike zone more aggressively. He led the Major Leagues with 86 walks in 2019 even while posting a 3.35 ERA. He has been pounding the zone more so far in his latest attempt to regain his rotation spot, with just four walks in his past three starts. The one extra-base hit Hudson allowed Sunday, Pete Alonso’s long home run, was a solo shot.

Over 5 1/3 innings, Hudson allowed two runs on five hits and two walks while striking out seven. The Cardinals are trying to improve the swing-and-miss rate in their rotation, and Hudson has shown occasional glimpses of improving his whiff rate, a development the team chalks up to an improving slider.

Some of the deeper analytics suggest Hudson’s success has been somewhat fluky, however. He ranks in the 39th percentile for average exit velocity, for example, and he is in the 18th percentile for hard-hit rate, while his fastball velocity and fastball spin both register as below average.

Hudson has yet to regain the mid-to-upper-90s fastball he had before Tommy John surgery, and he has had to reinvent himself to some degree, finding new ways to get outs now that he can’t rely on a high-velocity sinker and, consequently, a higher ground-ball rate.

It’s also worth pointing out that three of Hudson’s past four starts have been at Busch Stadium, where he has typically pitched his best games. Hudson’s career ERA of 2.73 at Busch Stadium is second only to Chris Carpenter’s 2.61 ERA here among pitchers with at least 225 innings pitched at the stadium.

The Cardinals have stated that they have at least three vacant rotation spots heading into the offseason. Among the in-house candidates are Hudson, Matthew Liberatore, Zack Thompson and, perhaps, Drew Rom, who will make his Major League debut Monday in place of Liberatore, who has some back soreness and had his start pushed back to Wednesday.

On a brutally hot, humid day at Busch Stadium -- with a first-pitch temperature of 95 degrees -- Marmol pulled Hudson after 99 pitches in the sixth inning. Paul Goldschmidt had helped Hudson keep his winning streak alive by launching a two-run home run into Big Mac Land in the fifth inning. The 2022 National League MVP had been enduring a rough August, with a .232 average before Sunday and 21 strikeouts in 69 at-bats, but he perked up those numbers with a three-hit afternoon.

Goldschmidt also reached the 20-homer mark, giving him 10 seasons with at least that many.