A large part of the Tampa Bay Rays’ success comes from the team’s ability to find and gain significant contributions from arms that are more or less on the fringe. In fact, it’s become basically a running joke within the industry that Tampa will outpitch all of its projections on a yearly basis, digging up hidden gems that go on to excel as part of a deep pitching staff. The most recent example of that trend is one Collin McHugh, who is now a free agent and a potentially interesting target.
A starter-turned-reliever who originally debuted in 2012 with the New York Mets, McHugh bounced around without much action in the big leagues until he burst onto the scene in 2014 as a key member of the Astros rotation, finishing fourth in Rookie of the Year voting. McHugh spent another two seasons as a starter, but gradually saw his production fall, and as the Astros roster became stronger, he made the move to the bullpen in the championship season of 2017.
As a reliever McHugh, made the best from his opportunity. In 70 games over the next couple seasons, including a dozen spot starts (a plus given the flexibility it provides in a long season), McHugh had the following numbers totaled 135.2 innings with a 154 ERA+. He ran a 28.2 percent strikeout rate against a 7.4 percent walk rate and held opponents to a .642 OPS.
Unfortunately, in 2019, McHugh took a step back, but some of his underlying numbers didn’t actually differ that much from his first season as a reliever, though the final outlook was worse. Opposing hitters really punished his four-seam fastball, which he was still throwing 32.4 percent of the time, hitting it to a .401 wOBA. McHugh has tended to play around with his pitch usage, and as ‘19 was the first season in which he was using the slider as his number one pitch, he still needed further adjusting.
2020 came along, and several players opted out with concerns regarding COVID. McHugh was one of them, so despite the promise he showed in previous seasons, he flew under the radar, entering this past season on a one-year deal with the Rays.
McHugh increased the usage of his slider even further, and made a cutter his secondary pitch, with the four-seamer only appearing 10.9 percent of the time. The results were staggering, as McHugh was one of the most effective relievers in baseball, forming alongside Andrew Kittredge a duo as dominant as any in the game. McHugh led all Rays relief hands in ERA (1.55), FIP (2.12), strikeout rate (30 percent), and walk rate (4.9 percent).
Even coming off such a strong season, and with a reasonably proven track record, there are enough caveats to keep McHugh from being in the elite market, which means you’ll probably be able to get him on a two-year deal at a very reasonable rate. He’s had injury issues in his past, including occasional elbow problems and a period of arm fatigue in 2021.
But if healthy, which he was largely this past season, McHugh brings a lot of interesting stuff to the table. This is one of the many ways that a big market team like the Yankees can exploit its advantages, by compiling proven relievers for a very small percentage of their budget on investments that would carry a larger significance with other ballclubs. If they can find a roster spot, the Yankees should consider adding to their bullpen depth with McHugh.