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Yankees Potential Free Agent Target: Dakota Hudson

He’s fallen on hard times, but the right-hander makes a good fit for the Yankees system if he’s willing.

St. Louis Cardinals v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images

There are two main reasons that I even want to talk about Dakota Hudson this early in the offseason. He’s not Yoshinobu Yamamoto, he’s not Shōta Imanaga, he’s not Jordan Montgomery, and he’s not even Lucas Giolito or Jack Flaherty. After putting together 213.2 innings of 3.24 ERA ball in 2019 and 2020, Hudson fell victim to Tommy John surgery, missing nearly the entirety of the 2021 season. When he came back, he wasn’t the same, posting a 4.64 ERA over 45 appearances from 2022-23. Given that the preceding 3.24 ERA was belied by a 4.85 FIP, most have been willing to chalk up his early success to luck, leaving him as a relative afterthought in free agency upon getting non-tendered.

The first reason I want to talk about Hudson is that in spite of all that, the Yankees would do well to pick up some pitchers with big league experience and success under their belt to stash in Triple-A, so that 50+ starts don’t wind up going to pitchers making their first turn through a MLB rotation. Given that Hudson might rather try to catch on in the starting corps of a second-division team that has more bandwidth, that might discount him already. But Hudson wouldn’t be the first to try to rebound in the New York system.

The second is that Hudson’s arsenal distinctly fits the bill of the type of pitcher that the Yankees have been fond of in recent years. The 29-year-old spent his whole career working with a four-pitch mix consisting of a sinker, a curveball, a slider, and a changeup. You need both hands to count the number of sinker/breaking ball pitchers that the Yankees have developed out of the rough in recent years, from Clay Holmes to Michael King to Jonathan Loáisiga, and while folks like Frankie Montas, Hayden Wesneski, Scott Effross, and Lou Trivino didn’t have the same kind of success, they were cut from the same cloth.

St. Louis Cardinals v San Diego Padres Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Nothing quite stands out about Hudson’s arsenal in the same way it did with someone like Holmes, but the template is there for the Yankees’ pitch design archetype. Let’s start with his sinker/four-seam fastball combo, whose effectiveness has declined precipitously over the last two years. Batted-ball luck led to some of the difference between 2019-20 and 2022-23 for Hudson, but not all of it. The injuries in between sapped the average velocity on those heaters from 93.5 mph between 2019-20 to 91.6 mph in 2022-23, and when you don’t have above-command, that alone will be enough to sink your results.

Banking on lost velocity to return is bad business, but there are aspects to Hudson’s fastball struggles that are fixable via coaching. New York can probably help him optimize the mix of the two pitches. His situational usage of each type of heater has fluctuated quite a bit, and finding the right balance will probably help them play up a little bit.

Velocity also isn’t the only thing that’s changed about Hudson’s fastballs. According to Baseball Savant’s spin data, he’s been cutting his sinker quite a bit since 2022, with active spin dropping from 89 percent in 2020-21 to 79 percent in 22-23. You could say that means it lost a lot of its bite, leading to less movement out of the same amount of spin, compounding the problem of the lost velocity. The value proposition of Hudson’s sinker is that it was getting a lot of tumble out of a relatively high arm slot.

The velocity might never come back, but that cut? Good coaching can make that go away, and if Hudson can get that active spin back up to the 90-percent range — where his four-seamer still lived the last two years, interestingly — the resulting movement would once again give the pitch an outlier vertical approach angle, and something potentially useful for Matt Blake & co. to work with.

Even more so than his fastballs, though, Hudson’s secondary pitches are just a few familiar tweaks away from being a lot more interesting. First, rather than just telling you, I’ll show you how his pitch mix has evolved over the course of his career:

All over the place
Baseball Savant

The changeup hasn’t ever been much of a factor, and since returning from injury for St. Louis, Hudson almost scrapped his curveball in favor of his slider. But the two pitches are equally intriguing to me, because together, they form the kind of breaking ball combo that the Yankees have repeatedly developed in recent years: a sweepy curve that could feasibly be adjusted to a true sweeper, and a gyro slider that gets almost no side-to-side movement at all.

The pure gyro slider is a slider that’s thrown with virtually no active spin and all cut, meaning the pitch is essentially spinning like a spiraling football as it moves towards the plate. It means that in spite of having a breaking ball’s spin and change-of-speed, it just kind of drops straight down, which can be a challenge for hitters to pick up. Holmes throws one, as does Ian Hamilton, whose “slambio” takes the lack of movement to the extreme.

Here’s a fun fact for you, relatedly. Out of the 496 pitchers who threw at least 25 sliders last season, the 12-percent active spin on Hudson’s ranked 490th. In other words, he throws one of the purest gyro sliders in the league.

That in and of itself should be of interest to some smart teams, but pairing it with Hudson’s curveball characteristics makes it a potentially easy fit for the Yankees system.

It’s not an over-the-top curveball, which uses a lot of active spin to generate a lot of drop. At eight inches, its side-to-side movement is middle-of-the-road, but with a 65-percent active spin rate that’s a little on the low side, it operates as more of a side-to-side pitch than an up-down pitch.

It’s actually a pretty similar pitch to what Holmes was working with when he made his way over from the Pirates, and he was one grip change away from turning a curveball with 70-percent active spin and eight inches of side-to-side movement into a sweeper with 50-percent active spin and twice as move horizontal movement. It’s the same change that King made to unlock his breaking ball. And while King doesn’t throw multiple breakers, Clarke Schmidt and Nestor Cortes do (or at least, in Cortes’ case, a cutter that often functions as a slider), and the Yankees have shown quite a bit of willingness to tinker with starters who have the ability to throw two distinct breaking pitches.

Hudson isn’t going to headline anybody’s offseason, but there’s definitely a fit here, especially if he fails to garner much big league interest elsewhere. Again, he may choose to take a deal with a bad team that can guarantee him a big-league look, but if the Yankees are serious about avoiding a repeat of 2023, Hudson is the quality of the depth starter they should be targeting to be the second or third guy up after an injury. Who knows, though. Given the Yankees’ recent history with pitching development, a spot in Scranton and a chance to work on the arsenal might be a better bet than being Pittsburgh’s No. 5 starter. We’ll see if either side is interested in such a proposal.