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Tim Hudson entering Hall of Fame territory

5/22/2014

Tim Hudson pitches Thursday for the Giants against the Rockies in one of the most intriguing matchups of the day. Hudson has helped keep a mediocre Giants rotation afloat, as Madison Bumgarner struggled early, Tim Lincecum has been inconsistent and now Matt Cain has a strained hamstring. Hudson missed his last turn with a left hip strain, but he's 4-2 with a 2.09 ERA and looking like one of the best free-agent signings of the offseason.

One of my favorite pitchers since his days with the A's, here are 10 things about Hudson:

1. He’s been around a long time. He came up with the A’s in 1999. One of his teammates that year was Tony Phillips, who played with Jim Spencer on the 1982 A’s. In 1968, Spencer was a teammate of a guy named Woodie Held, who played with Enos Slaughter on the 1954 Yankees. When Slaughter was a rookie with the Cardinals in 1938, his teammate was Pepper Martin, who played in the 1928 World Series with Hall of Famer Pete Alexander. Alexander had a teammate named John Titus on the 1911 Phillies who fought in the Spanish-American War.

2. Hudson is the active leader in career wins. Does that surprise you? He has 209, one more than CC Sabathia. The active leader in wins is usually a future Hall of Famer, but not always. Andy Pettitte was the leader last year with 256, and he’s not a sure Hall of Famer. Jamie Moyer was the leader from 2010 to 2012, and he’s a longer shot than Pettitte. Dennis Martinez was the active leader for four years in the ’90s, until Roger Clemens overtook him. Hudson’s total, however, is low for the active leader. The last time the active leader had so few wins was at the end of the 1969 season, when Don Drysdale and Jim Bunning both had 209, and the year before Drysdale had 204.

3. OK, this whole walk thing. Hudson has four in eight starts, and one of those was intentional. Back in April, after he finally walked his first batter in his fifth start, Hudson laughed off his stinginess with the free passes, telling reporters, "Y’all are the ones who liked to talk about that walk thing. Obviously, it’s something that was not going to continue all year. It was fun to start the year and not walk anybody, but that’s not the type of pitcher I am."

Although we think of Hudson as a control guy, in part that’s because he’s never been a big strikeout guy since his first couple of seasons in the majors. But he’s never been a Cliff Lee or a Greg Maddux in terms of walks. He has finished in the top 10 in his league in fewest walks per nine innings just twice, with a career-best rate of 2.1 per nine innings. He’s at 0.6 this year.

4. So what’s he doing differently this year? He is pounding the strike zone a little more often. Here are some numbers:

2014: 69 percent strikes, 53 percent in the zone

2011-13: 64 percent strikes, 48 percent in the zone

2014: 33 percent chase rate

2011-13: 28 percent chase rate

2014: 22 percent swing-and-miss rate

2011-13: 20 percent swing-and-miss rate

In particular, he’s been throwing his signature pitch, that two-seam sinking fastball, more often in the zone -- 58 percent compared with 53 percent over the previous three seasons.

5. Here, visually, we can see the slight difference in location with that sinker so far this year.

I have to wonder whether pitching in spacious AT&T Park has helped. There's not as much need to nibble with that pitch, as home runs are scarce there.

6. It's also possible Hudson has just been a little lucky with the pitch. Batters are hitting .171 against the sinker, which has induced a ground ball rate of 65 percent. From 2011 to 2013, he had a 64 percent ground ball rate, and opponents hit .254 against it. But the swing-and-miss rate on the sinker is about 3 percentage points higher, so it hasn't just been all luck and balls hit right at fielders.

7. Hudson has played on only two losing teams in his career -- the 2006 and 2008 Braves -- but he never has advanced past the first round of the postseason. The A’s lost in the division series four straight years 2000-03; the Braves lost, too, in 2005 and 2010. The Braves also lost in 2013, when Hudson was injured, and lost the 2012 wild-card game.

8. Maybe things could have been different in 2003 against the Red Sox. Hudson started Game 4 with the A’s leading the series 2-1, but he had to leave in the second inning with a strained oblique. The Red Sox won that game 5-4, then won Game 5. Hudson’s postseason record has been one of frustration, with just one win in nine starts. Against the Twins in 2002, he also started Game 4 with a series lead but got pounded. Against the Astros in 2004, he took a 6-1 lead into the eighth inning of Game 4, but he and the bullpen couldn’t hold the lead and the Astros eventually won in 18 innings. In his start against the Giants in 2010, he allowed only an unearned run in seven innings, but the Giants scored twice in the ninth to win. (That was the game when Brooks Conrad made three errors at second base.)

9. Hudson’s career WAR via Baseball-Reference is 57.0, tied with Mark Buehrle for best among active pitchers (just ahead of Sabathia’s 54.1).

10. Which means he’s starting to get into that “interesting Hall of Fame debate” area. Some Hall of Famers in this neighborhood:

Dennis Eckersley: 62.5 WAR

Juan Marichal: 61.9 WAR

Drysdale: 61.2 WAR

Hal Newhouser: 60.4 WAR

Bunning: 60.3 WAR

Mordecai Brown: 55.1 WAR

Whitey Ford: 53.9 WAR

Sandy Koufax: 53.2 WAR

Of course, those guys -- with the possible exception of Bunning, who never won a Cy Young Award and never pitched in the postseason -- had a little something extra, whether it was 20-win seasons, a Cy Young Award, postseason heroics or just "it."

Hudson has always lacked "it" -- in part, I’ve always thought, because he’s slight and unassuming on the mound, his hat pulled down low like it’s a size too big. He’s not an intimidating presence, and he doesn’t gobble up strikeouts. (He’s had just 12 games with 10 or more strikeouts.)

But the guy has been very good for a long time. He was written off after Tommy John surgery in 2008. Some wrote him off after the broken ankle that ended his 2013 season in July. Here he is at 38, pitching the best baseball of his life. If this new ability to throw strikes like Maddux is for real, he could last several more seasons, increasing that win total … and maybe getting another shot at that elusive ring.