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One Big Question: What is the best role for Collin McHugh?

The Red Sox depth chart may determine that for him.

MLB: Houston Astros at Baltimore Orioles Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Over the Monster’s One Big Question series. For those unfamiliar, this is something of a season roster preview where over the next 40(ish) (week)days we’ll be taking a look at each player on the 40-man roster prior to the season. If changes are made to the roster between now and Opening Day, we’ll cover the newly added players. Rather than previewing what to expect in a general sense, the goal of this series is to find one singular question — sometimes specific, other times more general — for each player heading into the coming season. We’ll go alphabetically one by one straight down the roster, and you can catch up with the series here. Today, we cover Collin McHugh

The Question: Should Collin McHugh be starting or relieving?

So, this is the last entry to this year’s One Big Question series, a series I do to preview all of the players right before the season. I time it every year to get it done prior to the week of Opening Day, though the schedule was thrown off a few times by various additions and subtractions after the series got underway. It has also, of course, been thrown off by the fact that baseball is not starting when it was supposed to! Thank you for reading along anyway, and hopefully we’ll be able to answer some of these questions, just with a bit of a delay. And, in a way, it’s fitting that we end this year’s series out of order, with Collin McHugh being our last subject of the 2020 One Big Question series.

McHugh was the latest addition to the Red Sox roster before the league went on hiatus, with the righty being picked up as the team was desperate for any sort of pitching depth. In an offseason that saw a large resurgence in free agency, McHugh was one of the players who was left on the market as spring training picked back up. Part of the issue is one of the issues the Red Sox were facing with him, as he was rehabbing from an arm injury that ended his 2019 campaign early and was going to delay the start of his 2020 season. “Was” is the key word in that last clause, as the suspension of the season could play in McHugh’s favor. If there is a season at all, it is unlikely to really get started until July, and at that point McHugh should be ready. So the question moves from whether or not he’ll be read to, if we can place him on the Opening Day (whenever that may be) roster, what role is the best for him?

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

First, a little bit of background on the issue! McHugh has spent the majority of his ten-year career as a starter, particularly his peak from 2014 through 2016 when he first joined the Astros. Over his career, 57 percent of his 210 appearances have been as a starter. More recently, though, his work has come out of the bullpen. After an injury cut his 2017 season to just 12 starts, he came back in 2018 and served in a relief role. Then, last year, he started the season in Houston’s rotation but was shifted to the bullpen after eight starts. So, over the last two years he’s made just eight starts compared to 85 relief appearances.

Given that he has pitched out of the bullpen for so much of his recent career, it’s not unreasonable to think he should be pitching out of the bullpen moving forward as well. To further that point, let’s take a look at his splits between the two roles last year. Now, we obviously have some sample issues here with only eight starts and 27 relief appearances on the docket, but it is our most recent sample and also is better than comparing results from two different seasons. As a starter, he pitched to a 6.37 ERA while allowing a .333 wOBA with a 16 percent K%-BB%, a 21 percent home run to fly ball rate and 35 percent hard hit rate. As a reliever, meanwhile, it was a 2.67 ERA, a .279 wOBA, a 17 percent K%-BB%, a nine percent home run to fly ball ratio and a 43 percent hard-hit rate.

So, the numbers are clearly better as a reliever, but that also isn’t super surprising. Basically any pitcher is going to be better on a rate basis if they’re given the opportunity to pitch in shorter stints. The question is whether or not the difference is so big that it is worth keeping him out of the rotation, and I’m not so sure that’s the case. The results were clearly much worse as a starter, but again that is at least partially due to the sample sizes. McHugh was clearly hurt by having a lot more fly balls leave the yard when he was starting, despite the fact that batters generally made better contact when he was a starter.

Looking a little bit further, the biggest issue for McHugh was that batters just hit the bajeezus out of his fastball all year. By Baseball Savant’s numbers, he got whiffs only 20 percent of the time while allowing an expected wOBA of .419 and an actual wOBA of .406. Those are all career worsts. The thing is, his command wasn’t really any worse, his velocity was in line with where it was in other seasons in which he started (it was a few ticks higher as a reliever, but again that will happen to anyone) and his movement wasn’t much different. He’s going to have to use his fastball no matter what, though, so if he can work on this pitch and get better results over a full season, the numbers should be much more respectable.

Ultimately, the question is basically answered for McHugh without even really having to look at his numbers. The Red Sox rotation, as you may have heard, is a mess. Right now, without McHugh, they have Eduardo Rodriguez, Nathan Eovaldi, Martín Pérez, Ryan Weber and... Brian Johnson? McHugh is clearly needed here. Perhaps it would be wise to use him as a bulk arm after an opener, but either way he is going to need to pitch in a starter-like role. As long as he gets his fastball back on track, he should be solid, and solid is a major upgrade for this rotation.