We’ve talked about the bullpen a little bit over the last week or two, but in part because that market just didn’t get moving before the lockout and in part because other more prominent areas needed some work as well, there generally hasn’t been a lot of focus on the relief corps in the early part of the winter. But eventually the focus will head there when transactions start back up, and the Boston Red Sox will need to figure out a way to shore up those late innings. It’s not an ideal offseason to be in this position given the relative dearth of impact options available in free agency, but if you know where to look you can find intriguing options. We talked about Ryan Tepera, who was one of those relatively cheap options. Collin McHugh could be an even better one.
Now, there is some potential advantage for the Red Sox here since they’ve already successfully negotiated a contract with the veteran righty before. He never actually suited up for the club after opting out of the 2020 season, but those relationships have already been formed, and there’s no reason to think there’s bad blood between the two sides even if he never actually played here. Given that every team needs bullpen help, little things like previously established relationships can serve as something of a tiebreaker.
And in the case of McHugh, I would expect there to be a fair amount of competition given his track record in this role and the fact that he will not cost any inordinate amount of money. Looking at his overall numbers from his career, you probably wouldn’t be that impressed. He’s been good, but a 3.74 ERA over a nine-year career isn’t elite when you’re talking about a reliever. Of course, even an extra second of looking would show you that he has spent a significant chunk of his career as a starter.
As a reliever, though, he has been elite a couple of times over his career, including this past season. After opting out of that 2020 season he signed a one-year deal with the Rays to pitch out of their bullpen in 2021, and in typical Rays fashion they got an elite season out of him. Over 64 innings of work (he did make seven starts, but they were mostly two-inning outings acting as an opener or starting a bullpen game) he pitched to a 1.55 ERA with a 2.12 FIP. Those may be outlier numbers for his career as a whole, but if we go back to 2018 we see a similar kind of pitcher. This also happened to be the last time he pitched primarily as a reliever. In that 2018 season, pitching for Houston at that point, McHugh pitched to a 1.99 ERA with a 2.72 FIP. Looking at his career, the veteran has a solid but unspectacular 4.07 ERA as a starter compared to a 2.49 mark coming out of the bullpen.
All of this is to say that, while he doesn’t have the reputation as being one and his overall career numbers hide this truth a bit, McHugh has proven to be an outstanding reliever when he is put in that role. Even back in 2020 when the Red Sox had signed him, it was with the idea of being a starter. At this point, it’s hard to see another team making that choice again, so they shouldn’t be worried about a team outbidding them with the idea of putting McHugh in their rotation.
Digging a little bit more into 2021 specifically, you can actually see that the righty made significant ways in the manner he pitched as well. He’s always leaned heavily on his slider, but this past season he took things to a new level, throwing the pitch 53 percent of the time, per Baseball Savant. That was a very effective pitch to lead his arsenal, but the big change was making his cutter the top secondary in the repertoire and only throwing his fastball sparingly. Typically you would expect to see a profile with this much movement lead to a lot of walks, but instead McHugh walked only five percent of his opponents and finished with the highest zone rate of his career.
There are, in my view, two ways to look at this. The more pessimistic view is that this is not an approach opposing teams were ready for, and given how little a reliever pitches relative to other pitchers there was less chance for that adjustment to be made. In that view, there is risk for hitters essentially figuring McHugh out after an offseason to fully adjust scouting reports and expectations.
The more optimistic view looks at this and marvels at the command, which is not something you’d totally expect to change dramatically year to year. Whether it was a mechanical change or something else, McHugh found a way to take these pitches that are typically designed to induce chases out of the zone and he threw a ton of strikes with them while also keeping hard contact to a minimum. (He finished in the top four percent of baseball in hard-hit rate.)
Overall, McHugh fits a lot of the criteria that the Red Sox would seemingly be looking for this winter. He’s not likely to be overly expensive, with FanGraphs readers predicting a one-year, $5 million deal. He can cover multiple innings when you need him to, which the Red Sox seem to like in their bullpen, for good reason. And he’s not someone who you’d have to lock into the closer role. If you want him in the ninth inning, the talent certainly seems to be there, but he also wouldn’t come in with that kind of contract with the expectation to be locked into save situations. The Red Sox like flexibility, and they need help in the bullpen. McHugh never actually pitched for Boston in 2020, but they can make it happen in 2022.