The old pitcher still lives out in Colorado, where the ERAs are as high as the elevation and the natives.
Maybe it was having to pitch above sea level, or maybe he wasn’t as major-league made as he thought, but Jason Hirsh only started 29 games in the bigs. He does have the distinction, from 2005 and 2006, of being the first pitcher to ever win the Texas League (Class AA) pitcher of the year … and then the Pacific Coast League (Class AAA) pitcher of the year.
“I was just under the assumption,” he said playfully and sardonically by phone, “that I was the greatest minor league baseball player that’s ever lived.”
But he was notified that his uncommon accolades were matched by Dakota Hudson, the Cardinals farmhand with the searing right hand, who won the Class AA award in 2017 and the Class AAA award in 2018. And now, in 2019, the rookie Hudson has the lowest ERA of the qualified St. Louis starters (3.61). And the most wins (10), as well, as Hudson goes for No. 11 on Sunday — the one-year anniversary of his major-league debut.
Hirsh owns a Denver-based baseball skills development company called FAST. He’s a pitching instructor, one of the early adapters of technology by Rapsodo, the St. Louis-based developers. Told about his brother-in-arms Hudson, Hirsh broke down some film.
“Mechanically, he’s very smooth, almost very quiet,” said Hirsh, an Astros minor-leaguer traded to the Rockies after the 2006 season. “And he’s got a ton of ‘velo’ from 94 to 96 mph. He’s able to locate his sinker down and in very well to righthanders. He slots it up away really well. But he’s got a power slider, which is something I had, and he throws it even harder. It looks like it breaks late and he gets a lot of guys to think it’s a fastball. He tunnels it really well.”
Hudson is the unassuming, unsung hero of this 2019 Cards club. If it wasn’t for Carlos Martinez’s injury-riddled spring, Hudson might have been in the bullpen. Instead, the Cards are 15-6 in games Hudson starts, and only once this season has Hudson allowed more than three earned runs.
“He’s mature, he’s so smart,” Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina said Saturday. “And right now, he’s going after people. And — he’s got a good sinker.”
Hudson’s sinker is so good, it could lead to a league-leading honor.
Not since 2011 has a Cardinal pitcher led the National League in groundball percentage (the percent of batted balls a pitcher allows that are grounders). Hudson leads all of baseball. His groundball percentage is 58.5. Only five Cardinals starters since 1987 have posted a higher groundball percentage than 58.5. That’s more than three decades of seasons.
As for the fellow from 2011, it was Jake Westbrook (59.8 percent), who famously pitched the top of the 11th in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series. Westbrook didn’t allow a run, and his final out, naturally, was via a groundball. The game’s next batter, David Freese, hit a home run.
Of sinkerballers, Cards catcher Matt Wieters said: “There are getting to be fewer and fewer of them in the game nowadays, so it’s unique in that aspect. I think with the age we’re in where strikeouts became a bigger thing, and it was more the analytics and spin rate. … He’s able to get guys on the ground, which tells you it has more movement than it appears to have.”
Hudson throws the sinker about 49 percent of the time, unabashedly and nastily. His regular four-seam fastball is thrown about 14 percent. In the clubhouse on Friday, Hudson explained that his cutter and slider are “the same pitch, I just do different things with it.” He throws those 35 percent of the time. And that final two percent? That’s when he milks “the occasional change-up. When I need it, back pocket, it’s there.”
Manager Mike Shildt has cleverly called Hudson a bulldog — Dakota pitched for Mississippi State — and the Cardinals skipper is as amazed as other onlookers in the 24-year-old’s demeanor out there. Hudson himself said, “I’m not going to lie, a little of it is just the comfort level, pitching on a major league mound against major league teams. It’s a different kind of game.”
But Shildt, who first used Hudson as a reliever last season, looks back at those pivotal pitching moments in most every starter’s start.
“He’s got a great trait that when things aren’t going as well — and they’re just not some days at this level, the highest level of competition — he’s got a nice ability to not make it bigger than it is. And bear down and focus a little bit more and have that grittiness and competitive spirit that says — OK, I got this.
“He stays aggressive and makes adjustments. That’s another thing, he’s been able to make adjustments with lefties and adjustments as the game goes. All traits that we can talk about but ultimately players make them and do, and some of those intangible qualities — he just has. He’s an impressive young man.”
And he has a new fan.
“He looks like a guy who’s going to hopefully go on and have a very successful major league career,” Hirsh said.