I’ve not always done a good job of hiding my contempt for the sort of pitcher David Huff became over the last several years.
After flirting with some real upside early in his MLB career, he appeared to settle into the sort of mediocrity that has been typified most notably by Jeremy Sowers. That is to say, he seemed destined to be a 4A pitcher who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) make the adjustments necessary to succeed at the Major League level. This was particularly frustrating to watch, because we all could see that while Sowers might never have possessed the talent to succeed in MLB, Huff appeared to lack the drive. He seemed to resent his coaches. He seemed to avoid using his fastball, incorporating instead a steady diet of changeups and curves that hitters could whack with varying degrees of delight all around the park.
Whether it was a lack of talent, a lack of composure, or (probably most likely) some combination of both, David Huff struggled more significantly and for a longer time than any pitcher I can remember. It’s just not that common for a pitcher to be given as many chances to fail as we gave Huff over the last two years: usually after 150-plus innings of terrible results, a team will just give up on a guy. The fact that we didn’t has less to do with a prescient front office than with a dearth of reasonable alternatives, but that’s a story for another day.
Here’s the carnage David Huff wrought from the beginning of his career until the end of 2010:
If you think that looks bad, you’d be correct. There is no pitcher in the AL who had a worse strikeout-to-walk ratio over that timeframe with more than 200 innings pitched. He was below replacement level, meaning we would have been better to pick up an arm off the triple A scrap heap than sticking with David Huff. He was the definition of a bust.
Which makes what we’ve seen this season more than a little surprising. First, let’s look at the corresponding numbers to the chart above so far this season*:
*I’m including Huff’s numbers from the Sunday rainout. Why? Cuz I want to. And cuz I think that it’s a shame that they aren’t counted in some meaningful way. Consider this my small attempt to make David Huff look good, after so many efforts to the contrary.
Obviously, our small-sample-size sirens are going off, as they should be. But look at the difference just for a moment, and pretend that only half of it is real. He doubled his strikeout-rate. He cut his walk-rate in HALF. If his 2011 numbers mean anything, they mean something good.
The question, obviously, is how much of this improvement is real and how much is just noise in the data, and if I only looked at these numbers, I’d have to lean toward the latter. But we have more than these numbers.
First, look at this:
Eighty-five percent of the time in 2011, Huff is throwing a fastball or curveball. That’s up from only 75% in 2009 and 70% in 2010. In other words, he’s attacking batters in a different manner than before, relying more heavily on his fastball to set up his off-speed pitches.
What’s the result of this change? Check this out:
Batters are swinging at more balls out of the strikezone than ever before (O-Swing), while Huff is throwing more first pitch strikes (F-Strike) and inducing more swings and misses. Across the board, the results are demonstrably improved.
And it’s not just the pitch selection either. I don’t claim to be a scout, but even I can see that Huff is taking less time between pitches, and he’s shortened his windup by standing at a 45 degree angle before delivering a pitch. He’s picked up his pace, taking control of each plate appearance.
The good news from this lengthy discourse? Huff’s makeup largely resembles that of Cliff Lee. The bad news? It looks kinda like Sowers’ too.
Now I don’t think that 20 innings should make us change our mind about any of the conclusions we’ve already made about David Huff. He has looked much more like Jeremy Sowers to this point in his career than Cliff Lee. The likelihood is still that he’s not going to miss enough bats, still going to walk too many batters, still going to struggle with home runs. The likelihood is, simply, that this is a mirage.
But if you’re the type who likes to believe that these things can be changed—if you believe that Cliff Lee’s type of career-resurrection is repeatable—then we might not have a better candidate than David Huff to cheer for.
And I have to admit: after what we’ve been through, it feels pretty good to write even that much.