Coming into the 2021 season, the Tampa Bay Rays had no clue what version of Collin McHugh they would get.
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Collin McHugh struggled before joining Rays
He had dealt with elbow problems that sidelined him for the entire 2020 season and in his most recent season previous, 2019, he had a 4.70 ERA and 4.43 FIP in 35 appearances over 74.2 innings pitched.
To that point, it was Collin McHugh’s highest ERA and BB/9 rate in a season where he appeared in more than 10 games, but he had also posted a 9.9 K/9 rate, the second-highest of his career.
There were both positive and negative takeaways from his 2019 season, but most saw a decline after what was an incredible 2018 season where became a starter-turned-reliever and set career-highs in numerous statistical categories.
Collin McHugh’s resurgence with the Rays
Now, we turn to the 2021 season, one where Collin McHugh is top-20 in baseball in reliever WAR and is having easily the best season of his career without a doubt and it started the exact opposite way you would expect.
Through his first four outings in a Tampa Bay Rays uniform, Collin McHugh gave up six earned runs and 12 hits in 5.1 innings pitched. It was a rough start to the 2021 season and to make matters worse, he was put on the 10-day IL on April 18 with back pain.
It turned out to be the greatest injury stint ever as, since his return, he’s given up just one earned run in 39.1 innings of work spread out over 21 appearances.
The key to Collin McHugh’s success this season, looking at his numbers on Baseball Savant, has been his use of the slider, which he’s been throwing 51 percent of the time to hitters.
It’s the highest percentage he’s used the slider in his entire career, up eight percent from 2019. As well as his slider, which is only averaging out around 79 MPH, his cutter usage has more than doubled since the 2019 season as he’s thrown it 32 percent of the time in 2021.
He’s realized that his best pitches were his former out-pitches and now, his fastball, which back in 2018, was his most-thrown pitch, is now thrown just 14 percent of the time.
When it comes to advanced metrics, Collin McHugh is in the 90th percentile or better of pitchers in baseball in eight different categories including barrel percentage, strikeout rate, walk rate, and whiff rate and he’s in the 88th percentile in chase rate.
If you thought his 2018 season was good, he’s on pace to set seven career-bests this season, including ERA, ERA+, SO/W rate, FIP, K/9, and BB/9 to name a few.
He’s tied with Andrew Kittredge, who is also having a career year in 2021, for the highest reliever WAR on the team.
Those early-season woes from Collin McHugh have given way to one of the most impressive seasons by a Rays reliever in franchise history.