Daniel Hudson will always be known as the man who recorded the most iconic out in Washington Nationals franchise history when he struck out Michael Brantley and flung his glove towards the visitor’s dugout at Minute Maid Park two Octobers ago.
The following offseason, when he re-signed with the team that he made history with, he essentially set himself a challenge to live up to the high bar that he set the previous year.
Unfortunately, the shortened 2020 season wasn’t kind to Hudson, who was far too susceptible to the long ball at bad times, ballooning his ERA that season to an ugly 6.10 in 20.2 innings.
Heading into the second year of his two-year deal with the Nationals, Hudson knew he needed to just put the disappointment behind him and try to have fun on the mound again.
“Just going through everything we went through last year,” Hudson explained, “the circumstances that we played baseball and not seeing my family for 3-4 months at a time, and not playing in front of fans.
“Over the offseason — I have the thoughts in my mind that this could be it, I don’t know, so I had a conversation with my wife at one point this offseason where ‘this could be it, I’m going to try to have more fun this year and I’m going to try to not stress over individual outings or individual pitches as much and I’m not going to try to do anything extra, just go play.’
“That’s really — probably over the offseason is when I kind of got to that point.”
Well, whatever he did, it’s working, as Hudson has come out firing bullets so far in 2021.
In his 14 appearances this season, the right-hander holds a stellar 1.29 ERA with 17 strikeouts and 5 walks in 14 innings. The only two runs that he has allowed on the year have been solo home runs to Bo Bichette and Pavin Smith, and neither was overly consequential.
His success continued on Wednesday as he secured five crucial outs against the Chicago Cubs to get the ball to the team’s closer, Brad Hand, who then closed out a narrow 4-3 win.
When the Nationals initially acquired Hudson to fix their disaster of a bullpen at the trade deadline from the Toronto Blue Jays, the right-hander asserted his presence quickly and became manager Dave Martinez’s most-trusted reliever to get the biggest outs in a game.
It’s been the same story this season as a dynamic and very underrated weapon out of the bullpen as Hudson keeps coming up big when his number is called out of the bullpen.
“I think it’s putting myself in good counts really,” Hudson explained when asked what’s behind his success. “I could be wrong, but I feel like I’m working ahead for the most part, and being able to execute pitches when I’m ahead in the count and getting myself in leverage counts for me is huge.
“I’m just trying to attack the zone and get some contact and get out of there as quick as possible. So, for me to work ahead in the count is really important I feel like.”
Lo and behold, the stats prove his point and just how important being ahead in the count is.
Hudson has thrown a first-pitch strike to 61.5% of the hitters that he’s faced, the third-highest percentage in his career, and he’s been ahead of hitters at some point in the count to 66.7% of hitters who have seen more than one pitch in a plate appearance against him.
Perhaps most remarkably, Hudson has retired all 25 hitters that he has reached an 0-1 count against this season while striking out 14 of those 25 in the process. Strike one has mattered.
On top of simplifying his mentality, Hudson has also managed to increase his velocity in his age-35-season, providing him with the best stuff that he’s had in his career to this point.
His four-seam fastball is currently averaging 97.0mph this season, the fastest of his career. His slider is averaging 88.7mph, also the fastest of his career. And his changeup is averaging 88.4mph, the second-fastest of his career behind only the 2019 season.
All of that culminates in the domination that Hudson has turned in so far this season and looking at some of the predictive metrics, it appears to be sustainable too.
Hudson’s expected batting average (.162) and xwOBA (.259), two stats that use exit velocity and launch angle to predict the outcome of an at-bat as opposed to the actual result, are the best on the team, according to Statcast, and give him an xERA of just 2.59.
After a rough shortened season last year, Hudson is glad that things are trending the right way again since the calendar turned to 2021.
“Everything is trending in a solid direction, knock on wood,” Hudson said. “I’ve always been of the mindset of trying not to overthink and overanalyze anything.
“It’s just — try not to ride the emotional roller coaster that is a baseball season, especially as a reliever, and try not to get too high with the highs or low with the lows. Just stay as even-keel as possible and just keep putting the work in and try to get better every night.”
With Hudson’s success this year and his pedigree closing out some of the biggest games for the Nationals in 2019, some have wondered whether he should return to the closer’s role.
However, the right-hander prefers the “fireman” and setup role that he’s been used in so far this season to bridge the gap to the ninth inning rather than pitching in the final frame himself.
“I love it,” Hudson when asked whether he was happy in his current role. “I’ve always felt like I’ve done pretty well in that role.
“I don’t know if you want to call it ‘fireman’ or ‘jam-guy’, coming in if there’s people on base, and really trying to take pride in stranding those baserunners, which, getting weak contact and missing bats is the name of the game when it comes to that.
“I really enjoy that kind of challenge to come in with runners on and try to get out of it.”
A reliever like that can often be a big-league manager’s best friend out of the bullpen.
Martinez can call for Hudson in practically any spot where he needs the most important outs of the game. Regardless of the inning, regardless of how many runners are on base at the time, regardless of who is due up for the opposition, the skipper can count on him.
The glove-flinging is reserved for the postseason, but Hudson is getting some of the biggest outs for the Nationals out of the bullpen while defying age by continuing to get better.