Was Hudson’s rough 2020 a fluke or cause for concern?

Our offseason player review series continues today with Daniel Hudson, who struggled to consistently close out games this season.

PLAYER REVIEW: DANIEL HUDSON

Age on opening day 2021: 34

How acquired: Traded from Blue Jays for Kyle Johnston, July 2019

MLB service time: 11 years, 106 days

2020 salary: $5,148,148 (prorated $2 million)

Contract status: Signed for $6 million in 2021, free agent in 2022

2020 stats: 3-2, 6.10 ERA, 21 G, 10 SV, 20 2/3 IP, 15 H, 15 R, 14 ER, 6 HR, 11 BB, 28 SO, 3 HBP, 1.258 WHIP, 76 ERA+, 6.29 FIP, -0.4 fWAR, 0.0 bWAR

Quotable: “It is what it is: a small sample size. I’m not going to lose sleep over 60 games, (21) games for me. I’m going to go home knowing I went out there with my best stuff. And even though the results don’t say that I had a very good year, I know that I can take some really positive stuff into the offseason and learn from it and grow from it and hopefully be better in 2021.” - Hudson

Thumbnail image for Hudson-Pitching-Blue-sidebar.jpg2020 analysis: For a while last winter, it didn’t appear the Nationals were going to bring back Hudson. Once they signed former Astros reliever Will Harris to a three-year, $24 million deal, Hudson assumed his chances of returning to D.C. were finished. But the Nats did come calling after all and gave their World Series-clinching closer a two-year, $11 million contract, hoping he could duplicate his feats from 2019.

It didn’t quite work out as hoped. Hudson got off to a solid start, with four straight scoreless appearances that included two saves and a win in relief. But then came the first of five blown saves, most egregiously an Aug. 17 meltdown in Atlanta in which he blew a three-run lead and gave up two homers, including Dansby Swanson’s walk-off blast.

From that point on, Hudson never owned an ERA lower than 5.40. He did close out some games in September, and his velocity returned to its 2019 levels (averaging 96.4 mph). But opponents hit his slider hard (.294 average, .647 slugging percentage), and his mistakes all seemed to land on the wrong side of the fence. His home run rate (2.6 allowed per nine innings) was far and away the worst of his career, and way worse than his career average of 1.0.

2021 outlook: Re-signing Hudson was always a gamble for the Nationals, who took a chance they would get the 2019 version of him again and not the inconsistent reliever who pitched for years prior to that. That said, these were somewhat extenuating circumstances this season, and it’s certainly fair to believe he could return to form next season.

Despite his advanced age and two elbow reconstructions, Hudson still throws the ball hard. He struck out a ton of batters this season. His fastball was effective this year; opponents hit only .170 off it. He’ll need to get his good slider back, the one that struck out Corey Seager in Game 2 of the National League Division Series and Michael Brantley for the final out of the World Series. He’ll also need to stop giving hitters free bases, lowering a walk rate (4.8 per nine innings) that was ugly and gave opponents more opportunities to deliver big hits late.

More than anything, though, Hudson would probably benefit from having more help around him. He was supposed to share late-inning duties with Sean Doolittle, but that plan flew out the window early on. The emergence of Tanner Rainey and Kyle Finnegan, plus a healthy Harris, should help take some pressure and workload off Hudson next season. And the acquisition of a new lefty to throw in the late innings would help as well.

Give Hudson a full season in which Davey Martinez can manage his usage and give him maybe 55-60 appearances, some of those in his originally intended role as a fireman getting out of jams, and it’s entirely possible we’ll see a much better version of him in 2021.

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