David Huff: Same Pitcher, Different Results?

When, after three hours of waiting, the rain officially cancelled Sunday’s contest at Progressive Field, the two innings that had already been played were lost, and the Cleveland Indians’ 1-0 lead over the Minnesota Twins was washed away.

So David Huff’s valiant efforts were for naught—and that truly is a shame.

Two innings do not a quality start make, but for what it’s worth Huff had a perfect game going before the game was called. Perhaps more impressively, he struck out four of the six batters he faced, inducing six swinging strikes.

This wasn’t the first time this year Huff, 26, has looked dominant—he’s been untouchable from his season debut on. In his three starts that have actually counted, he has an 0.51 ERA with a 7.6 K/9 rate and a 3.8 K/BB ratio. No one can sustain an ERA that low forever, but his luck-neutral stats (1.99 FIP, 3.69 xFIP, 3.39 SIERA) all tell the same story: dude can pitch.

This is in complete contrast to Huff’s previous MLB experience. In 38 starts in 2009-10, Huff went 13-19 with a 5.84 ERA. His peripherals were significantly worse—he had a 4.4 K/9 rate and just a 1.4 K/BB ratio—and his ERA estimators showed it too: 5.12 FIP, 5.19 xFIP, 5.27 SIERA.

So how has Huff turned it around? The answer seems to be: by doing exactly the same thing as he used to do.

Usually when a previously unnoteworthy veteran pitcher (he might not be gray-haired, but at this point he’s certainly beyond prospect status) suddenly starts fooling opposing hitters, it’s because he added a new pitch or is locating his pitches better, or maybe he added some oomph to his fastball. None of that seems to be the case for Huff.

Huff has always relied a lot on his fastball—he threw it 64% of the time in 2009-10—and that was a big problem for him in the past. This year, he’s rectified the problem…by throwing it even more. When the ball leaves Huff’s hands this year in his three official outings, there’s been a two-thirds chance of it being a heater. Sunday, it was even higher—85% of the pitches he threw in those two innings were fastballs.

He has added a cutter to his repertoire, but he’s barely used it—only one in 15 pitches in his first three starts were cutters, and he didn’t throw it once on Sunday. Adding a new pitch couldn’t have hurt him, but when he uses it that rarely it can’t turn around a guy’s career.

Huff’s lack of a consistent secondary pitch hasn’t seemed to be hampering him at all. Three of the four strikeouts he got Sunday were swings-and-misses at heaters. Two of his strikeout victims—Jason Kubel and Jim Thome—saw nothing but fastballs in their trips to the plate, and they both swung and missed twice.

Location doesn’t seem to be the silver bullet, either. Check out these heat maps of Huff’s fastballs by season—he’s pitching to the exact same parts of the plate that he always has. That doesn’t seem to matter.

Huff’s fastball is slightly faster than it was in the past—he’s averaging 91.4 mph, up from 90.6 last year, but that’s the only significant change. The difference in velocity could definitely have something to do with his resurgence, but it isn’t nearly big enough to explain his the great strides he’s taken.

Huff has never pitched this well before, and subjectively he definitely looks a lot better on the mound than he did in the past. Given that he’s pitched only three official starts there’s certainly room for sample size-related skepticism, but even if what he’s doing is pretty much the same as what he’s always done, Huff looks like a whole new pitcher.

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