SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — By most measures, Diamondbacks starting pitcher Daniel Hudson had a tremendous 2011 season. That does not preclude him from tweaking a few things in 2012.
Hudson is working out a few kinks in his game that could make him an even more potent presence in the D-backs’ rotation.
Hudson went 16-12 with a 3.49 ERA last season while compiling a career high 222 innings, tied for most on the D-backs. Those numbers might have even been better if not for a 0-4 start with a 6.29 ERA.
Hudson worked out his early struggles and went on a roll, losing one game in the next two months. The one notable trouble spot that persisted was his tendency to struggle in the first inning, making that his primary area for improvement this offseason.
“It started out early on and kind of just got in my head I guess,” Hudson said. “It got in hitters’ heads, too. I don’t think I pitched any different in those innings. It was just something where guys saw a vulnerability in my game, and they attacked it.”
Batters hit .319 against Hudson in the first inning, and he was roughed up for 27 first-inning runs, about 27.5 percent of his season total. It was his worst inning across the board for hits, home runs and walks.
“I need to have a different mental approach to get through it,” Hudson said. “With as drastic of numbers as I had in the first inning last year, something’s got to change. So you’ve got to figure out a way to get better at it, move through it.”
D-backs pitching coach Charles Nagy was just as flummoxed by the first-inning struggles.
“You can’t really figure it out,” Nagy said. “Once you think you’ve got something figured out, the next thing you know it comes back and bites you. That’s the game.”
Nagy said he’s had conversations with Hudson about the mental aspect but ultimately sees the issue as something that will improve as Hudson matures.
Manager Kirk Gibson agrees.
Hudson’s second priority is to improve in two-strike counts. In 441 two-strike counts against him last season, hitters compiled a .201 average and .245 on-base percentage — numbers he wants to see come down when working with a favorable count. He gave up 83 two-strike hits, 23 walks and 31 runs.
Some of that is attributable to his ground-ball tendencies. He served up 295 ground balls last season, 19th in the National League. While that helped keep his pitch counts down, it also led to more hits when those ground balls got through the infield.
“I’m not going to be mad if a guy grounds out with two strikes, but obviously I do need to get better at finishing guys with two strikes,” Hudson said. “My two most drastic numbers last year were my first-inning issues and batting average with two strikes. It just wasn’t good enough.”
Nagy sees a relation between the two issues. He said Hudson would overthink his two-strike pitches and try to do too much.
In his case, it’s another example of a strength — Hudson’s ultra-competitive nature — becoming a weakness.
“Just in general sometimes Daniel has a hard time dealing with himself, which I totally understand; I was a beauty at it,” Gibson said. “He knows that he needs to learn to fight through some things and keep his composure. He just wants to succeed so much, he gets too intense and maybe loses a little bit of focus.”
Hudson is also tinkering with his slider, which could prove useful in those two-strike situations. He said the pitch acted more like a cut fastball last year and wants to make it “bigger and slower.”
“That helped out with ground balls, but it wasn’t really a swing and miss pitch that often,” Hudson said. “Hopefully, if I make it a little bit bigger, I can make it a little more deceptive and get some swings and misses on it.”
Neither the D-backs nor Hudson want to see big changes; all sides would be happy if he again eclipses 200 innings, wins 16 games and sustains his success.
Take away a few bad outings, Nagy said, and it was an “unbelievable” year. But like any other player, Hudson can get better, especially given he’s only about to turn 25 years old.
“I don’t know how much better he can be, I don’t know how many games he can win,” Gibson said. “I know he’s a great competitor, and we’re happy to have him in our rotation. He’s got great makeup.”