Hudson returns from elbow surgery
Tim Hudson shrugs off any suggestion that better living through surgery has given him the arm of a 20-year-old.
''It'll never feel like it did when I was young,'' he said.
But if you squint your eyes just a bit, look past the inevitable weathering of a guy in his mid-30s, it sure seems like the Atlanta Braves right-hander has turned back the clock to the days when he was that hotshot young pitcher coming up with Oakland.
Hudson has recaptured the devastating sinker that looks so hittable until it dives toward the dirt at the last possible moment. He's again one of baseball's top starters, a guy who can go out there every fifth day and give the Braves an awfully good chance to win the game.
''He's a veteran guy who knows how to pitch and keep the ball down,'' St. Louis slugger Albert Pujols said. ''He has a pretty good chance to win the Cy Young.''
Indeed, Hudson ranked among the NL's top five in wins (15-7), innings (198) and ERA (2.41). He's on a very short list of Cy Young Award candidates that also includes Philadelphia's Roy Halladay, Colorado's Ubaldo Jimenez, St. Louis' Adam Wainwright and San Diego's Mat Latos.
Hudson may not win the award - that's some pretty tough competition, after all - but he's been invaluable to a Braves team that is battling with Philadelphia for first place in the NL East.
''The guy's gone out there and thrown quality game after quality game,'' Braves closer Billy Wagner said. ''We wouldn't be where we are today if Huddy hadn't gone out and pitched like he has. He's the MVP of our team. He's the Cy Young. He should probably have more wins than he has. I've screwed up one or two of those.''
The 35-year-old Hudson never envisioned having this type of success when his elbow blew out during the 2008 season, leading to elbow ligament replacement surgery and a grueling, nearly yearlong rehab process. His main concern was just being able to pitch again, which was up in the air right up until he took the mound again for Class A Myrtle Beach in July 2009.
''You always know there's a possibility of not bouncing back. That's always there,'' he said. ''It's a year of question marks. You don't know. Quite honestly, I didn't know until I made that first rehab start. You don't know if your velocity is going to come back. You don't know how you're going to feel when you actually get out there at game speed.''
There were the inevitable ups and downs, but Hudson showed enough in seven late-season starts for the Braves that they re-signed him to a $28 million, three-year contract.
Boy, was that money well spent.
''A lot of times, you do everything you need to do and it just doesn't come back,'' Hudson said. ''Fortunately, I'm not one of those guys. I'm one of the success stories.''
For Hudson, surgery has been a godsend, giving him the range of motion in his right arm that he needs to throw his bread-and-butter pitch.
For the sinker to be effective, he needs to keep his arm high and entirely behind the ball as he throws. There's always a tendency to drop down ever so slightly toward a three-quarters delivery, sling the ball rather than push it - especially if it feels more comfortable. But that sort of delivery reduces the downward movement.
''My range of motion is as good as it's been since I've been in pro ball,'' Hudson said. ''That's a big reason why for a lot of sinkerballers, their sinker gets flat later in their careers. A lot of it is due to a change in the range of motion in the arm.''
He holds his right arm above his head.
''You've got to get your arm up and stay behind the ball,'' he explained. ''As your range of motion gets worse, the ball starts running instead of sinking. As a pitcher, you beat yourself up trying to figure out, 'Why is it doing that? Why is it doing that?' It feels the same. But just a little bit of difference makes a big difference in the quality of your pitch.''
No such problem this season.
Hudson has pitched at least six innings in all but two of his 29 starts, both of those back before June. Only four times has he surrendered more than three earned runs. Most telling, he's getting more ground balls than ever before.
According to STATS LLC, of all the batted balls that have generated hits, outs or errors, 76.2 percent have been on the ground, the ultimate sign of success for a sinkerballer. Only four other ERA qualifiers are as high as 70 percent.
Hudson also has the highest rate of ground-ball double plays in the NL (1.32 per nine innings), trailing only Cleveland's Fausto Carmona (1.37) among all big league pitchers.
When his best pitch is really sinking, Hudson can be tough to hit at all. Against Florida late last month, he set a career high with 13 strikeouts.
''He's our horse,'' outfielder Matt Diaz said. ''If he's not the best pitcher in the National League, he's in the top three.''
Hudson is not likely to reach his career high in wins (20-6 with Oakland a decade ago) but the ERA is by far the lowest of his 12 seasons in the big leagues.
''I never dreamed,'' he said, shaking his head, ''I'd be able to do what I've done this year.''