Is San Francisco Giants' Tim Hudson the Best Free-Agent Signing of 2014?

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Is San Francisco Giants' Tim Hudson the Best Free-Agent Signing of 2014?
Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

When the San Francisco Giants inked Tim Hudson to a two-year, $23 million deal in November, they wanted him to do two things: Stay healthy and pitch better than his old Oakland Athletics rotation-mate, Barry Zito, whose albatross contract with the Giants was finally expiring.

Two months into the season, Hudson has vaulted past those modest expectations and emerged as arguably the offseason’s best free-agent signing—and one of the best pitchers in baseball.

Madison Bumgarner is among the game’s elite left-handers, and Ryan Vogelsong has regained the command that made him an unlikely All-Star in 2011. But the Giants rotation has two significant question marks.

Tim Lincecum, who vacillates between effectively wild and flat-out ineffective, has posted a 4.97 ERA through 13 erratic starts. And former ace Matt Cain has already landed on the disabled list twice (though he did look a lot like vintage Cain in his recent return from a hamstring strain).

Based on current performance, is Tim Hudson the best free-agent acquisition of the 2014 offseason?

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Yet the Giants have the best record in baseball thanks in no small part to Hudson.

Entering Tuesday his 1.97 ERA and 0.96 WHIP rank first and second in the National League, respectively. His ERA+, which adjusts for park and league, is 169, seventh-best in the majors, per Baseball-Reference.com. He’s gone at least seven innings in nine of his 11 starts (not counting a rain-shortened washout in Colorado).

And he’s done it in typical Tim Hudson fashion: mixing heavy sinkers and crisp cutters to slice off corner strikes and induce ground balls at a 58.2 percent rate, his highest since 2010, per FanGraphs.

After a stellar May 27 start against the Chicago Cubs in which he tossed seven shutout innings, Hudson joked with Carl Steward of the San Jose Mercury News that he’s doing it “with smoke and mirrors,” adding, “I hope they don’t think I’m going to be this good all year.”

Later, he ditched the modesty:

From a command standpoint, I think this is the best Ive been, throwing strikes and letting the guys behind me make plays,he said. At this point in my career, I dont really try to overpower anybody, I dont try to overthrow or throw through my mechanics. I just try to trust what I have and let it work.

Hudson pitching well is no surprise. The veteran sinkerballer and 200-game winner has been one of baseball’s most consistent arms during a sterling 16-year career with Oakland and the Atlanta Braves. But no one expected Hudson to have his best season at age 38, even at pitcher-friendly AT&T Park—especially considering the way his 2013 campaign ended.

While covering first base in a game between the Braves and New York Mets last July, Hudson suffered a fractured right ankle. The injury, which left him crumpled on the field in agony, required surgery and ended the right-hander’s season; some questioned whether he’d ever pitch again.

Cost and Results: Top 2014 FA Pitchers by Comparison
Player ERA WHIP IP Contract
Tim Hudson 1.97 0.96 82.1 2 years/$23 million
Matt Garza 4.42 1.35 79.1 4 years/$50 million
Masahiro Tanaka 2.02 0.96 84.2 7 years/$155 million

Source: Baseball-Reference.com

Certainly, the injury lowered Hudson’s stock and allowed the Giants to sign him for fewer years and less money than other free-agent hurlers such as Ubaldo Jimenez (four years, $50 million from the Baltimore Orioles), Matt Garza (four years, $50 million from the Milwaukee Brewers) and Ricky Nolasco (four years, $49 million from the Minnesota Twins).

Yet Hudson has outperformed them all.

Hold his ERA up next to Garza’s (4.42), Jimenez’s (5.01) or Nolasco’s (5.65), then look at those contracts again. The best comparison stats-wise for Hudson is the big free-agent fish of 2014, Masahiro Tanaka, who got seven years and $155 million from the New York Yankees.

Sure, Tanaka is 13 years Hudson’s junior and has lived up to the hype that followed him from Japan. For now, though, Hudson is providing equal value at a fraction of the price.

There’s a lot of baseball left. Hudson has already missed time with a hip strain, and in his last start, he looked mortal, laboring through five wobbly innings and surrendering a season-high nine hits. Ultimately, though, he allowed only three runs and kept his team in the game—a game the Giants won, 5-4.

San Francisco has won a lot with Hudson on the hill—at a .750 clip to be precise. He’s on track to make his fourth All-Star team and has even emerged as a dark-horse Cy Young candidate. He’s earned the respect of teammates and coaches and embraced a mentor role in the Giants’ close-knit clubhouse, per CSN Bay Area’s Andrew Baggarly.

“When you see a veteran the first thing you ask is, ‘How has he stayed in the game so long? How has he simplified?’” Lincecum said of Hudson during spring training.

Simplifiedis one way of putting it. Exceeding all expectationsis another.

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