Last year’s July 31 trade deadline featured plenty of notable deals, including the Astros’ last-minute acquisition of Zack Greinke; the Cubs’ trade for Nicholas Castellanos; the three-team swap involving Trevor Bauer, Yasiel Puig, and Franmil Reyes; and more. Overshadowed in that commotion was a trade went largely under the radar at the time, but wound up being perhaps one of the most important deals made last year.
The Nationals agreed to a swap with the Blue Jays, sending minor league right-hander Kyle Johnston to Toronto in exchange for then-32-year-old reliever Daniel Hudson. After beginning his career as a successful starter with the Diamondbacks, Hudson had since been moved to the bullpen, making stints with the Pirates, Dodgers, and then the Blue Jays.
To that point, Hudson had pitched 48 innings for the Blue Jays, striking out a batter per inning and posting an even 3.00 ERA. Make no mistake, he was viewed as a fine bullpen addition for Washington, but he alone wouldn’t solve all the Nats’ relief issues, and many would have preferred GM Mike Rizzo to make a play for Detroit’s Shane Greene, who was sent to the Braves.
For the remainder of the regular season, Hudson would go on to pitch to a stellar 1.44 ERA with the Nationals, pitching 25 innings and striking out 23. He proved to be less prone to walking batters, decreasing his BB/9 from 4.3 with Toronto to just 1.4 with the Nats.
That’s great, but he really found himself thrust into the spotlight with his postseason performance, serving as one of the most reliable arms in the Washington bullpen, helping to a World Series title.
He pitched in nine postseason games for the Nats, throwing 9 2/3 innings and striking out 10. He only surrendered 4 runs, 3 of which came in a clunker WS Game 5. He pitched again in the decisive Game 7, and is notable for recording the final out of the series for the Nats, striking out Houston’s Michael Brantley. The Nats won eight of the games in which he appeared, though of course that’s probably a chicken and egg situation.
In recent years, we’ve by and large seen workhorse starting pitchers go the way of the dinosaur, especially in postseason play: teams are relying increasingly on a cohort of stingy relief pitchers in October games. But the 2019 Nationals flipped that trend on its head, delegating the vast majority of innings to Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Anibal Sanchez, and Patrick Corbin–sometimes even deploying their starters in relief roles. That foursome combined to account for just about 70% of Washington’s postseason innings.
The Nats’ bullpen was a weakness all year, and many viewed that weakness as one of the biggest obstacles to their postseason success. But they simply chose to minimize that weakness on the backs of their starters; if the bullpen simply doesn’t pitch, it can’t hurt you, right?
And like we said before, one man cannot solve an entire team’s bullpen problems, but his impact is much greater when the team is only relying on three or four relievers consistently. With the aforementioned quartet picking up so much of the slack, Dave Martinez didn’t need all of his bullpen to perform; instead, he could delegate most of the relief work to Hudson, Sean Doolittle, and Tanner Rainey. Evidently, the strategy worked, and if there’s a team in baseball that can afford to put so much on the shoulders of its starters, the Nationals are probably it.
His performance with his new club earned him a new contract, with the Nats re-signing Hudson to a two-year, $11MM deal that will keep him in Washington through the 2021 season. He’ll play this season at age 33 and with a newfound popularity. We’ll see if he can replicate the success that endeared him to Nationals fans.