The Cubs are in playoff contention at the end of August, and Kyle Hendricks is getting hitters out with a tasting menu of exquisitely located mid-80s funk. (Grabs nearest passerby) “The date! I need you to tell me the date!…God Almighty, my time machine works!”
For most of the late 2010s, Hendricks was not quite an ace but was a bankable no. 2 or no. 3 starter. Even in his relative youth, he never threw hard; the fastest pitch of Hendricks’ entire career was 93.1 mph, and he hasn’t even hit 91 since 2016. People who apparently never watched Greg Maddux loved to stamp a “next Greg Maddux” label on any bookish right-hander with great command, and of those, Hendricks probably came the closest to living up to the comparison.
After a dominant COVID-shortened 2020, Hendricks struggled; he got blasted to the tune of a 4.77 ERA and 4.89 FIP in 2021, then put up similar numbers in 2022 before a shoulder injury put him down for the season.
But since returning from that injury around Memorial Day, Hendricks has been very good: a 3.80 ERA and 3.97 FIP in 104 1/3 innings over 18 starts. That performance isn’t going to make Hendricks a Cy Young contender, as he was in 2016, but it’s the best he’s pitched since before the pandemic.
And the timing for the Cubs has been quite good; top free agent signing Jameson Taillon has been underwhelming, and putative no. 1 starter Marcus Stroman is on the IL with fractured cartilage in his rib cage. We in baseball become inured to torn ligaments and inflamed capsules, but “fractured rib cage cartilage” is a really gross-sounding injury. Like something out of Predator.
Until and unless Stroman returns, the top two pitchers in Chicago’s rotation are All-Star left-hander Justin Steele and Hendricks. So is this actually the same Hendricks who was entrusted to start Game 7 of the 2016 World Series? Sort of.
Of the 99 pitchers who have thrown at least 100 innings this year, 93 throw a four-seam fastball. Of those, Hendricks’ is the slowest, averaging 87.7 mph. Rich Hill has him by half a mile an hour. Sixty-six of those pitchers throw a sinker; Hendricks’ is the second-slowest of those at 87.4 mph, ahead of only Hill. He has the fifth-lowest strikeout rate of pitchers with at least 100 innings this season.
So the stuff isn’t very good in and of itself. In addition to rock-bottom velocity, Hendricks’ two fastballs and changeup generally have below-average movement:
Kyle Hendricks’ Pitch Velo and Movement
|Pitch||Velo||In. of Drop||vs. Avg||In. of Break||vs. Avg|
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
There also isn’t a huge velocity differential between Hendricks’ fastballs and his most-used secondary pitch, the changeup. The velocity delta between Hendricks’ hardest fastball and his changeup is 7.1 mph, which is middle-of-the-road. Of that sample of pitchers with 100 or more innings, 83 throw a changeup. Of those, Hendricks’ fastball-changeup velocity differential is 48th.
Perversely, these three pitches, which make up about 96% of Hendricks’ total output this season, are so closely grouped together in movement and velocity that they entice opponents to swing but make Hendricks difficult to square up. Opponents are still crushing Hendricks’ fastball (.480 wOBA), but the .213 opponent wOBA he’s getting on his changeup is the lowest of his career.
Hendricks’ overall opponent wOBA is 25th-best out of the 106 pitchers who qualify for Baseball Savant’s leaderboard. He doesn’t strike anyone out, but he also doesn’t walk anyone. Hendricks would no doubt like to run a whiff rate like Spencer Strider’s, but he’s able to live with the lack of strikeouts. Being able to locate as well as Hendricks does helps, sure, but he’s also inducing weak contact. His opponent wOBACON is ninth-best in baseball, and his xwOBACON is 11th.
The way he’s doing this is by throwing the ball in places where the hitter can reach the ball, but can’t hit the ball hard. Hendricks has thrown 26.6% of his pitches in the chase attack zone, the highest rate out of 117 pitchers with at least 1,500 pitches thrown this season. That’s the area just outside the strike zone. And even though the ball is out of the zone, opponents have swung at 30.7% of the pitches Hendricks has thrown in that region this year, the fifth-highest mark in baseball.
As a result, Hendricks is prospering in this area just beyond the frontiers of the strike zone. Overall, Hendricks has held opponents to a .217 wOBA in the chase zone, 13th-best in the league. When hitters swing, that number goes down to .111.
That’s one of the big changes for Hendricks this season; when he was getting romped in 2021, he was leaving the ball in the strike zone too much. Now, he’s throwing it down and out of the zone more, and hitters are chasing.
The other change is that Hendricks has all but junked his curveball. He’s still throwing it 3.8% of the time, but that’s just 61 pitches all year. That’s basically nothing. Go home and tell your partner or your roommate or your parents that you did 3.8% of the dishes and see how they react.
The curveball has always been one of Hendricks’ weaker pitches, and he’s never thrown it more than 20% of the time. But back in 2016, he was working with a curve and a cutter pretty frequently. Now, he’s only throwing pitches with arm-side movement.
Just 4.5% of the pitches Hendricks has thrown this season have had neutral or glove-side movement. Among the 117 pitchers with at least 1,500 pitches thrown this season, that’s the second-lowest percentage. Here’s a fun bit of trivia: The pitchers at both extremes of this list are both Cubs. Steele throws more pitches with glove-side movement than any other pitcher in the league; Drew Smyly has the most arm-side-heavy repertoire.
As you know, most starting pitchers try to have both arm- and glove-side break in their repertoire because it allows them to combat both left- and right-handed hitters with pitches that break in on their hands. Hendricks has a pitch that breaks in on righties, but he only throws it three times a start. In fact, Hendricks has thrown three curveballs to lefties this year for every one he’s thrown to righties. It’s a virtual nonentity. And given how it’s been hit in recent years, ditching it seems like a smart move:
Kyle Hendricks’ Curveball
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
And he doesn’t seem to miss his breaking ball at all:
Kyle Hendricks’ 2023 Platoon Splits
It’s a noticeable reverse platoon split, but not a severe one. And with the shoulder injury behind him, Hendricks is having his best season in three years. It’s not quite a return to 2016 — for him or the Cubs as a team — but it’s progress.