When the day began yesterday, the Chicago Cubs had 99 wins – one of the highest totals in franchise history, and the most wins in MLB this year.
What they also had, however, was a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at 6:05 CT – and thus, a shot at reaching 100 wins before the day was up.
Now, it’s difficult to identify the team’s best starting pitcher (considering Jon Lester’s season), but – at a minimum – we can safely say that the Cubs started one of the best pitchers in all of baseball, Kyle Hendricks, to get the job done.
And, to the surprise of no one, that’s exactly what he did.
You can re-live his performance here at Cubs.com, but in short he was dominant once again (not that the Cubs and their 18 hits, 6 walks, and 12 runs needed it), and led the Cubs to their 100th victory. By the time he was removed from the game, Hendricks went 6.0 innings, allowing 0 earned runs on 7 hits and 0 walks against 5 strikeouts … oh, and his ERA dropped under 2.00.
These sorts of arbitrary cutoffs don’t really mean anything (in other words, it’s not like he’s magically a better pitcher when he has a 1.99 ERA vs. a 2.01 ERA), but they are the kinds of things that can mean a lot to Cy Young voters.
In addition to his league-leading ERA (the only pitcher in baseball under 2.00), Hendricks also picked up his 16th win of the season and reached 185.0 innings pitched (his highest career total). With one more start remaining, Hendricks has a chance to finish the regular season with 190+ innings pitched, 17 wins, and an ERA under 2.00 – in another era, that’s more than enough for the Cy Young.
But obviously, the era we live in (rightfully) values many different analytical measures, taking the whole picture into account, before making any sort of conclusion or decision. So let’s take a look at where Hendricks stands by a number of other measures.
Kyle Hendricks in 2016, By the Numbers (NL, MLB):
- ERA: 1.99 (1st, 1st)
- FIP: 3.21 (5th, 5th)
- xFIP: 3.56 (9th, 15th)
- K/BB ratio: 3.86 (9th, 20th)
- Hard-hit Rate: 25.4 (3rd, 4th)
- Soft-hit Rate: 25.1 (1st, 1st)
- fWAR: 4.4 (7th, 14th)
So the story is basically the same as it’s always been. Hendricks has gotten unbelievably good results (the best in baseball), by pitching to contact and inducing a lot of weak contact. That strategy doesn’t necessarily lend itself to high strikeout totals (though it’s not like Hendricks is a laggard in that regard either), which has depressed his FIP and xFIP enough to dampen his fWAR production … but maybe it’s time to break free of that mold.
With a little bit of deductive reasoning and an enormous sample, we can reasonably discern that Hendricks is purposefully pitching to contact given 1) the incredible defense behind him and 2) his ability to induce weak contact and limit hard contact. The question, then, becomes something like should he really be given full credit for his results, or is he just continuously getting lucky/disproportionately helped by his defense game after game?
It’s a silly question, in my opinion, because he is so clearly in control of just about every single game he starts, but if you haven’t watched all 29 of them, the advanced statistics might mislead you (even if he remains relatively near the top in just about every category/stat).
More importantly, if you frequent Bleacher Nation, you’ll know that there are few others out there as supportive of advanced analytics as we are, but that isn’t everything. The purpose of sabermetrics is to better understand the game of baseball and keep an open mind.
Sometimes Almost every time, that means tearing down what we thought we knew, and pressing forward into uncharted, more nuanced territory. After all, advanced analytics are just one tool, one vehicle to help us better understand both past and expected future performance. Just as we’ve abandoned some traditional statistics for their less-than-comprehensive abilities, we must be prepared to do the same for the currently “advanced” analytics.
Hendricks’ FIP is only 9th best and his fWAR is only 7th best in the National League, but I doubt anyone would argue that there have been six to eight better pitchers in the NL this year, right? So how do we close that gap? Well, we need to start thinking differently. Perhaps Hendricks deserves to win the Cy Young because he used his tools and his skills, and the advantages the Cubs provided to him (defense) to produce the best possible results. Should he be discounted for that? Can you be certain he wouldn’t have pitched away from contact had he had a bottom five defense behind him, and would that somehow make him a better pitcher?
I’m not sure I have all of the answers to the questions above, but I urge you to start thinking this way. While it’s entirely possible that he is just getting lucky and benefiting from an amazing defense, it’s equally possible that he’s found a way to elevate his own performance to the top of the league. And that might be as impressive as any strikeout rate out there.