Chicago Cubs 2016 NL Central Championship Gear

kyle hendricks chicago cubsWith the NLDS just days away, I’ve taken some time to look back into the overall bodies of work from Cubs’ starters John Lackey and Jake Arrieta in 2016.

After comparing their numbers against the league and their former selves, we were able to get a gauge on their overall production, their individual weaknesses, and their overall value to the team.

In the spirit of consistency, then, we’ll move on down the line with the presumptive NLDS Game 2 starter and 2016 Cy Young candidate: Kyle Hendricks. Hendricks’ brilliant season on the mound in 2016 has provided us with a number of reasons/opportunities to dig into his production all year long, but we finally have the benefit of a complete dataset.

Before being identified as a potential Cy Young award winner, Kyle Hendricks was one of the more quietly successful starters in MLB from his debut in mid-2014 through the end of 2015.

In his first taste of MLB, Hendricks posted a 2.46 ERA (3.32 FIP) and 1.5 fWAR through 80.1 innings. Then, in the following season, he posted a mediocre 3.95 ERA, supported, though, by excellent peripherals (3.36 FIP, 3.25 xFIP). He was worth 3.3 fWAR through 180.0 IP. As a healthy, 25-year-old starter in his first full go-of-it, Hendricks provided plenty to be excited about.

Even still, questions about his ability to last deep into games (and seasons), his strikeout rate, and his general lack of electric stuff and/or velocity followed him around, threatening to zap him of productivity at any moment. Or so many feared.

In 2016, Hendricks answered all of those questions (and more), culminating in a 4.5 fWAR season and the lowest ERA in all of baseball.

To better understand his enormous leap forward in 2016, then, let’s take a look at how and when he answered each of the questions that followed him through the early parts of his career.

First, let’s talk about his “inability to pitch deep into ballgames and seasons”. Although this “issue” would eventually become one of Hendricks’ most widely discussed struggles, that was not necessarily the case right away. Upon breaking into the league in July 2014, Hendricks’ first seven starts were 6.0 innings or longer – five of which were 7.0 innings or longer. In fact, of his 13 total starts in 2014, only four were less than 6.0 innings, but three of those were 5.1 IP or more. In short, his production and peripherals in 2014 were excellent (2.46 ERA, 3.32 FIP) and he did it over plenty of innings (80.1 IP in 13 starts).

So that means this narrative really began in 2015.

Despite making a full seasons’ worth of starts in 2015 (32), Hendricks did come up a bit short of the arbitrary 200 IP target in his overall total (180.0). Indeed, he failed to go 6.0 innings eighteen times and only went 7.0 or more five times. For the most part, if you recall, Hendricks was on a pretty tight leash once the fifth inning rolled around, because he tended to run into trouble the third time through the batting order … a lot. The numbers bore it out:

2015 OPS: 

  • 1st time through the order: .651 OPS
  • 2nd time through the order: .585 OPS
  • 3rd time through the order: .894 OPS

Through this lens, you can see why Hendricks frustrated many. He was lights out for the first two times through an order, and turned into batting practice the third time through.

Well, in 2016, he managed to fix that problem.

2016 OPS: 

  • 1st time through the order: .569 OPS
  • 2nd time through the order: .580 OPS
  • 3rd time through the order: .622 OPS

Small improvements in the first two times through the order were nice to see, but it was the total shift in OPS against the third time through the order that changed everything. Then, despite making two fewer starts, Hendricks pitched ten more innings in 2015 (190.0) reaching a point that was more than acceptable – especially on a per start basis.

The next “problem” many had with Kyle Hendricks coming into 2016 was that he was not much of a strikeout artist. For the most part, especially early on, people were right. In his debut 2014 season, Hendricks struck out just 14.6% of the batters he faced. In an environment that had just begun valuing strikeouts more than anything else, anything below 20.0% was generally considered fairly weak, and usually enough too prohibit most pitchers from finding success.

In 2015, however, Hendricks improved upon his strikeout rate, bringing it all the way up to 22.6% which was good for (what we can call) a 107 K-rate+ (with 100 representing league average, and that figure then being 7% better than average).

In 2016, the average strikeout rate for pitchers increased, but Hendricks improved alongside it. His new 22.8% strikeout rate kept him at the same 107 K-rate+ for the season, but he did it over more innings. Moreover, the improvements he made became more apparent as the season went on. In the second half of 2016, Hendricks struck out 24.3% of the batters he faced, which was good for a 114 K-rate+.

I think it’s fairly safe to say that the 2016 version of Kyle Hendricks can strike a guy out.

Lastly, one of the most prominent (and on-going) criticisms of Kyle Hendricks is that he lacks the “stuff” to actually produce at an elite level. While it’s true that Hendricks has a sub-90 MPH fastball and only one plus pitch (his changeup), that changeup is downright nasty and he’s found other ways to be successful, too.

First, let’s talk about the changeup. If Kyle Hendricks is known for any pitch, that’d be the one. Despite an inability to pair it with a plus (or even average) fastball, Hendricks has fooled batters with his changeup for years. According to FanGraphs, Hendricks’ changeup was the most valuable change-up in baseball (21.1), well ahead of second place David Price’s (15.3) and number three Marco Estrada’s (12.4). In fact, it was one of the top ten most valuable pitches of any pitcher in the entire game. It helps that Hendricks has the ability to throw his changeup for typical arm-side movement, or cut it so that it moves glove side instead. It is like two killer pitches in one, and he doesn’t need high-end velocity to do it.

If power pitchers with a ton of velocity and high strikeout totals are in-vogue, Kyle Hendricks is an angsty teenage hipster who’s totally pulling off that scarf, v-neck, and mountain-man beard.

But that’s not even the entire story. As we know, Hendricks’ biggest strength has been his ability to limit hard contract and induce a ton of weak contact over and over. Usually, fans want to identify electric stuff by its ability to create strikeouts, but I think we can safely say that we’ve learned quite a bit about the value of weak contact this season and Kyle Hendricks has been a huge part of that revelation.

Here’s where his batted ball data wound up by season’s end:

2016 Batted Ball Data (NL, MLB Rank): 

  • Soft Hit Rate: 25.1% (1st, 1st)
  • Hard Hit Rate: 25.8% (3rd, 4th)

The Cubs’ historically good defense and run prevention has certainly helped Kyle Hendricks’ production this year, but his batted ball skills sure made it a lot easier for them.

So where did he end up overall? Well, as you can imagine, given his candidacy for the 2016 NL Cy Young Award and his recent nomination as one of the top three NL pitchers of the year according to the Players Association, Hendricks was one of the very best:

Kyle Hendricks in 2016, By the Numbers (NL, MLB):

  • Innings Pitched: 190.0 (13th, 30th)
  • ERA: 2.13 (1st, 1st)
  • FIP: 3.20 (4th, 4th)
  • xFIP: 3.59 (8th, 15th)
  • K-rate: 22.8% (11th, 23rd)
  • BB-rate: 5.9% (9th, 18th)
  • AVG Against: .205 (3rd, 5th)
  • fWAR: 4.5 (6th, 13th)

Even in a system that strongly values strikeouts (which hasn’t been Hendricks’ biggest strength), he’s able to finish with a top five FIP in baseball.

Whether he was the single best pitcher is debatable, but he has undoubtedly been one of the very best in either league. If he can continue his dominance into October, Kyle Hendricks may ultimately put together one of the most valuable seasons from a Cubs starter in a long time.

[Brett: Just because we’ve said that a lot lately about several pitchers doesn’t mean it isn’t true!]

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