I remember hearing something about Kyle Hendricks’ pitch mix late in the year last season. Postseason maybe. Maybe it was around the time he was dominating the Dodgers in one of the best pitching performances I’ve seen.
In any case, given the feverish pace of those days, it was something that found its way into my brain, I nodded in acquiescence, and it never made it to my mouth or my fingers.
This Cubs.com write-up on Hendricks reminded me of whatever it was that I heard, and prodded me to check something out. The article is a good read on Hendricks’ evolution into a Cy Young finalist, full of insight and quotes from Hendricks, and noting that one of the biggest reasons for his success in 2016 was his impeccable command, which netted him more called strikes outside the strike zone than any other pitcher in baseball (we know he is an extreme command specialist, after all).
In that article, Hendricks commented about throwing more four-seamers in 2016 (he wanted a fastball without much movement), which brought me back to thinking about his pitch mix. Again, though the particulars elude me, I know part of what I remember hearing was an increasing trust in his four-seamer. Overall, it was something about an uptick in Hendricks’ four-seamer and curveball usage as the year went on, which went hand-in-hand with his dominance down the stretch (Hendricks’ already-solid FIP and xFIP each dropped about 50 points from the first half to the second half, and his ERA dropped nearly 90 points to just 1.68 in the second half). It was all notable (well, notable enough to vaguely stick with me, even if not enough to prompt me to action back then) because Hendricks, of course, is probably much better known for his sinker and his killer changeup.
So, then, it’s time for the check-on-the-fly (seriously, I haven’t looked until I’m typing this sentence): did Hendricks’ four-seamer and curveball usage actually increase in the second half?
As you can see in the Brooks chart there, there’s a visible uptick in both the four-seamer and the curveball, generally at the expense of the sinker. If you go by month, rather than individual game (to reduce the fluctuations), Hendricks’ three highest months using the four-seamer and the curveball all came in the second half.
So, then, the vague recollection checks out!
Hendricks’ changeup usage ticked up as the year went on, too, though that probably would have stood out less to us, given that it’s his best pitch (and the most valuable changeup in baseball last year).
Interestingly, Hendricks didn’t use the four-seamer as much in September after an uptick in July and August, and then suddenly used it a ton in the playoffs … hiding and saving it, perhaps, once he realized how effective it could be? It’s hard to say from the data, as teams slugged right around .400 against his four-seamer all year (except, notably, September, when the usage was down). On the other hand, his whiffs per swing were up in the second half against the four-seamer. That contrast makes some sense, though, doesn’t it? I can see the four-seamer – a straight fastball – as a tricky change of pace for Hendricks, designed to induce whiffs, rather than weak contact.
I didn’t really notice any obvious effectiveness trends with the curveball, though a useful writeup from FanGraphs in the playoffs reminds us that even if Hendricks’ curveball, on its own, did not see a spike in obvious production indicators, him having it available more often could have the effect of improving the utility his other pitches.
That underscores how tricky this business of breaking down individual pitch usage and effectiveness can be. There are relationships between pitches that you can’t always demonstrate on a granular level. For example, maybe you wonder why a pitcher starts using his changeup more when it’s a pitch that gets ripped, but it turns out that he’s doing it because his arm slot and release point mirrors his fastball really well, and throwing the changeup a touch more (even at the expense of a few more hits) makes his fastball, which he throws a ton, all the more effective. This is not stuff into which you can truly dig with a quick glance.
And I didn’t even get into when in the count the pitches were used, against what kinds of hitters, in what zones, and against lefties or righties. That level of deep dive was not on my radar today, though I did think it was worth teeing this stuff up for folks to ponder as we increasingly transition away from “how’d they do in 2016” to “what kinds of things will they do in 2017.”
Hendricks’ pitch mix is going to be something in which I’m very interested, not only because of all of the above, but because, in order to match his success from 2016, he’ll need to continue to stay one step ahead of the batters who are all studying this stuff closely as we speak.