Through three starts this season, Chicago Cubs righty Kyle Hendricks is sporting a 6.19 ERA, a 5.85 FIP, and a 4.12 xFIP. His metrics are across the board much worse than his 2016 Cy Young finalist campaign, though it goes without saying that we’re looking at just 16.0 innings across three starts.
Still, I tried to find a three-start stretch from 2016 that looked ugly in isolation (“see, even in a great year, a guy can have a really rough stretch”), but I couldn’t find one. It didn’t happen. In fact, going by game score, Hendricks had only three starts all season that were worse than his best start so far this season.
So what’s been going on, exactly? Well, I had intended to write a “he’s been too easy to hit” post today in advance of Hendricks’ start against the Pirates, and FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan beat me to the punch – quite literally, the title is “Kyle Henricks Has Been Too Easy to Hit.” Well, then. I suppose I should tell you to go read that. And we’ll circle back to it momentarily.
I was going to point out the impact his drop in fastball velocity from 87/88mph to 84/85mph was having on the hitability of his signature changeup (the lower the fastball velocity, the less separation with the changeup, and the easier it is for hitters to sit back and wait on both). Thus, batters are slugging a ridiculous .630 against his changeup so far this year, after slugging just .220 (yes, that’s real) against it last season. A year after yielding the fourth least hard contact in baseball, Hendricks is currently in the top 10 of hard contact given up. In other words, he’s simply been too easy to hit. Pair that with command that’s just a bit off, and mistakes and non-mistakes alike are getting punished. Throw in a near doubling of his walk rate, and you have, well, what we’ve seen so far.
But it’s just three starts! I do think it’s important to keep that in mind, especially against the backdrop of possible mechanical issues that can be corrected.
To that end, what is especially interesting about Sullivan’s piece is the visual look at possible mechanical issues that could explain Hendricks’ missing command, and also the few miles per hour missing from his fastball velocity.
You may recall that, about halfway through the 2015 season, there was a fair bit of talk from Hendricks about getting his shoulders into a more square position as he delivered to home plate (example here). Improving in that regard aligned almost perfectly with a significant uptick in his strikeout rate and his groundball rate in 2015, and then we didn’t hear much about the issue at all in 2016 (which is understandable, because he was killing it). In the shots Sullivan looks at, although he focuses on a very noticeable difference in the back foot, I’ll add that you can see the upper body position is also at least slightly different. This year’s look is less upright, and the shoulders look to be squaring up later in the delivery.
It’s not hard to imagine a loss in command and velocity stemming from a loss in efficiency in the delivery, generating less force on the baseball as it leaves Hendricks’ hand (yo, science people, forgive the hacky description there). A loss in velocity doesn’t have to be injury-or-aging-related, and it certainly doesn’t have to be permanent.
None of this is to say that (1) correcting the issue will be quick and easy, or (2) there is definitively no health-related concern. However, when you see possible mechanical issues in a guy who has achieved high-level success before, it can be a little comforting (relative to the other possible explanations).
On that front, it’s not as if any of this is a mystery to Hendricks and the Cubs. In fact, after his last start, Hendricks explicitly mentioned to CSN that he’d noticed his mechanics were off, and moreover, he’s been throwing quite a bit to try to sort that out, which may in turn have worn out his arm a bit and cost him velocity when he gets out there for game action.
We shouldn’t necessarily look for everything to be magically fixed in a single start, though it is certainly within Hendricks’ ability to do that.
Tonight, you’ll want to keep an eye on the radar gun. Velocity is important for its own reasons – Hendricks can live well at 87-88mph, but at 85mph, the fastball is so much more hittable, and worse, so is the changeup – but it also could be an important signal about Hendricks’ mechanics.
As those get cleaned up, you might see a slight bump in the velocity, and an increased befuddling of batters with the changeup. You will, of course, also want to see Hendricks locating his pitches better tonight, keeping them down, and reducing the hard, fly ball contact that’s been a problem so far this season.
These very Pirates gave Hendricks trouble just 11 days ago, though it was probably the best of his three starts so far this year (5.0 IP, 3 ER, 6 H, 2 BB, 3 K, 0 HR). Perhaps he improves on that just a bit tonight, and the ball is in motion from there.
I’m not sure a repeat Cy Young finalist season is going to be in the offing, but it would be silly to rule out the possibility that Hendricks could turn things around and dominate in his own, unique way for the bulk of 2017.