Last night, Kyle Hendricks made his fourth start for the Cubs since returning from the disabled list in late July, and it was … I don’t know … short?
I struggle to aptly describe the quality of Hendricks’ latest effort, because there were both good things and bad things to take away. On the one hand, he allowed just one earned run and struck out five batters in 4.2 innings (woo!). But on the other hand, he gave up five hits and three walks (1.71 WHIP) over a pretty short period of time (boo!).
Continuing, his fastball velocity was down (again) and his command was pretty spotty, but somehow he was able to fool plenty of batters and limit the hard contact to a number well below both his and the league’s average.
So if you’re anything like me, given all of that information, you’re probably wondering just where the heck Kyle Hendricks, the Cubs’ theoretical fourth starter in a playoff series, is at right now. Let’s see if we can figure it out.
Despite using 103 pitches to go 7.0 full innings his last time out, Hendricks was able to make 96 pitches last only 4.2 innings yesterday in San Francisco. That means that he was pretty inefficient, so let’s see where that track leads us.
Obviously, pitchers can be inefficient for any number of reasons, but typically, deep counts and walking too many batters is the culprit. Yesterday, Hendricks walked just three batters, but because of the brevity of his outing, that was good for a 13.6% walk rate
2017 League Average: 8.1%,
Hendricks Career Average: 6.0%
Looking through his start at Brooks, I can see that Hendricks’ four-seamer was out of the zone just 46.2% of the time yesterday (ball rate) compared to a career average of 38.1%. That’s a really notable difference, and it’s even crazier when you consider that he threw it a whopping 26 times, and had a higher whiff rate on that pitch last night (11.5%) than he has for his career (8.2%).
(Note: Hendricks’ sinker, which he typically throws more often than his four-seamer, was actually commanded better last night (25% ball rate) than it has been for his career (31.9% ball rate), but he actually threw that pitch less often than his four-seamer last night. Which, well, huh.)
Putting all of that simply: no fastball command -> too many walks -> inefficient outing.
But, of course, that’s not the end of the line. All we’ve done so far is figure out that an inconsistently commanded four-seam fastball was a major component in his inefficient outing. But what we really need to discover is what led to that extra dose of wildness – after all, impeccable command is one of the hallmarks of Hendricks’ career.
Well, if you think back to the beginning of this season, you’ll remember that Hendricks’ already pretty low fastball velocity came under some additional scrutiny through the first couple months of the year. Indeed, after sitting around 89-90 MPH for the first three seasons of his career, Hendricks was sitting at 86.3 MPH through the first 11 starts of the season (which is just before he went on the disabled list).
And then, in the three starts he made before last night, his fastball velocity dipped down even further, to 85.4 MPH overall. But last night, Brooks clocked Hendricks’ fastball back up at an average velocity of 86.0 MPH (over a half-mile faster than usual), and even saw him top out at 88 MPH – which isn’t something we’ve seen much of lately.
Of course, that’s not necessarily a good thing. If the first time Hendricks tried to throw his fastball with more velocity coincides with some unusual spottiness in his command, well, it’s not an enormous leap to connect the two items. Indeed, it opens up the possibility of a particularly frustrating problem.
If Hendricks losses his much-needed accuracy when he reaches back for some extra mustard, he’ll have to dial it back down in order to succeed. However, if he dials it down too much, he’ll lose the also–much-needed velocity separation between his fastball and changeup (which is his wipeout pitch).
Seriously, take a look at how tiny drops in the separation between his fastball and change-up velocity over his past three starts may have affected his whiff rate:
7.2 MPH separation – 30.6% whiff rate
6.9 MPH separation – 21.4% whiff rate
6.9 MPH separation – 20.0% whiff rate
To be quite clear, this is the tiniest of samples, so don’t take it as gospel. But it certainly follows years of pitching wisdom we mostly know to be true. And that’s where Kyle Hendricks is at right now.
Without the ability to throw 89-90 MPH (which appears to be entirely off the table for at least the rest of this season), Hendricks has to strike a careful balance between spotty command and depressed velocity. And on days where he can’t find that balance, he’s either going to struggle to get good results, or struggle to remain efficient enough to last deep into ball games.
Rock, meet hard place.