The Cubs starting rotation is such a ripe place for discussion right now, because pretty much everybody has something interesting going on.
Jon Lester is working his way back from injury, Mike Montgomery is getting all the grounders and pitching well in his absence, Jake Arrieta is on one heck of a stretch, Jose Quintana is experiencing some struggles (but was solid last night after the first inning), and even John Lackey had put together a massive comeback campaign, before allowing 10 earned runs in his past 10 innings pitched.
But despite all of that, I believe it’s tonight’s starter, Kyle Hendricks, who’s grabbed my attention the most.
Since returning from a hand injury at the end of July, Hendricks has put together seven fantastic starts: 40.o IP, 2.48 ERA, 3.35 FIP. And that includes Saturday night’s gem against the Phillies (the highlights of which, you can watch right here).
Kyle Hendricks went 7.0 innings this weekend, tying his longest outing of the year. He also allowed just two earned runs on six hits, no walks, and eight strikeouts. If nothing else, he’s now posted great K/BB ratios in back-to-back games after allowing a few too many walks (as he found balance with his velocity) against the Giants and Reds in mid-August.
And speaking of finding that balance, Hendricks may really just be hitting his stride mechanically, and that’s perhaps part of the explanation for his success.
“I just feel so much more connected with my mechanics,” Hendricks said via Cubs.com. “It’s been a process the last four or five games, it just started to click more and more every game. Today [Saturday] was more of the same.”
Indeed, Hendricks was able to get a fantastic 18 whiffs on the day, thanks, primarily, to his changeup (15). Of course, he was also throwing his fastball/sinker between 86.3 MPH and 86.6 MPH, which is better than usual (lately), and sets up a great distance between that pitch and his changeup.
And better yet, his improving velocity is looking trend-like:
Check out that sinker velocity growth since the beginning of August, when Hendricks was ramping back up after his injury. If you recall, a few weeks ago, we looked at the relationship between velocity and command for Hendricks, noting that he was often sacrificing one for the other since coming back. And given that he already threw with very little velocity, that was something of a serious issue.
But in his last start, when he was throwing his sinker harder than usual, it fell-in for strikes 81.8%, which means the command and feel were there, too.
That’s big news, because the interplay between velocity and command is important in and of itself, but also for the success of Hendricks’ other pitches, in particular. He’s just not an overpowering guy, so he has to be perfect in every other way he can.
On the flip side of everything, Hendricks hasn’t really generated a lot of ground balls since returning from the DL (41.5 GB%), especially after posting a rate in the upper 40s/lower 50s through the first three seasons of his career, but perhaps that’ll come back to him soon.
Of course, in the meantime, he’s gotten by allowing very little hard contact and plenty of soft contact (both marks are better than the league average by a fair amount, even if they’re not quite 2016 Cy Young Hendricks caliber), while also keeping the ball in the park.
In the good luck/bad luck arena (since returning), Hendricks comes out quite neutral. His .325 BABIP is WAY above his career .275 rate and is almost certainly unsustainable (especially when you consider that he’s still inducing weak contact). But his 88.4% strand rate is certainly quite high. He’s also got a low HR/FB ratio, which has been a godsend, given his low ground ball rate, but, again, with a bunch of weak contact, a low HR/FB ratio is pretty sustainable.
If Hendricks can keep pitching as he has down the stretch, then the Cubs rotation will look immediately better. And if Lester and Quintana – historically, the two most consistent pitchers on the staff – can rediscover their stuff in time to join the streaking Hendricks and Arrieta, then the Cubs front four will look downright formidable.