Although the Cubs are well suited to cover Jake Arrieta’s innings as he recovers from a mild hamstring strain (thanks, Mike Montgomery), the other members of the rotation will still need to step up their performance in his absence.
And so far, at least one of them already has.
Kyle Hendricks was once again fantastic last night, throwing 6.2 innings of 5-hit, 2-run ball against the Pirates. He struck out only two batters in this one, but he didn’t walk a single guy and, for the second straight game, he got a TON of ground balls and weak contact.
We’ll get into all of that in a second, but first, you should revisit the highlights of his start right here at MLB.com, before we take a closer look below.
Done? Okay, first thing’s first. I have absolutely fantastic news to share and I won’t beat around the bush: Kyle Hendricks hit 90.0 MPH on the radar gun last night, according to the data at Brooks Baseball. And while that was just his top speed of the night, he averaged 87.7 MPH on his fastball, which is an ENORMOUS leap from where he was earlier in the season.
Take a look:
As we explored earlier this year, Hendricks had been performing something of a balancing act between his velocity and command. In other words, when one was working, the other, unfortunately, was not. And while he was still able to give the Cubs 5-6 healthy innings most times out, the effectiveness of those starts was far less certain, and, perhaps more importantly, his upside was capped.
But, as the chart shows, he’s been steadily improving his velocity since his return from the disabled list back in July. In fact, his velocity is essentially approaching the sort of numbers he was hitting throughout his 2016 Cy Young campaign. Which, whoa. And while I think you get the picture, I really want to drive this home: This is legitimately very exciting news and might even suggest that Hendricks could return to something closer to the pitcher he was last season down the stretch.
Okay, so it looks like he’s got his velocity back – you get it – but now you’re probably wondering what Hendricks did with it.
Well, as I mentioned, Hendricks allowed just two earned runs last night and only five hits overall. And to accomplish that sort of final line with just two strikeouts, he used some elite contact management. More specifically, and for the second straight game, Hendricks posted a really excellent ground ball rate (65.2%). After struggling a bit to keep the ball on the ground in many of his post-injury starts, it’s good to see this particular skill rebounding. Indeed, his 2017 ground ball rate is now up to 49.8%, which is actually even better than what he put up in 2016.
But perhaps the most impressive part about last night’s start was that Hendricks allowed just an 8.7% hard-contact rate (league average is 31.9%) while also getting a 30.4% soft-hit rate (league average is 18.9%). When you keep the ball on the ground over 60% of time and allow hard contact less than 10% of the time, you are going to get great results.
And our love-fest for Hendricks isn’t just homerism. Take it from Pirates third baseman David Freese (Cubs.com): “Hendricks is tough, man. I’m sure a lot of people are sitting around the last two years wondering how people don’t hit this guy, but [his pitches have] a lot of movement. He knows what he’s doing. He uses the strike zone. That late movement gets it off the barrel.”
Those are some really complimentary words from a divisional rival. Hendricks can pitch, and the league knows it.
So Hendricks has now made nine starts since returning from a hand injury at midseason, and his line looks fantastic in that time: 2.36 ERA, 3.69 FIP, 3.88 xFIP. His strikeout rate is still a little low (20.6 K%), but he’s been commanding the ball so well (6.4 BB%) and getting ELITE levels of hard (25.6% – would rank first in MLB) and soft (22.5% – would rank 8th in MLB) contact that it doesn’t really matter.
And because we’ve seen him succeed with something close to this profile for about four years now, I’m not really concerned that it’s unsustainable. Kyle Hendricks is a great pitcher who struggled a bit at the beginning of the season because of a hand issue and depressed velocity. Now that he’s healthy and the velocity is back, though … watch out. He’s dominating.