Every October seems to be littered with unexpected heroes. The kinds of players one wouldn’t necessarily expect to create postseason magic, but do, thanks in part to some combination of skill, good fortune and other tangible (or intangible) factors.
Kyle Hendricks gets a chance to be that guy for the Cubs, as he takes the ball against the Cardinals in Game 2 looking to do his part toward helping the team even up the NLDS at 1-1.
The last time Hendricks made a start in Busch Stadium, it was borderline disastrous. Staked to a 4-1 lead and facing the 8-9-1 spots in the lineup to start the fifth inning back in May, Hendricks allowed the first two batters to reach in front of a one-out, three-run homer by Matt Carpenter which erased the Cardinals’ deficit.
Hendricks’ final line that night: 5 IP, 6 H, 4 ER, 2 BB, 1 K, 73 pitches in the team’s 7-4 loss on May 5.
In 27 starts after that rough outing, Hendricks went on to post a 3.67 ERA/3.22 FIP/3.08 xFIP, as the Cubs went 17-10 in those games.
So, how has he gone about righting the ship since that start?
- Hendricks struck out only one in that game, coaxing a grand total of two swings-and-misses. After that start, Hendricks found a way to get more whiffs, thanks mostly to his change-up. In 27 starts after his May 5 struggle fest, Hendricks threw 484 change-ups, per BrooksBaseball.net, and got 133 whiffs. The 27.5 percent whiff rate on the change is a marked improvement from the eight whiffs he got on the 73 change-ups (10.95 percent whiff rate) he threw in his first five starts of the year.
- The whiffs helped Hendricks go a long way toward evolving in his first full season as a starter. Since May 10, Hendricks struck out 147 and walked only 37. A 3.97-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio there is rather solid, as is the 23.4 percent strikeout and 5.9 percent walk rate. All while not having the kind of stuff that traditionally leads to having those kinds of strikeout rates.
- Limiting base runners is an obvious key to success for any pitcher at any point of the year. But in October, walks can really sting. Hendricks has done a pretty decent job in keeping the free passes at a minimum since during his big league career. While his strikeout rate climbed 8 percentage points from 2014, his walk rate only increased by 1.1 percent. More often than not, Hendricks has control of the strike zone, which is essential in games of this magnitude.
- Like most Cubs pitchers, Hendricks has been able to induce an ample number of ground balls. Hendricks increased his ground ball rate from 47.8 percent last year, to 51.3 percent this year. Since May 10, his ground ball rate is at 50.9 percent. Hendricks induced 212 ground outs, which made up 59.9 percent of the outs he got from batted balls. Hendricks allowed only 142 fly ball outs and saw his fly ball percentage drop from 32.6 percent to 26.9 percent, but his HR/FB jumped from 4.9 percent to 12.4 percent. It’s an odd set of numbers, considering opponents hit .198 on fly balls against Hendricks, per Baseball-Reference.com — but slugged .584 with 9 homers and 10 doubles in the process. Obviously, keeping the ball on the ground should be a high priority for Hendricks.
- A major part of Hendricks’ success this season has been his ability to get past the first two times through the order with minimal damage. Batters are slashing .228/.296/.355/.691 in their first plate appearance against Hendricks. Things don’t tend to get much better in their second go-around as the slash line goes to .213/.255/.330/.585. Only 164 batters have received a third look at Hendricks, and they have made the most of those chances, slashing an enormous .329/.374/.520/.894. If Hendricks can find a way to maximize his efficiency early, it could allow manager Joe Maddon to play to the match-ups as he sees fit as the game progresses. It isn’t an elimination game, so it isn’t necessarily a must-win game. But it is a game of obvious high importance and will likely be managed like one.