Before yesterday’s flop against the Phillies, Kyle Hendricks had arguably been the Cubs best and most consistent starting pitcher in 2018.
One start doesn’t really change that – I mean, he still could be the Cubs best starter for the rest of this season – but before yesterday, Hendricks was working on a nine-game streak of allowing three earned runs or fewer – something he had done in 10 of his 11 starts overall. Now, however, that streak has ended and Hendricks, and it wasn’t particularly close: 5.0 IP, 5H, 5ER, 3BB, 5Ks.
On the bright side, he did manage to go 5.0 innings, which did help save the bullpen a little, but that’s about it. Otherwise, Hendricks allowed five hits in five innings, including a homer, and was uncharacteristically wild with three walks (including one with the bases loaded), tying a season-high, and setting a new single-game walk rate high for 2018.
As expected, Joe Maddon noticed his starter was a bit off (Cubs.com): “Obviously, Kyle was not on top of his game, missing the plate, the home run early.” And Hendricks, himself, agreed, with a little more detail: “I was inconsistent,” Hendricks said via Cubs.com. “I wasn’t repeating my mechanics. I just have to get back to work this week and really dial everything in. It starts with fastball command, it wasn’t great. The first inning I felt good, and the second and third, I just wasn’t repeating my mechanics. The focus was there. I’ve just got to lock everything in and get to work this week.”
I have no doubt in my mind that Hendricks will put in the work and get his mechanics back on track for a better start next time out, but I do want to explore his comments a bit more, because I’m a nerd and need to know exactly what happened yesterday (Okay, fine, he’s also on my fantasy team, but I probably would’ve done this anyway).
And as it turns out, all those hits and that homer might not really be indicative of his underlying performance. As I’m paging through his batted ball data at FanGraphs, I can see that Hendricks hardly allowed any line drives (14.3%) last night and got a ton of grounders (50%). His 35.7% fly ball rate is a little higher than his season-average (32.1%), but not egregiously so. And his infield fly ball rate was huge (40.0%), so that really doesn’t seem to be the problem.
And perhaps more importantly, Hendricks was still his vintage, weak-contact-generating self, allowing just a 20.0% hard-hit rate, his 2nd best mark of the season for a single game, while generating a 33.3% soft-hit rate, his 3rd highest mark of the year. In other words … he got a ton of weak contact, mostly on the ground. And when it was in the air, it was mostly weak pop-ups, nearly half of which stuck around the infield. A .286 BABIP may not seem high for a single game, but it’s way over Hendricks’ 2018 average (.245) and solidly above his career rate (.271 BABIP).
To put it plainly, there’s no doubt in my mind that Hendricks was at least a little unlucky last night when it comes to balls in play. The Phillies were simply not squaring him up, so whatever the issue was with his mechanics, he was still missing barrels.
The problem, it seems, is that he was also missing the plate, and even lost a little velocity across the board (though the drop was marginal and uniform across all of his pitches, so it’s possible it was weather related or was just a strategic response to the wildness (i.e. take a little off, garner a little more command)).
Consider the pitch he threw most last night, his sinker (35 of them), checked in with a 34.3% ball rate by the end of the night, a figure higher than his season average of 32.7%. And the pitch he threw second most, his changeup (27 of them), checked in with a 44.4% ball rate, WELL above his 35.2% ball rate for the first eleven starts of 2018.
To be sure, his four-seamer (16) and curveball (9) were actually thrown for strikes more often than usual, but even combined, those pitches weren’t used as much as either his sinker or changeup, which are his primary and best pitches anyway, so clearly there was a bit of a command issue.
And considering how much more movement each pitch showed, that’s hard to ignore. Take a look at the movement of his change-up and sinker from last nights game compared to Hendricks’ season-averages in parentheses.
Horizontal: -5.52 inches (-5.40 in.)
Vertical: 7.18 in. (6.18 in.)
Horizontal: -6.77 in. (-6.56 in.)
Vertical: 6.81 in. (5.45 in.)
His changeup had similar(ish) horizontal movement as we’re used to seeing, but was dropping far more than usual, and his sinker followed a similar pattern with a near 1.5 inch difference in the vertical game. Clearly, Hendricks didn’t have a feel for either pitch last night, and that may have led to more movement (and thus more balls and walks) than usual. Relatedly, his sinker (usually one of his most valuable pitches) posted the single-worst value mark of the season (-2.3 according to Pitch Info).
But I have to say, this doesn’t scare me too much. Pitchers can lose their feel for a day or two and still be fine in the long run. Plus, Hendricks has always been good at identifying what went wrong and correcting it before his next start. So if we can pinpoint his issues down to the mechanics of two pitches, he should be all over it. Fret not. If he’s healthy, he’ll be fine.