I know baseball isn’t supposed to be about individuals – especially when you’re in the thick of a pennant race – but I can’t help but feel for guys like Jose Quintana (two starts ago) and Kyle Hendricks (yesterday).
Through six innings …
Hendricks: 6.0 IP, 5H, 2ER, 2BB, 8K
Quintana: 6.0 IP, 3H, 2ER, 2BB, 3K
Each guy had tossed solid games through six innings – starts to take home and be proud of – but both guys were sent back out for the 7th, when things went wrong. Ultimately those final sash lines, which we would’ve raved about had they been removed from those games, turned into the following:
Hendricks: 6.0 IP, 7H, 4ER, 2BB, 8K
Quintana: 6.1 IP, 6H, 5ER, 2BB, 4K
And unlike Quintana, Hendricks (yesterday) wasn’t even the one to give up those extra two runs. Well, sorta. They were his runners, but Carl Edwards Jr. came in and couldn’t quite get it done in relief. There’s no hard feelings, of course. Edwards almost always gets it done and the Cubs got the win anyway. And also, I’m sure Hendricks is wise enough to look beyond the crappy ending to all the things that went well for him throughout that start.
But here’s the thing: we do know that Hendricks was good yesterday. But we should probably point out that it wasn’t a one-time thing. Over his last eight starts, Hendricks has had a game score over 50 seven times, including his last five straight. But more importantly, he’s been on an absolute strikeout bender (with almost no walks):
7/09: 8Ks, 1BB
7/14: 3Ks, 0BB
7/19: 4Ks, 1BB
7/24: 8Ks, 2BB
7/29: 8Ks, 0BB
8/04: 7Ks, 0BB
8/10: 5Ks, 0BB
8/15: 8Ks, 2BB
That’s 51 strikeouts and six walks in 47.2 innings pitched. With just under 200 batters faced, we’re talking about a 25.6% strikeout rate and 3.0% walk rate. Had Hendricks kept this over the entire season, his strikeout rate would rank among the top 18 and his walk rate would be the best in baseball. Put another way, that 8.5 K/BB ratio would be the best in all of MLB.
For a guy who struggled with up and down performances all year until this past month and a half, it’s fair to guess that – whatever “it” was – Hendricks has figured “it” out.
How has he been doing all the striking out? Well yesterday, his changeup was simply firing on all cylinders. Over the course of the afternoon, Hendricks got a total of 13 swings and misses, and a full 10 of those were on his changeup. It’s, of course, unsurprising to see Hendricks succeed on his changeup – that’s his go-to wipeout pitch – but it’s also very encouraging, because when it’s working, that usually means his other pitches are working, too. I’ll let Hendricks explain.
“My changeup was really good today, but it started with my fastball command,” Hendricks said via Cubs.com. “I was getting ahead of guys and then the changeup was right off it. That’s always the key for me – fastball command.”
When Hendricks is able to command his fastball exactly as he wants – and remember, that means more than just throwing it in the strike zone – he can more effectively tunnel that pitch with his changeup (make them look the same for longer) to either side of the plate and that can be devastating for hitters.
That doesn’t include an overlay of his fastball (I wish it did), but you can imagine a batter’s dilemma when Hendrick can also put fastballs in those same spots on either side of the plate. It’s just a killer combination, and the reason he’s usually so good.
Those of us who’ve followed Kyle Hendricks closely over the last several years will know that he tends to outperform his peripherals (in very shorthand: ERA vs. FIP) because he’s typically elite at managing contact (keeping the ball on the ground, inducing a bunch of weak contact, etc.). But the odd thing is that right now, he’s flipped – at least, during this stretch.
Over the past eight games (thanks to all those strikeouts and impressive command), Hendricks’ 2.74 FIP far outpaces his 3.78 ERA. And for a little context on that, a 2.74 FIP would rank seventh best in MLB this season, one spot behind Max Scherzer, the NL Cy Young front runner.
But here’s the thing: when a pitcher’s ERA is more than a full run worse than his FIP, I tend to guess his batted ball data is a mess. But this is Hendricks we’re talking about. It’s simply not.
Last 8 Games:
Ground ball rate: 48.1%
Fly ball rate: 27.8%
Soft-hit rate: 21.7%
Hard-hit rate: 29.7%
Those numbers are all a LOT better than the league averages. Heck, none of those rates are even far off from Hendricks‘ career averages!
So you see why this is crazy?
Before this season, Hendricks typically ran an FIP in the mid 3.00s (3.43 career average) with an ERA about a half-run below it (2.94 career average). In other words, we’ve more or less come to expect his ERA to always fall below his FIP, given the type of elite contact management he delivers. But during this recent stretch, despite an excellent FIP, his ERA has ballooned … despite almost equally elite contact management.
So what am I saying? I’m saying I think Kyle Hendricks has been EXTREMELY good lately and the results just haven’t followed yet.* I’m saying I feel about 20x better about the way the rest of his season will play out than I did when I started this post. And I’m saying that if he can keep up this K/BB pace, Hendricks won’t just be as good as he ever was, he might be the best version of himself yet.
*[Brett here: yesterday was a perfect example of how it could be that a guy manages contact well AND does well on the K/BB side, but sports a high ERA. That happens when you have horrible luck with sequencing (like three of the opposing team’s hits happen to come in straight succession to score two runs (check)), horrible luck with batted balls (like the opposing team putting up a .412 BABIP against you despite you getting an absurd amount of soft contact (35.3%) and allowing almost NO hard contact (11.8%) (check)), and when your bullpen allows inherited runners to score (two of ’em, check). Truly, Hendricks could not have been much more unlucky yesterday.]