Kyle Hendricks Using NL’s Best Changeup to Become Baseball’s Best Fifth Starter

He isn’t physically imposing and his fastball probably wouldn’t even merit a speeding ticket were it a car on I-94. He’s not possessed of a dazzling repertoire otherwise either, doesn’t have the electric stuff that leaves viewers and hitters alike shaking their heads in disbelief. His 22-15 record and 3.25 career ERA are nice, sure, but there’s really nothing there to make you sit up and take notice.

If you’re looking for a pitcher who’s already won the at-bat before throwing a pitch, look elsewhere. Want a guy who can light up radar guns? Nope, move along. And if you need a guy with the kind of biting slider that makes idiotic talking heads at the Four-Letter yap about PED’s, you need to find someone else. If, however, you want a cat who’s going to stand out there every five days and give you 6 solid innings while betraying little outside of the occasional exasperated expression, Kyle Hendricks is your man.

From the moment he broke into the Bigs with the Cubs, there was a pervasive feeling that he wouldn’t last. “He can’t be this good,” went the general sentiment as Hendricks compiled a 7-2 record with a 2.46 ERA during his rookie campaign. And that was right, sort of. He wasn’t that good, as evidenced by a 3.32 FIP and 3.92 xFIP that said he was due to regress over time.

Regress he did in 2015, though it was an overcorrection of sorts. In 32 starts last season, Hendricks pitched to 3.95/3.36/3.25 ERA/FIP/xFIP split that prompted many to wonder aloud whether his spot in the rotation was secure. The acquisition of Adam Warren in the offseason didn’t help matters. Never mind that the numbers above would be enough to score him around $15 million AAV on the open market, there’s nothing sexy about a guy whose heater couldn’t have kept his team’s former clubhouse warm.

But the thing is, Kyle Hendricks can really pitch. He’s always located well and doesn’t walk too many batters despite being a bit of a nibbler when it comes to the borders of the zone. That’s why the fastball — if you can really call it that — is so effective in spite of its meh velocity. And it really is a very good pitch. In fact, it’s probably better than you think. Without peeking, try to guess where Hendricks’ fastball ranks in terms of runs saved this season?

Everybody made their guesses? Good. I suppose there’s no need to keep the suspense going, particularly since I can’t actually see or hear any of you. Hendricks actually sits 21st in MLB with 6.1 runs saved by his fastball. That’s ahead of guys like Julio Teheran (4.8), Jaime Garcia (4.3), and Madison Bumgarner (3.3). In case you were wondering, Jake Arrieta leads the majors with 19.4 runs saved.

If you know much about Kyle Hendricks, though, you know that his calling card is the changeup. I wrote back in March about how he was giving Cubs fans change they could believe in, and that has certainly kept up through the first half of 2016. At 10.0 runs saved, Hendricks’ offspeed offering is the best of it’s kind in the NL and is only half a run behind Cleveland’s Danny Salazar for tops in baseball.

Still not enough to raise eyebrows more than a tic and a few observers will compare his 2.61 ERA to his 3.45 FIP and 3.77 xFIP and say that he’s getting lucky. They’ll continue to overlook a guy who gives up hard contact at only a 23.9 percent rate (league average is 31.3), who keeps the ball on the ground and doesn’t give up too many home runs, because he doesn’t throw hard.

Hendricks will never look the part of the ace, and that’s just fine. He knows his spot and he’s perfectly comfortable there.

“On this team, I definitely am [number five],” Hendricks acknowledged after Monday’s game. “I don’t think about it like that. I just know when [Joe Maddon] gives me the ball, I’m going out there trying to do whatever I can do.”

Dude speaks like he pitches, unassuming and lacking frills and fanfare. But ask anyone who knows what they’re talking about to make a list of number five starters better than Kyle Hendricks and you should get a blank piece of paper in return. Then again, he won’t be a back-end pitcher for long if he keeps performing like he has been.

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