Kyle Hendricks Has Been Crazy Good All Season, Even Better Over His Last Several Starts

Kyle Hendricks does not fit the common stereotype of a professional athlete. Unless, that is, you consider chess a sport. At 6′ 3″ and 190 pounds, he’s neither particularly tall nor abnormally muscular. His bookish appearance is probably more suitable for a job as a commodities trader or a bicycle shop owner. Maybe a high school history teacher. I’d be willing to bet that most Cubs fans wouldn’t even recognize one of the best pitchers in baseball if they saw him out in public without his uniform on.

Come to think of it, they still wouldn’t recognize him in that case since the only person who walks around in public wearing a Cubs uniform is Ronnie Woo Woo.

[beautifulquote align=”right” cite=””]Among the 62 qualified MLB starters whose fastballs average less than 93 mph, only four others throw it more often than Hendricks.[/beautifulquote]

My point here is that whether you call him The Professor or The Soft-Tossing Shaman of Sheffield, Hendricks has been flowing like the salmon of Capistrano this season. His 2.17 ERA ranks second behind only Clayton Kershaw, who is about a dozen team games away from losing qualification for the title. Yet in an era in which lighting up the radar gun is de rigueur, Hendricks’ average fastball velocity (87.7 mph) is lower than all but four qualified starters.

What’s even wilder about that is the frequency with which he deploys the “heater,” which makes up just over two-thirds of his pitches. Among the 62 qualified MLB starters whose fastballs average less than 93 mph, only four others throw it more often than Hendricks. In fact, only nine of 85 total starters use the fastball to a greater degree. But if we turn our focus to his recent stretch of dominance, we see that Hendricks’ fastball usage is actually down a bit in favor of more changeups.

I’ve written a bit about how Hendricks is doing what he’s doing and I’d prefer you give me more clicks, so I won’t be retreading that ground here. The goal of the above data, then, is to provide a little context for the extraordinary run we’ve seen from the Cubs’ “fifth starter” over the last month and a half or so.

[beautifulquote align=”full” cite=””]For the season, Hendricks induces weak hits at a 26.1% clip, easily ahead of CC Sabathia (24.7%) for the highest percentage in the league.[/beautifulquote]

Since June 24 (9 appearances, 8 starts), Hendricks is 6-1 with a 1.01 ERA. He’s averaged just over 6.1 innings and has allowed fewer than 4.9 hits per start (6.58 hits per 9 IP) in that time and is giving up hard contact at a paltry 23.0% rate. That’s only a tick under his season mark of 24.2%, which is good enough for third-lowest in MLB. As you might imagine, Hendricks is right there at the top of the list when it comes to soft contact as well.

For the season, Hendricks induces weak hits at a 26.1% clip, easily ahead of CC Sabathia (24.7%) for the highest percentage in the league. The soft contact numbers have actually dipped a little of late, but the difference has just been added to the medium category. And with Javy Baez cleaning up pretty much everything that isn’t hit perfectly, not to mention a lot that is, Hendricks need only keep the ball in the yard.

To that end I suppose the one area of concern for Hendricks of late could be that he’s allowed four home runs over his last nine appearances. Then again, three of those were solo shots and only one (Adam Duvall on June 29) came in a loss. There’s also the fact that Hendricks’ home run/fly ball ratio of 0.68 in the sample at hand is identical to his season mark.

I don’t have any incredibly in-depth insights to add here, at least not beyond anything I’ve shared with you in posts you should have already read by now. All I really wanted to point out is that the gaudy ERA numbers Hendricks is posting are really just a function of him doing what he’s done all season. It’s understandable that there’d be some skepticism though, particularly given the discrepancy between his ERA and FIP.

Some see that as a situation ripe for regression, but I see it as a function of how Hendricks pitches. This is where it’s important to understand the peripheral metrics that go into the calculation of some of the “luck” stats we love to reference. Because he nibbles around the zone and has great movement on his pitches, Hendricks just doesn’t allow the type of contact that leads to solid base hits. In other words, he is able to synthesize his own proprietary form of good fortune.

Is Kyle Hendricks really a 2.17 ERA pitcher? Maybe not, but his career numbers and what he’s done lately tell us that he’s a really, really good starter who should be able to maintain his production for years to come. The issue of dealing with falling velocity as he ages isn’t really one Hendricks is going to face and a great changeup will always play. In my mind, the only question now is what spot he takes in the playoff rotation.

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