With an 8-1 record to start the second half, and fresh off a series victory against the St. Louis Cardinals, and now suddenly tied for first place atop the National League Central division with the struggling Brewers, life on the North Side is pretty great.
And, somehow, there’s even more reason for optimism as Kyle Hendricks returns today to open up the Crosstown Classic versus the White Sox. The optimism remains strong, despite the reality that Hendricks did not perform at a particularly high level in the first half before heading to the DL. Even though his numbers were solidly down from 2016 he still maintained a respectable 4.09 ERA (albeit a less-than-desirable 4.50 FIP) with a fantastic GB% (51.1) that is actually better than 2016’s (48.4).
He is clearly an upgrade from Eddie Butler, who hopefully will fix his mechanical issues in Iowa with a chance to return to the rotation in 2018 (or even potentially the bullpen for the playoff stretch). And while I maintain my deep concern about Lackey, the Cubs rotation suddenly looks really good with the return of Hendricks.
Concerns abound, however, regarding his first half numbers. In my mind, the most telling stats are that his BB/9 has increased to 3.06 from 2016’s stellar 2.08. His HR/9 has nearly doubled, to 1.31 from .71 in 2016. Most alarming – and something of significant discussion to start the season – is that his fastball velocity dropped from an average of 88.9 MPH to 86.3. All of this has led to an ERA jump of nearly two runs while he’s mustered an average of just under six innings per start.
It’s fair to assume that the latter has informed the former. The drop in velocity has negatively impacted the effectiveness of Kyle’s changeup. This year his changeup has been merely six miles per hour slower, compared to eight miles per hour in 2016. And while two miles per hour seems slight, in reality it has a huge impact on a hitter’s ability to adjust/react. With hitters making more contact, and more hard contact in particular, Hendricks, in my opinion, has tried to be too fine with his pitches. He also seemed more hesitant to attack the inside corner (to both lefties and righties). All of this has led to an increase in walks and home runs, a decrease in strikeouts, and a marked departure from 2016 in general.
So what can we expect from Hendricks today, and for the rest of the season? First of all, his two minor league starts were solid – with one of them being a perfect five innings pitched. I get that the sample size is impossibly small, and that they were Double-A starts. What they did provide, though, is proof that Kyle is healthy and seems poised to be a difference maker in the rotation. Perhaps most important, he seems uncharacteristically vocal and publicly confident. This is a good sign.
The first thing I’ll be watching for today is the velocity of his 4-seam fastball and sinker. If they are more along the lines of 87, 88, 89 on average, you’ll see more swings and misses on his changeups, more weak contact on his fastballs, and generally, a more efficient and confident pitcher. I have a strong belief this is exactly what we’ll see, both today and in the future.
So, yes, my faith in Hendricks remains quite strong. Of course, there’s a significant amount of bias: He’s my favorite pitcher on my favorite team who demonstrates glimpses of my all-time favorite pitcher (Maddux). There’s also the reality that I was a soft-tossing righty in my pitching days, with a heavy reliance on changing speeds and location. So when I cheer for Hendricks, there’s a depth to it that didn’t exist when, say, Arrieta was at his dominant peak in 2015. I relate to Hendricks, and seeing him perform at a high level provides a gratification that can’t quite be named. Perhaps my fandom has rendered my analysis to be entirely subjective, but as Theo suggested earlier this year with Schwarber, if you’re selling your Hendricks stock I’m happy to buy it.
The bottom line is this: Kyle Hendricks will not be as elite as he was in 2016. He also remains much better than what we saw before he hit the DL this year. A pitcher somewhere in-between those extremes, who can provide quality and efficient starts – perplexing the talking heads that believe velocity is god – is who Kyle truly is, and who I believe we will see in the second half and beyond.
(All stats via the wonderful folks at Fangraphs.)