The 2018 season has been an awkward ride for Chicago Cubs’ right-hander Kyle Hendricks. After leading the majors in ERA in 2016 (2.13) and posting a similarly brilliant mark in the second half last season (2.19), Hendricks’ lack of consistency in 2018 has been concerning.
While this year’s numbers are generally palatable, we’ve yet to witness him pitching at a consistently high level. A 3.86 ERA with respectable peripherals is hardly upsetting, but for a pitcher that’s started Game 7 of a World Series and out-pitched Stephen Strasburg in Game 1 of the NLDS last season, it’s borderline disappointing. Hendricks has yet to progress further toward becoming an ace this season, leaving critics satisfied with their assessment that his lack of velocity won’t allow him to ever get there. And while fans like myself might be a bit discouraged, it’s still realistic to think the best version of Kyle is yet to come.
Location Has Caused Regression
Perhaps regression isn’t a surprise for a player with Hendricks’ repertoire, but it’s not necessarily permanent. What is encouraging is that unlike last year, his sinker and four-seam velocity have not been a concern. He’s also utilizing his arsenal (sinker and change-up primarily with the occasional four-seamer and curve) at rates consistent with his career averages. Yet his HR/FB rate is well above league average while his ground ball percentage is at a career low. So what’s going on?
The answer is quite simple: Hendricks is not locating his pitches, which has generated more fly balls, more hard contact and a career worst HR/9 (1.13).
The chart below is a raw aggregate of every pitch he’s thrown this season:
Here’s the same chart from 2016:
Hendricks has thrown a higher percentage of pitches this year up in the zone while failing to throw pitches just below the zone with anywhere near the same frequency. Added to that, hitters are not only laying off his pitches outside the zone at a better rate than 2016, they are making more contact when swinging at pitches outside the zone. This sheds light on the slight dip in strikeouts, the uptick in home runs and hard contact percentage and is likely the reason for an increase in BABIP.
The good news is that this is likely due to a slight mechanical flaw that can (and will) be fixed. For a pitcher like Hendricks, who relies so much on his command and baseball IQ, it’s not a question of if he fixes this issue, but when it’s fixed for good.
Believing in the Track Record
Concerns be damned, there’s reason to believe in Hendricks. Yes, the career high in home runs is troubling, as is his first inning ERA (8.00). Despite his issues this season, however, he’s still amassed a 2.2 fWAR with peripherals that suggest an above-average season. I get that isn’t exactly something to write home about, but I think we’re looking at the nadir of his career, not a trend in the wrong direction.
It may be a small sample size, but his recent outings have been (mostly) encouraging. In three of his last six starts he’s pitched seven innings, and in that stretch he’s surrendered just two home runs in 38.2 innings while giving up just four free passes. While two of those starts were lackluster, the overall impression is that he’s getting better and doing so at the right time.
We also know that Kyle is playoff tested. Quietly, in fact, he’s put together one of the more impressive playoff resumes since 2015. In 10 starts, he’s amassed a 2.88 ERA (3.56 xFIP) in 50 innings pitched. One may not consider Hendricks to be a big game pitcher, but he’s been successful in that role in the past and I’m confident he’ll perform that role again in the near future.
Still just 28 years old with two more years of team control, Hendricks has time to prove he’s one of the game’s better pitchers. It might be blind optimism, but I think the best of Hendricks is still yet to come.
Follow Austin Bloomberg on Twitter-Feature Photo Credit: Baseball Prospectus