Kyle Hendricks is a fantastic pitcher. He’s a former league ERA leader. He is in the top ten in active career WHIP, and top five in active career ERA for pitchers with at least 790 career innings pitched.
He’s also a cerebral pitcher who doesn’t rely on overpowering stuff, his velocity maxes out in the mid-to-upper 80’s, and his struggles in the first inning are a problem.
Hendricks’ first inning struggles are not new, and they don’t appear to be improving. The reason behind the struggles are, at this point, unknown. Obviously if they were, pitching coach Tommy Hottovy would have made adjustments with Hendricks by now. But the Dartmouth grad seems unable to settle into a rhythm until after his first inning.
The History of the Opener
Before the 2018 season, the idea of an opener had been limited to a small handful of instances over the course of baseball’s history. However, the idea makes sense in theory.
By utilizing a relief pitcher to start a game, a team can force the opponent’s best hitters to face someone focused solely on getting three outs. Afterwards, the normal starting pitcher can enter the game, beginning the second inning by facing less elite hitters. This pitcher would throw their normal amount of pitches/innings, eventually being removed when they become tired or ineffective.
In 2018, the Tampa Bay Rays used a opener in 91 games. Their openers, while facing generally ONLY the best hitters of the opposing teams, posted a 3.97 ERA. The MLB starting pitcher average ERA was 4.15.
Yarbrough was a 26-year-old rookie seeing his first major league action. He posted a 3.91 ERA over 147.1 innings, and finished fifth in the Rookie of the Year voting. Chirinos was a 25-year-old rookie also getting his first look in the majors. He began the year as a starter, but struggled a bit and was moved to that post-opener role in the second half of the season after some time in the minors. As a starter, Chirinos had a 4.73 ERA. After the change, he was much more effective, posting a 2.83 ERA while averaging more innings per appearance.
The Professor is the Perfect Candidate
Joe Maddon has been called a “mad scientist” plenty of times during his career. While he has said he isn’t sure use of an opener is ever going to widespread, and has said he would never use one with old-school, intense guys like Jon Lester or John Lackey, he is never afraid to make an unorthodox decision if he believes it is in the best interest of his team and his players.
The thing is, Hendricks seems like he is the perfect candidate for Maddon to try it with. He is level-headed, intelligent, team-first, and not so intense that you would be terrified to even bring up the topic.
More importantly, Hendricks is the perfect candidate for being a post-opener. Since his first inning struggles are normally followed by multiple solid innings, it would seem that Hendricks needs to get into a rhythm for him to be most effective. He can’t rely on overwhelming stuff, so that rhythm is needed to hit his spots and miss bats. If Hendricks is able to face the bottom (see: less dangerous) part of the opposing lineup and can get into that rhythm before he faces the best opposing hitters, it would make sense that he can be more effective.
In the end, any change that the Cubs believe could create more wins is something they should consider. Jed Hoyer and Theo Epstein are “new-school” guys who believe in analytics and sabermetrics. Maddon trusts the “nerds” the Cubs employ to help make his daily lineups. Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s discussed among the Cubs brass, or if they try it out if Hottovy and Hendricks aren’t able to figure out some other fix.
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