Kyle Hendricks is a tough pitcher for many observers to troubleshoot. That’s because most never thought a command pitcher with his velocity could stick in a big league rotation, let alone finish third in Cy Young voting in 2016. He doesn’t miss enough bats. He doesn’t have an out pitch. He won’t trick major leaguers into getting themselves out like in the minors.
Clearly, they were wrong. So when Hendricks’ game derails slightly, these same observers usually grasp at straws to figure out the root cause. For example, it has been said recently that he must pitch exclusively in the bottom of the strike zone to be successful. While it’s true that there is benefit to staying on any edge of the zone, anyone who understands the art of changing eye levels knows a mindless consistency of location is one of the quicker paths to the showers.
Thus several commentators even mistook every fastball up in the zone as an indicator of poor command. But what I saw was a pitcher purposely and smartly trying to pitch high in the zone. This is where most uppercut, launch-angle hitters don’t like it. It also helps set up his sinker.
Challenging in the zone
Challenging more often in the zone with the fastball and not just predictably wasting them to set up his changeup is exactly what I had hoped Hendricks would do last season. He largely did this in the second half last year, consequently reversing a three-year negative rise in his pitch efficiency and turning in his lowest rate (3.75 pitches per batters face) since his 2014 rookie season (3.60). Not coincidentally, this improved efficiency translated into his finishing eighth in the NL in innings pitched (199).
But this year, Hendricks’ biggest problem hasn’t been leaving too many pitches up in the zone. It has been his inability to keep just one of them low: His sinker.
This isn’t a new snag for Hendricks. It has cropped up from time to time, but it creates a big problem for him when it does. Hendricks throws both his four-seam fastball and two-seam fastball/sinker in the 86-88 mph range. He starts both at relatively the same height, and getting enough sink with his two-seamer changes the hitter’s eye level – which is just another way of saying varying location up and down.
This year, however, Hendricks has experienced the lowest difference of his career in sink between his two fastballs. In plain English, this means his sinker isn’t sinking as much. This became most apparent in his last start against the Angels, when it was impossible to tell the difference between his two fastballs. So I went to Brooks Baseball and confirmed that his average difference in drop that game between his four-seamer and two-seamer was just 2.6 inches.
Without an acute difference between his two- and four-seamer, the two pitches appear largely the same to the hitter. This turns Hendricks into essentially a two-pitch pitcher, which isn’t ideal for a starter who wants to stay around long enough to earn a decision.
The last times Hendricks had a prolonged vertical differential this low was on and off during his uneven 2017 season and in April 2015, when he posted a 5.23 ERA. The good news is he’s been here before and both times he righted his ship.
But in examining Hendricks’ year so far, I noticed another issue. He has a terribly strong pattern of starting most hitters with a fastball, usually away. The first two full times through the Angels’ order, he started every hitter off with a fastball, 16 of which were intended away. In his previous start against Milwaukee, he started the first 13 hitters off the same way.
In fairness to Hendricks, these first-pitch fastballs his last two starts were a mix of two- and four-seamers. However, they feel like the same pitch with so little difference in movement. This makes it incredibly easy for hitters to either sit fastball or changeup. Consequently, the batting averages this year against his change (.395) and his two fastballs (a combined .377 average) are way up.
This seems a very imprudent route to take for a pitcher with a reputation for being so studious, but it appears Hendricks understands this to some degree. I’ve noticed when he thinks a hitter is sitting fastball or changeup, he’ll throw him the opposite three or more times in a row. This basically forces the hitter to change approach and hit Hendricks’ pitch.
He did this to eight of the 26 batters he faced in his first start against the Braves, then with 10 of 21 Angels hitters in his most recent start.
Here’s a curve: Throw more curves
It is possible that the similarity of Hendricks’ two fastballs has also led him to challenge up more, where the launch-angle hitters are less likely to easily square up his fastball. I can’t help but think a more effective tactic might be to work in his seldom-used curveball more.
Hendricks is actually using his curve less than ever this year, as its usage has dropped under 5% for the first time in his career, versus its normal 7.5-8% range. Against the Angels, he threw just two curves out of 78 pitches. This must mean he has even less confidence in that pitch than before, though seven of the 12 curves he’s thrown this year went for strikes (mostly fouls). Three were called balls, one was a can-of-corn, and just one resulted in a sharply struck single on the ground.
I get why he’d prefer not to throw it too often. At 71 mph, it is a tantalizingly slow curve, and one that doesn’t induce many whiffs. But given how desperately he needs a third pitch right now, the breaking ball could represent the best adaptation to keep hitters from sitting exclusively fastball or changeup. And if he throws it no more than 10% of the time, it would seem just what he needs to get back into hitters’ heads and induce less solid contact against his other pitches.
Without that third distinct pitch – be it his curve or a return of the full sink to his two-seamer – don’t expect Hendricks to end his funk any time soon. But once he does, I’m excited to see where his newfound comfort with challenging up in the zone takes him.
Combining this up-and-down mix with his old proclivity for working both sides of the plate could result in the Kyle Hendricks we’ve all been waiting for. He could again be that dangerously perplexing mix of ERA leader and workhorse who does it without the help of elite velocity.