Kyle Hendricks of the Chicago Cubs is one of those baseball pitchers that have grown tremendously as a professional.
As we all should know, Hendricks was one of the main pillars in helping the Chicago Cubs win their first World Series in over one-hundred years.
Hendricks was drafted in the eighth round of the June 2011 Amateur Draft by the Texas Rangers, not exactly top prospect material at that time.
So how did Kyle Hendricks go from a relatively unknown prospect with the Texas Rangers to becoming so successful with the Chicago Cubs?
Or is there more to this statistical story that were are not seeing?
Let’s dive in.
Kyle Hendricks, Minor League Evaluation
Now we normally focus on Major League performances here, but we wanted to touch on some of Kyle Hendricks’ minor league statistics, to help better shape his reasons for success.
Hendricks’ first season with the Spokane Indians (Texas Rangers’ short season low A-ball affiliate) was rather successful.
He accumulated a 1.93 ERA and a 1.78 FIP, with 9.92 strike outs per nine innings and 1.10 walks per nine innings, over 32.2 innings pitched.
The caveat, these innings were all as a reliever.
He moved up to Advance A-ball in 2012, playing with the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, and began to start games. He accumulated a 2.82 ERA with a 2.95 FIP over 130.2 innings pitched. His walks per nine innings dropped to 1.03, but so did his strikeouts per nine (7.71).
The Chicago Cubs saw enough to request he be part of the package that sent Ryan Dempster to the Texas Rangers. The move greatly helped to fuel the Chicago Cubs rebuilding effort.
Kyle Hendricks continued to succeed in 2013, his first full season with the Chicago Cubs minor league affiliates. Hendricks accumulated a 1.85 ERA in 2013 with a 2.36 FIP in AA in 2013, and was promoted to AAA before the end of the season.
In 2014, Hendricks moved between AAA and the big league club, posting a 2.46 ERA, 3.32 FIP, and 3.92xFIP.
From there he became a mainstay in the Chicago Cubs’ starting rotation.
Hendricks’ 2015 and 2016 seasons were immensely successful.
Kyle Hendricks and the Chicago Cubs
Now that we have painted the picture of where Kyle Hendricks came from let’s dive into who he is as an actual major league baseball pitcher.
Kyle Hendricks is not flashy.
He does not over power the hitter.
But he has managed to do this:
- Top 30 (among qualified starting pitchers) with 8.05 strikeouts per nine innings.
- Top 15 with 4.5 fWAR (2016), ahead of fellow battery mates, Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta.
- Best ERA in the Major League Baseball, 2016.
- 4th best FIP in the Major Leagues Baseball, 2016.
- 15th best xFIP in the Major Leagues Baseball, 2016.
Not too shabby, huh?
So how exactly did he obtain those numbers?
Let’s start with his pitch velocity.
Pulling some information from the Brooks Baseball Graphic above, we determine the following from 2016:
- Average Four Seam Fastball Velocity: 89.7 mph
- Average Sinker Velocity: 87.5 mph
- Average Changeup Velocity: 80.1 mph
- Average Curveball Velocity: 75.4 mph
- Average Cutter Velocity: 87.9 mph*
So how does he thrive in the age of velocity, when his average pitch is less than 90 mph, ala Greg Maddux?
The answer is Pitch Tunneling.
If you do not know what pitch tunneling is let’s quickly discuss.
The concept of pitch tunneling is that if two pitches look identical at the tunnel point, the pitcher likely has more success.
The reasoning behind this is the tunnel point coincides with the distance from the mound that the batter has to decide to swing.
Think of it as the decision point, the point of no return.
The guys over at Baseball Prospectus identified this point as 23.8 feet from home plate.
If the pitches look similar, the batter will have more difficulty in identifying a pitch type and tracking its trajectory.
A good visual of this was provided by Driveline Baseball.
— Driveline Baseball (@DrivelineBB) January 20, 2017
Notice how the two-seam fastball follows the same path as the four seam fastball, until the tunnel point, which is located 23.8 feet from home plate. The two-seam fastball breaks off and the four seam fastball continues on its own trajectory.
Baseball Prospectus has developed a statistic to help quantify the differential of pitches at the point of the tunnel, smartly depicted tunnel differential.
You may be asking at this point, how does Kyle Hendricks stack up against the competition?
Hendricks is 17th in the league with a 0.7827 tunnel differential ratio.
This means on average his pitches have 9.4 inches of separation at the tunnel point.
That may seem like a lot, but that means all his pitches hit the tunnel point, within a window that is about the size of your hand (at least my hand).
The average in the sample utilizing 1,000 pitch pairs is 10 inches. For additional context, Bartolo Colon, now of the Atlanta Braves is the best in all of baseball with a 0.726 tunnel differential (8.7 inches).
Now this metric is not the only basis for success, as James Shields is three spots down from Hendricks with a 0.7924 tunnel differential.
So let’s take a bigger bite and see what is really going on.
Kyle Hendricks and Consistent Pitching Mechanics
Many baseball pitchers struggle with repeating their mechanics and consequentially their release point.
Some end up in the bullpen, pitching short stints.
Some try to pitch from the stretch.
Then there are those that strive further to have a consistent release point.
Enter Kyle Hendricks.
His release differential ratio is 0.1349, good for 6th in all of major league baseball.
James Shields, he is 130th in league at 0.2364. For additional context Jon Lester, also of the Chicago Cubs is the best in the league with at .1104.
To see this visually let’s examine some release points graphs from FanGraphs.
The graphic above, supplied by FanGraphs, has horizontal release point labeled on the x-axis and vertical release point shown on the y-axis. The intent of the image is to show how tightly clustered together the release point of each pitch is in comparison to one another.
If you examine the units of the image (inches), you can see that nearly all the pitches are clustered between 6 on the vertical and from -2.5 to -1.5 on the horizontal.
So how does this piece together?
Imagine being a hitter, standing in the batter box.
The fastball, slider, changeup, and sinking fastball are all released at the same point.
The hitter can only rely on hand positioning to identify the pitch at that point.
The baseball flies throw the air and the batter tries to identify the type of spin.
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The trajectory of the baseball is relatively the same based on tunnel differential.
The baseball reaches the tunnel point and bam it curves left instead of dropping vertical.
I know trying to think about that much in a short window would make for a tough at bat.
Never mind that Kyle Hendricks eliminated being able to identify the pitch easily at near release and made it very difficult to identify the pitch until the baseball reaches the tunnel point.
The only identifier for the batter at release is hand positioning, not exactly an easy metric to see.
Consistent release points will lead to consistent pitching mechanics.
The clip directly below shows Kyle Hendricks throwing a changeup at approximately 82 mph.
Notice the path of the ball and then the vertical break, at the tunnel point.
The ball starts to drop around the 23.8 foot mark and has Mike Napoli out on his front foot.
Now, take a look at the below clip that shows Kyle Hendricks throwing his patented sinking fastball.
Notice that the trajectory is relatively the same.
That is, until the tunnel point.
The sinking fastball cuts back in towards the hitter with a vertical drop. The sinking fastball is at 87 mph, the changeup is at 82 mph.
That is a thing of absolute beauty. Greg Maddux would be proud.
If you still do not believe me, let’s take a look at the two pitches in still frames.
The image above shows three distinct points. We tried to capture similar camera angles, with a similar pitch location to show the importance of the tunnel.
In yellow (upper images), you see that that the change up and sinking fastball are at approximately the same location, as the pitch nears the tunnel point. The red shows the relative straight line trajectory of the baseball out of the hand.
The lower images show where the baseball ends up once it crosses home plate (orange).
The changeup is slightly lower than the sinking fastball, as we would suspect.
I am glad I do not have to try to hit Kyle Hendricks, I’d be fired on the spot, although I would be entertaining.
Movement and Location
We have heavily focused on the tunnel point and repeating the release point, let’s shift gears and focus on movement and location.
Two major metrics for success as a baseball pitcher.
Movement of Kyle Hendricks’ pitches.
The first thing that may jump out at you is the linear increase in horizontal break of this curveball. Each year Hendricks has incrementally increased the spin rate on his curveball that has led to more break.
For more explanation of why that is, I recommend you read the following article.
Also notice that each of his pitches, outside the cutter, has at least one inch of horizontal break.
The real talking point, notice the similarities, between the sinking fastball and changeup. As we talked about before, these two pitches look similar at the tunnel point.
Hendricks throws the changeup in the lower 80’s and his sinking fastball in the upper 80’s. One breaks slightly more than the other.
How can the hitter realistically identify what pitch is coming?
The last talking point regarding the image above, is the omission of the cutter in 2016. If you recall the list at the start of the article, we had an asterisk next to the cutter. This is because the labeling of Kyle Hendrick’s cutter is up for debate across FanGraphs and Brooks Baseball.
Brooks Baseball eliminates the cutter in their graphics from 2016, since the pitch has drastically more vertical sink than horizontal movement. Brooks Baseball thus reclassifies the pitch and groups it with the sinking fastball. FanGraphs keeps the pitch labeled as a cutter, since the pitch grips are different.
Don’t believe us about the similarities between the changeup and the sinking fastball?
Take a look at the graph above. You can barely even see the difference between vertical movement of the sinking fastball and changeup in 2016.
How can the batter hit the ball if they cannot identify the pitch?
Never mind Kyle Hendricks uncanny ability to locate his pitches.
Location, location, location
Kyle Hendricks is a master of location, he must have learned from Greg Maddux.
Kyle Hendricks hammers the outside edge against righties (or inside edge against left handed hitters) with his sinking fastball.
The large concentration of red clusters are away from the center of plate and in areas where hard contact is minimized.
Let’s see how this differs with the changeup.
A thing of beauty.
His changeup is thrown in the lower half the plate, and often outside the strike zone. He gets the batter to chase and induces light contact.
But, wait, there’s more. Thanks to one of our guest bloggers.
Josiah Rutledge pointed out that Kyle Hendricks has two distinct changeups. One to right-handed batters and the other the lefties.
If you look at the image above, you can see to separate clusters, tied together. Each cluster represents Kyle Hendricks’ use of the changeup based on the batter he his facing.
So let’s reexamine this.
Kyle Hendricks has two changeups, both that look like his sinking fastball. Each are release at the same arm slot and each reaches the tunnel point at nearly the same location.
What is a batter to do?
If I could do it all over again, I’d focus more on my changeup and disguising it as a fastball, than trying to make the ball curve.
Oh, the wisdom of age.
Kyle Hendricks, Is His Success Sustainable?
Kyle Hendricks had a 2.13 ERA in 2016.
However, based on his .250 batting average on balls in play, we can expect that number to be a little higher in 2017. Similar to his 3.20 FIP.
His release point (and inherent pitching mechanics) are consistent and easily repeated, a good indicator for long term success as a starting pitcher.
His focus on location and movement means that he should still be highly successful, ala Bartolo Colon, if his velocity suffers.
Overall, Kyle Hendricks is not a flash in the pan, in our opinion, and should be a mainstay in Chicago Cubs starting rotation for the foreseeable future.
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