How the Heck is Kyle Hendricks Doing What He’s Doing?

What’s the big deal? I could get a hit off this guy. He looks like a high schooler and doesn’t even throw as hard as one.

That’s pretty much how the thinking goes when hitters are facing Kyle Hendricks, he of the rising stock and plummeting ERA. Then they watch a belt-high strike like Mighty Casey (unless Laz Diaz is acting as arbiter of pitch propriety, in which case top end of the zone be damned) and they foul the next offering weakly away to dig an 0-2 hole.

Maybe they manage to take a couple close pitches for balls before getting out in front of that butterfly of a changeup that flutters to the plate and doesn’t even settle into the catcher’s mitt until the befuddled batter has already made it halfway back to the dugout. Sounds like hyperbole, huh? Yeah, well so does saying that Hendricks boasts the lowest ERA among a rotation that includes the reigning Cy Young winner and allows fewer earned runs than any other in the game.

Though he currently ranks 43rd among MLB starting pitchers in overall strikeout rate, Hendricks is 57th in swinging-strike rate and 42nd in walk rate. So he’s neither overpowering nor incredibly adept at keeping hitters off base. But are the walks a function of poor location or of Hendricks playing to his strengths?

Pitching like a baby eating a Ritz cracker, the slight starter nibbles around the edges until there’s a small enough piece for him to really get to work. That means a few borderline pitches will go against him like so many crumbs from our metaphorical snack. But just when a hitter thinks he’s getting an edible pitch, he swings to find the offering crumbling in his hands.

I wrote of the strikeouts earlier, but that’s not the strength of Hendricks’ game. Rather, it’s the real-life results of my clunky analogy. Even when he’s not getting whiffs by working the edges of the zone with stuff that doesn’t even break 90, Hendricks induces all kinds of weak contact. In fact, he gets soft contact at a 26.5 percent rate, more than any qualified pitcher other than the Nationals’ Tanner Roark (27.2).

That’s all well and good, but how is the 26-year-old mystery man doing what he’s doing? He’s striking out fewer hitters and walking more than he did during last year’s kinda meh campaign that saw him pitch to a 3.95 ERA. It’s hard to tell from just watching Hendricks pitch, and the numbers tell very few tales themselves. Unless…wait, is it really that easy?

Hendricks has scrapped his little-used cutter and has distributed those pitches to the fastball and change, tossing the curve just often enough to keep hitters guessing. And while he’s walking a few more batters, he’s throwing more first-pitch strikes than ever. After leading with a strike to only 63 and 64 percent of the batters he faced in previous seasons, Hendricks is looking very nice early with nearly 69 percent first-pitch strikes. It’s also about how he’s doing it.

As the inimitable (and impeccably coiffed) Eno Sarris laid out for FanGraphs, Hendricks and pitching coach Chris Bosio noticed some mechanical flaws that were hurting his results.

But his path to that excellence still isn’t quite clear. Path ended up being the key word, though: “I was sinking on my backside, collapsing it, and my arm path was getting long,” admitted Hendricks.

Recognizing the problem was only the first step. Along with pitching coach Chris Bosio, Hendricks had to go to work. He tried to stay taller to avoid collapsing in the back, and get out front more. He worked on his arm path in bullpen sessions, worked on getting his muscle memory to latch on to the better mechanics. “It took a lot of hard work,” admitted Hendricks, “but luckily Bos and I started finding some cues that worked by the end of the year.”

Those cues? “Stand tall and make sure my arm path stays out in front,” Hendricks says of the work he does on his first few throws in every bullpen. And that’s the sort of thing we can maybe see. By way of illustration, watch his throwing arm as it comes up to the throwing position in July.

Standing a little taller, maintaining a better arm path, and not collapsing on the backside are not necessarily things an average fan is ever going to notice. I know I wouldn’t have seen them without plenty of help. The results, however, speak loud and clear as to what Hendricks is doing differently. But there’s one more change he’d like to make.

He’s still looking for a breaking ball. Said Henricks [sic]: “I’ve been working on my curveball a lot, it feels a lot better this spring. It’s never going to be a breakout, wipeout pitch for me, but more first pitch, steal a strike, late and buried maybe.” But he didn’t find that breaking ball in September. In fact, his curve lost a bit of movement and was probably actually less effective at the end of the season.

The curve is there, though it’s just kinda hanging around with all the necessity and efficacy of Antonio Alfonseca’s sixth finger(s). Thus far on the season, the hook is easily the worst of Hendricks’ offerings and has actually cost the Cubs nearly a run in terms of relative value. As the pitcher himself noted, it’ll never be a big weapon. Just being a serviceable pitch, which it had approached in 2014 and ’15, would be enough.

Throwing the fastball for early strikes and using the change to clean things up has been working wonders here in 2016. Amazing what a few mechanical tweaks and hitting your spots will do. But this is the majors and hitters adjust. So if Hendricks can eventually regain and improve his feel for the curve in addition to his not-so-big big two, whoa.

For the time being, though, he’s just fine mixing the fastball and change and using them to crush egos and confound viewers every fifth day.

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