Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Show Me Where Kyle Hendricks Throws the Ball

Kyle Hendricks is good. He is also consistent. Like, almost eerily so. By now you’ve heard over and over again how Hendricks’ pedestrian velocity requires him to mix pitches and hit spots in order to be successful. Maybe you’ve even read about how his willingness to trust his secondaries, namely the four-seamer and curve, helped him to make it through the opposing order a third or fourth time.

That increased variation has allowed Hendricks to flourish without pressing to have perfect location with each pitch, which has allowed the Cy Young candidate to truly come into his own. That includes holding opposing hitters to a .207 batting average and .581 OPS, both significantly better than what he’s posted in two previous seasons. He also went toe-to-toe with Clayton Kershaw his last time out, his only mistake a home run to Adrian Gonzalez that just carried out.¬†And the pitch was really less a mistake than it was Gonzalez being a very good professional hitter who put his bat on the ball and got it to go.

The point here is that Hendricks doesn’t have to be perfection on the mound, even though that’s exactly what he’s typically been. The secret, as you might imagine, is in hitting his spots with a regularity that makes Jamie Lee Curtis jealous.

Take a look at how he’s attacked left-handed hitters this season:

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Low and away all day, which is why Hendricks’ gives up the third-most soft contact and second-least hard contact to lefties among all qualified starting pitchers. But you’ve seen plenty of heat maps in your day and it’s probably not impressive to see one that looks like this when we’ve cut out a majority of the hitters he’s faced. Yes, even if this is showing aggregate results from all of the pitches in his arsenal.

You wanna see something really cool, though? Something that might well spin your head right off your shouldsters? Check out where Hendricks has located to righty hitters:

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Low and away all day. It’s nearly as uncanny as the X-Men (wait, does that make Hendricks…Professor X?), the way these maps appear almost identically opposite. Like Hendricks put a mirror in the center of the plate. Though the batted-ball results aren’t quite as robust (fifth-most soft and 17th-least hard contact), they’re more than good enough to get the job done.

As you might imagine, Hendricks is able to achieve these results by varying his pitch mix depending on the handedness of the batter he’s facing. Against righties, he’s very heavy on the sinker, which he utilizes nearly 58% of the time. The change accounts for 26% of his pitches, while the four-seam (10.9%) and curve (5.43%) serve as occasional foils. Because of their movement, they don’t work as well against right-handed hitters.

When Hendricks faces lefty batters, the sinker actually becomes a tertiary pitch. At only 27.2%, less than half of what we saw above, it’s behind both the four-seamer (32.9%) and the change (28.9%). The curve (10.8%) does double duty against lefties, tumbling into that lower quadrant and keeping them guessing enough to better set up the other offerings.

I’ve long been fascinated by what makes the best pitchers the best pitchers. Is it the movement they’re able to generate or pinpoint accuracy? Or velocity? Or grit and guile? It’s obviously some mixture of all of those things and it’s different for each player, but it all comes down to deception. If you can make a hitter miss, whether that’s altogether or even just a little bit at a hit rate, you’ll be successful.

Much is being made in both local and national media about who Hendricks is and how he got to this point, in terms of the trade that brought him to Chicago and the ensemble cast that made him so good. You should read those pieces too, as they’re no doubt filled with more up-close quotes and anecdotes and so forth. I just saw something about how well Hendricks has pounded that low, outside corner¬†against lefty hitters and wanted to take a look for myself.

I’m really in awe of what Kyle Hendricks has been able to do this season and I can’t wait to watch him again Saturday night.







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