Ask the box score how well Kyle Hendricks pitched Wednesday afternoon and it’ll lie to your face without thinking twice. You’ll learn that Hendricks allowed four earned runs on seven hits and you could be convinced that it was a pretty meh game for him, maybe even a bad one.
Then you dig a little deeper and see that the paltry 11.8 percent hard contact he allowed was his lowest mark in 25 starts and nearly one-third of his season average (30.9 percent). His 35.2 percent soft contact was likewise much better than his season mark, telling us that the Brewers relied on more than a little good BABIP fortune for their knocks.
It was such a nice game, Hendricks generated an xFIP- score of 69, which is apropos of nothing outside of making a tired joke that probably only Twitter denizens and teenagers will enjoy.
But those who watched or followed the game online probably noticed something truly outstanding about Hendricks’ performance: His changeup was lit. Though he only generated 13 total swinging strikes on 93 pitches, 10 of those whiffs came from the 25 offspeed pitches he threw.
Hendricks was just tossing his yo-yo up to the plate and pulling the string to make Brewers hitters look silly. And what’s really remarkable is how he was doing it based on the handedness of batters, though the data behind it is a little esoteric. Our Brendan Miller recently noted that Hendricks is getting more comfortable throwing his curve to right-handed batters, but I noticed something interesting about his changeup usage against lefties.
Now, some of you will no doubt be scratching your heads thinking, A righty pitcher should be throwing his changeup a lot to lefty batters. And you’re right…if we’re talking about an old-school approach to pitching. But Hendricks isn’t a typical pitcher, and the tandem of Joe Maddon and Jim Hickey have been bucking handedness trends since at least 2010 in Tampa.
While that linked article doesn’t speak at all to what Hendricks or the Brewers did Wednesday, it clearly illustrates the point that there was indeed a time when pitchers didn’t throw changeups to like-handed hitters. Given the pitch’s typical glove-side tumbling action, there was a fear that its path would carry it directly into said hitters’ wheelhouses.
If you can alter grips and generate different movement, though, the pitch can be weapon no matter who’s at the plate. Of the 2,914 changeups Hendricks has now thrown in his career, 1,453 have come against lefties and 1,461 against righties. Some of that comes from facing more right-handed hitters overall, but the difference is almost negligible (1.08 changeups per LHH, 0.89 per RHH).
The old narrative is further busted when we look at Hendricks’ whiff rate, which is nearly identical both this season and over the course of his career. Though he’s generally had a slight advantage against lefty batters with the change, the difference between his 37.8 and 35.1 percent whiff rates doesn’t exactly stand out. This year those marks stand at 37.1 (LHH) and 36.9 percent (RHH).
All of which is a lengthy preamble to guide you to the point of this whole piece, which was Hendricks’ changeup usage and results from Wednesday. Over the course of six innings, he generated a 55.6 percent whiff rate with the change, his highest such mark with that pitch since April 8 of last year (58.3 percent, also against the Brewers). His 53.8 percent strikeout rate was also among his two highest of the last two seasons (this and other data via Baseball Savant)
Okay, so here’s where I get into that borderline incredibly arbitrary statistical data I hinted at earlier. That 55.6 percent whiff rate is the highest Hendricks has ever generated in a start that featured at least 20 changeups and in which most were thrown to lefties. He’s generated higher whiff rates and has thrown more changeups to lefties than righties in the past, but never have those things converged the same way they did against the Brewers.
It was also the most changeups he’s thrown to lefty batters (16) in any of his top 15 games for highest overall changeup whiff rate. I know that sounds pretty convoluted and may just leave you WTF-ing what you’ve just read, but I though it was pretty darn cool.
The moral of the story here is that Hendricks is very comfortable using that offspeed offering as a strikeout pitch to hitters on either side of the plate. And when combined with a perfectly located sinker that got 14 called strikes Wednesday, not to mention that curve, Hendricks is looking like every bit of that potentially dominant starter we saw through much of 2016.