Professor Kyle Hendricks Defeated by Unfortunate Baseball Probability
Seeing Kyle Hendricks battle through the 1st Inning of Doom is nothing new for Cubs fans, and I’m not even talking about this year alone. His 4.77 career ERA in the opening frame is 48% higher than his overall 3.22 career mark, but that former number is being skewed by an unsightly 19.29 ERA through seven 1st innings this season. Among those is the four-run frame Sunday afternoon that felt like death by a thousand duck snorts.
The hardest-hit ball of the inning was the leadoff single that left Adam Frazier‘s bat at 89.7 mph and had a .930 expected batting average. Kevin Newman‘s subsequent single was hit just 73.9 mph and would have been a hit 78 out of 100 times. From there, however, things got really squirrelly.
Hendricks walked Ka’ai Tom to load the bases before getting weak contact from Jacob Stallings and Erik Gonzalez that gave the Pirates a run but also gave Hendricks a chance to get out of the inning. Then Wilmer Difo plopped a humpback liner out to left-center that saw Jake Marisnick crumple to the ground in pain while pursuing the ball, allowing two runs to score.
Difo’s hit had just a .130 expected batting average, which is still 90 points higher than the single Todd Frazier snuck through the right side of a shifted infield at 70.3 mph just two pitches later. Troy Stokes Jr. followed that with a 54 mph dribbler that Ildemaro Vargas fielded and fired wide to Anthony Rizzo on a play that was initially ruled a hit before being corrected to a throwing error.
Had it remained a hit, the chances of all of those separate events resulting in hits was 0.0264%, or 1-in-3,785 for those who prefer such expressions. Even with the error, the probability of getting four knocks on all that soft contact was a mere 0.38% (1-in-265). That’s because Hendricks wasn’t making many mistakes, he was simply being victimized by bad luck and weird circumstances.
Here's a look at the pitches the Pirates connected on for their nine hits off Kyle Hendricks today. pic.twitter.com/cE6zYj8GXN
— Jordan Bastian (@MLBastian) May 9, 2021
As MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian noted, the Pirates’ four hits with exit velocities under 74 mph are tied for the most allowed by a pitcher this season. Hendricks also allowed a season-low exit velo against his sinker (80.2 mph) and his 75.5 mph exit velo against the changeup was nearly 10 ticks lower than his average over his first five starts (84.7).
“I think it’s still progress. It’s still on the right track,” Hendricks told reporters after the game. “I’m still getting better action on my pitches. I’m getting to the bottom of the zone better. Threw some good curveballs and good changeups today. At least I have a chance going out there.”
Thing is, you’ve got no chance when fate decides to mess with you as it did with Hendricks Sunday afternoon. But the fun part about probability is that it’s entirely possible it’ll swing back the other way and then some, which is why you have to take some of these results with a grain of salt. Like when Rizzo and Willson Contreras smoked back-to-back liners at 100 mph and had nothing to show for them. Those will fall more often than not.
Likewise, Hendricks will get a lot of outs if he keeps hitting his spots and getting weak contact. So as worrisome as it is that his early-game woes continued in his most recent start, it’s important to apply context before lumping these results in with those from, say, the Braves game on Sunday Night Baseball in which he allowed four homers.
Sometimes baseball is just going to baseball and all you can do is sit back and laugh about it because you know those weird outcomes will favor you again soon enough. Or at least we have to hope so when it comes to Hendricks.