If you watch the Chicago Cubs enough, you know that starter Kyle Hendricks always wants the ball. He might not be overly demonstrative in viral highlight clips, but he has consistently taken the mound since his major league debut with Chicago in 2014. The Hendricks resume includes the National League ERA title in 2016 and a number of important postseason assignments.
On the eve of this young 2019 season, Cubs management recognized Hendricks’ track record, giving the 29-year old Dartmouth product a four-year contract extension worth in excess of $55 million. That development has upped the ante and increased the spotlight’s glare. Hendricks is off to a slow start at 0-3 with a 5.40 ERA through his first three outings.
However, the Cubs have picked up their overall game this week, raising their record to 8-9 with a South Florida sweep of the Marlins. They’ll hope to find their stride on an upcoming homestand (off Thursday), and Hendricks will try to set the tone as the scheduled starter Friday afternoon. As the calendar inches toward late April, high expectations remain the story in both the front office and the clubhouse. While the Hendricks sample is a little on the small side, the national-international following that the Cubs enjoy and benefit from, ratchets up the collective anxiety level of their fanbase.
So we dive in here to what has happened recently and what might be next for the former Texas Rangers prospect.
Hendricks’ most recent start was his home debut in 2019, an April 13 outing vs. the Los Angeles Angels. Though he took the loss, he had a respectable line of five innings with just two earned runs allowed (3 R) and six hits, and was hurt by a catcher’s interference call that loaded the bases in a decisive three-run second inning. (Note: Cubs C Willson Contreras has already been charged with catcher’s interference three times this season.) Hendricks struck out two and walked just one at Wrigley Field, a free pass that didn’t factor in the scoring. When you go under the hood at his Baseball Savant page, a few things jump out in Hendricks’ 2019 body of work.
Pitch Selection: Hendricks’ changeup use is up a few ticks from 2018 at 33% of pitches thrown (2018: 30.6%). More significantly, opponents are on time for the change, hitting .455 against 85 changeups thrown. This change wasn’t scalded, but it got Zack Cozart out of a slump and put the Cubs in an early hole.
The changeup has been a signature pitch in Hendricks’ arsenal over the course of his career, second only to his sinker, and it produced a .180 opposition batting average in 2018. When you go back to 2017, his changeup was very good as well, limiting opponents to a .224 batting average.
There seems to be some positive regression coming in Hendricks’ favor; don’t look for him to abandon the change anytime soon.
RISP: With runners in scoring position, Hendricks has been tagged for five earned runs and six hits over four innings. He’s also allowed five unearned runs in that scenario. That is often significant, as errors extend innings and lengthen pitch counts even when the runs aren’t landing on your stat line. For example, a dropped fly ball in foul territory led to a rare “unearned homer” by Ender Inciarte on April 1 in Atlanta, the very first batter that Hendricks faced this season. A big inning followed that may have never developed if a routine first out had been recorded. Hendricks has already allowed a total of six unearned runs, equaling his total for all of last season.
While he will almost certainly surpass that 2018 mark this year, nearly all of the current Cubs players have played behind Hendricks defensively in the past and are familiar with his pitch-to-contact tendencies.
Quality of Contact: While he kept the ball in the park Saturday, Hendricks has already allowed three home runs in 13.1 innings. This is borne out by a 42.3% hard-hit rate, a 13.5% barrel rate, and a .347 XBA (Expected Batting Average). I don’t think you can sound the alarm bells right now, as the graph below shows that all of those stats are well above a four year track record of data and can reasonably be expected to normalize.
Statcast Statistics: Kyle Hendricks
|Season||Pitches||Batted Balls||Barrels||Barrel %||Exit Velocity||Launch Angle||XBA||XSLG||WOBA||XWOBA||XWOBACON||Hard Hit %||K %||BB %|
While the underlying metrics are concerning so far, Hendricks told the Cubs media corps that he made some strides last time out. I’m inclined to chalk this recent stretch up to early struggles and stay with his track record. I think you can continue to hang your hat on Hendricks’ 3.11 career ERA and 1.13 career WHIP. He’s had just one home start and has never posted a losing record in a season over his first five years. I left Hendricks up on my starter grid in one league where I hold a share, a points league that rewards quality starts, and plan to do the same in the Pitcher List 3 league. Many of you play in “first pitch Monday” leagues where the lineup locks for the week, Monday-Sunday, at the start of Monday’s action. With the Monday morning game in Boston this week, there was much less time for owners to make lineup decisions and most stayed at the card table on Hendricks. He has an ownership rate of 79% in Yahoo leagues, 89% (but just 46% started) at CBS and a whopping 94% at Fantrax (as of Thursday, April 18).
Hendricks is scheduled to face Merrill Kelly and the Arizona Diamondbacks on Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field. There is an iffy weather forecast as of Thursday, with a minor threat of rain in Chicago. If the game goes as planned, it may favor the pitchers, with temperatures not expected to escape the 40s. But a Hendricks victory would make it feel like a beautiful July day in Wrigleyville.
Photo by Stephen Hopson/Icon Sportswire