Kyle Hendricks’ Continued Evolution Portends Long-Term Success
Kyle Hendricks changed his pitching approach in 2019 to exploit the weaknesses of the launch angle revolution. His ability to reinvent himself and remain at the top of his game bodes well for his future.
2019’s iteration of Kyle Hendricks was notably different than the starter the Cubs had become accustomed to since his debut in 2014. With the launch angle revolution in full-swing, and after yet another difficult month of April, Hendricks made a noticeable — and incredibly effective — adjustment to his pitch usage: he began throwing his four-seam fastball at the top of (and above) the strike zone while busting righties up and in with his sinker.
Such a repertoire change is impossibly counter-intuitive, but so it goes with a pitcher whose limited velocity requires unlimited creativity. Adjustments for Hendricks aren’t merely ancillary to his game, they’re at the very heart of his success.
We know Hendricks as a control artist, a pitcher with elite pitch tunneling that can change speed and location with ease, who maintains a mindset and knowledge of the art of pitching few can grasp. In 2019, he proved this more so than perhaps at any stage of his career to-date.
The Four-Seam Approach
From 2014-2018, Hendricks relied on his four-seam fastball, to be sure, but his usage of the pitch last season (21.8 percent) outpaced his career markedly (16.9 percent). Utilizing the pitch up in the zone more frequently to boot, Hendricks sacrificed ground balls (41.3 percent in 2019, 47.5 percent for his career) while still pitching in an attempt to create weak contact.
Hitters have drastically altered their swing paths to make low-velocity specialists especially susceptible, and Hendricks adjusted accordingly. Here’s a look at Kyle’s four-seam usage through the 2018 season:
And here’s his four-seam usage from the 2019 season:
The numbers are rather astounding. In 2019, Hendricks threw his four-seam in the upper third of the strike zone (and above) at a 58.16 percent clip; in the four seasons prior, that number stood at a rate of 39.02.
Jesse Rogers from ESPN detailed the change in Hendricks’ approach with his four-seam offering back in June, and the money quote comes from coach Mike Borzello: “He’s made an adjustment solely based on the swing path of hitters today.”
The Two-Seam Approach
More than his four-seamer, Kyle has especially relied on his sinker throughout his career. While its usage dipped considerably last year (40.4 percent in 2019, 47.2 for his career) it remained his top offering. Throwing his sinker less at the expense of an increase of his four-seam and a slight uptick in curveball usage, he also changed how he located the pitch. The first chart, as with the four-seam charts above, is his two-seam location through the 2018 season:
And here’s his sinker usage from the 2019 season:
Much like the four-seam evolution, Hendricks’ approach changed even with his main offering, as he looked to exploit the weaknesses created by hitters desiring to hit the ball in the air. These numbers are even more drastic if you compare the sinker usage solely against right-handed hitters, as he transitioned from throwing the pitch low-and-away to righties and began busting them up-and-in at an absurd clip.
Sahadev Sharma of The Athletic noted the new sinker approach in August, and as with Rogers’ piece above, it’s a highly recommended read. Per Sharma, Hendricks was pacing all of baseball (at the time of the article) by throwing his sinker up and in 20.7 percent of the time, while the next closest hurler did so at a rate of 13.6.
As the chart above shows, Hendricks still relied on his two-seam fastball down and away to righties last season, but the overall trend is clear: he’s upended his fastball arsenal in order to maintain his success.
What About His Change and Curve?
Even if Hendricks throws his two-seam fastball more than any other pitch, he’s known most prominently for his changeup. A pitch that he can pronate or cut at his discretion, Hendricks uses it effectively against righties and lefties alike, playing up his below-average fastball velocity. Unlike his fastball offerings, Hendricks maintained the usage of each off-speed pitch down and away to opposing hitters, with the exception of his willingness to spike the curve down and in against lefties.
Utilizing his fastball offerings up in the zone serves a dual purpose: it attacks the weakness of the launch angle obsession while creating greater susceptibility to his elite off-speed selections. Hendricks threw his curve a career-high 9.8 percent in 2019, and because his curveball spin rate is elite, and as the game trends further toward a true three-outcome approach, you can confidently predict his curveball usage will continue to increase for the foreseeable future.
His changeup remains his out pitch, as he continued to employ the offering on 0-2 or 1-2 counts more than any other pitch. Overall, the changeup was used slightly above his career norm (28.0 percent and 26.1, respectively), and those numbers should remain relatively on pace for the 2020 season.
What About 2019’s Results?
Hendricks’ newfound approach last season might not look elite on paper, but all told he had a terrific season. His 3.46 ERA (3.61 FIP) was more than a full run lower than the MLB average of 4.51. His 4.1 fWAR was the second-best of his career, tied for 20th with Luis Castillo among Major League starters. (Even in his magical 2016 season, his fWAR was barely better, at 4.2)
The change in approach didn’t yield a greater strikeout total, but his walk percentage (4.4) was in the top four percent of the league as he yielded an exit velocity (85.2 mph) in the top three percent. His hard-hit percentage (31.0) was solidly below league average (34.5), as was his barrel rate (5.4 and 6.3, respectively).
Although susceptible to the long ball in his career, Hendricks’ home run rate actually dipped, even as the league average shot up compliments of a juiced ball. His HR/FB ratio dropped to 10.4 percent as the league average increased to a whopping 15 percent.
2019’s season continues a trend for Hendricks that should be expected as he enters his age 31 season: he will continue to perform better than preseason projections while out-pitching his peripherals. It’s a foregone conclusion at this point, and the Cubs are fortunate to have such a consistent, durable rotation piece on a team-friendly contract extension.
Will the Future Necessitate Further Change?
Velocity will continue as the greatest indicator of pitching success, and teams will scout and develop their prospects in-kind. There are always exceptions to rules, however, and if there were ever a shining example, Hendricks is just that when it comes to pitching in the bigs.
The future remains uncertain for baseball. The launch angle revolution will certainly continue, but for how long? And will the ball remain juiced in the regular season, or will the backlash force MLB to extend the public greater clarity concerning the ball’s production?
There are a lot of questions that only time can answer. But when it comes to Kyle Hendricks, questions should cease about whether or not his ability is sustainable. As the game evolves, so does his approach.
He’s clearly ahead of the curve.
Featured Photo: Jamie Sabau/Getty Images