Something is definitely off with last year’s Cy Young candidate.
Through his first three starts of the 2017 season, Kyle Hendricks has struggled with the very things that made him excellent just last year. Whether or not this is a harbinger of what the forthcoming months will look like from him is too early to tell, but there are some reasons for concern.
His seeming dip in velocity is the first thing to have drawn some attention, but due to the change in pitch tracking systems, it is difficult to determine just how much it has changed. Using what we do have, there is a definite downward trend so far.
Courtesy of Brooks Baseball, here’s a broad snapshot of how he looked in 2016:
And then—while keeping in mind that the tracking system is not the same as last year and that this is measuring just three starts—here’s a look at this season thus far:
The obvious difference here is the change in how hard he is throwing his fastball and his sinker. Hendricks is not the only Cubs starter who has been tempering his heater a few ticks this season, but when it comes to a pitcher who relies on his command to make a sub-90 mile per hour four-seamer work, dropping his velocity even further is a risky endeavor.
One possible glimmer of hope here is if we look at just the month of April from his 2016 season:
That looks a little more like what we are seeing now, at least in terms of velocity. If he is going to ramp it up as the season progresses, then fine, there is probably not much to worry about.
However, what’s eating Kyle Hendricks through his first trio of starts is more than just decreased speed on his already pokey fastball. Nearly across the board, he is regressing mightily and quite a bit more so than the expected step back from his stellar 2016 season.
Take a look at his past three seasons:
Maybe the increase in his walks per nine innings is marginal, but some of that is downright alarming. It’s possible that Hendricks could be pitching even worse than he has so far. Perhaps the sterling defense behind him is bailing him out even more than we realize, and just as much as the offense did last night.
Along with the decrease in his pitch speed, Hendricks might have another problem that is contributing to his lackluster beginning to this season. Xavier Alatorre noted this in yesterday’s recap, but it appears as though there might be a mechanical issue at play. As Xavier pointed out, his release point has not been consistent with previous seasons. Though their mechanical approaches are not the same, this is now understood as one of the primary reasons Jake Arrieta turned in such a wobbly follow-up to his Cy Young season.
If this is the case, and if this holds, there is real reason for concern. Clocking in at slightly lesser speeds—barring an injury that’s causing said drop, of course—can be addressed fairly easily. Forgive the open speculation here, but after deep postseason runs in consecutive seasons, Hendricks might just be tired. Pitchers commonly go through periods of “dead arm” and experience some of what Hendricks has exhibited so far. If that’s the case, skipping a few starts might be in his best interest.
But there’s another possibility. Hendricks generally befuddled opposing hitters last season, but—again like Arrieta—it might be that they have adjusted to him. This modified approach might be as simple as taking fewer hacks and forcing Hendricks to spend less of his time dancing around the zone.
And that just might be the case.
His whiff rate on the four-seam fastball least season was just under nine percent. So far this year it’s at 5.75. But even more alarming is the dizzying drop in the whiff rate on his changeup. Last year, it was just under 24 percent, and so far in 2017, it is down to about 15.4. And not only that: hitters are also laying off of his fastball and changeup more, and attacking the sinker and curveball instead:
With so many possible problems, it might be difficult to best determine the best approach for fixing what has gone wrong, but it might be that a few simple changes could make for a Hendricks who is more reminiscent of the 2016 iteration. In spite of how things have looked so far, and in spite of a handful of issues that have made this a rocky month for Hendricks, restoring his mechanics and perhaps tweaking his pitch selection could make for a rebound from where things stand currently.
Lead photo courtesy David Banks—USA Today Sports