Kyle Hendricks’ Artistry Proves Ace Status for Cubs

It’s impossible to be anything but giddy right now. Kyle Hendricks‘ dominance last night felt predetermined, an eight pitch effort in the opening frame serving as a nondescript introduction of the contest’s focal point.

It’s that quiet dominance that people all-too-often forget. Sure, Hendricks is accepted as good, with admissions aplenty that his success is surprising and consistent, but those acknowledgements feel backhanded. There’s limited traction toward calling him an ‘Ace’ despite a career 3.11 ERA (3.51 FIP), a sub-3 career playoff ERA, and several career defining games in the spotlight. As Sahadev Sharma pointed out at The Athletic last night, only Hendricks, Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw, and Justin Verlander have had sub 3.50 ERAs in the last four seasons.

Nonetheless, Kyle continues to be Kyle.

Hendricks threw strikes at a 72 percent clip last night. As impressive as that is, 18 of those pitches were called strikes, and a whopping 19 more were swinging strikes. That means 50 percent of his strikes resulted without incident, an unbelievable stat that served as the foundation for his terrific outing.

When contact was made, it was anemic. Per Statcast, Hendricks limited hard contact to just 9 percent (MLB average 29 percent), a laughable launch angle of 0.8 (11.5), and an exit velo of just 83.8 mph (88.2). Mixing his pitches, he yielded just three hits, striking out nine Brewers without allowing a free pass.

Before we dive into the intricacies of last night’s performance, let’s enjoy the beauty of his bread-and-butter pitch:

For further enjoyment still, here’s some perspective on just how good Hendricks’ change is among one of the game’s elite players:

As you’re well aware, however, there’s much more to Hendricks’ game than his changeup.

During the off-season I wrote for On Tape Sports Net that Hendricks’ innate ability to reinvent himself bodes well for his future. Using his four-seam fastball with more frequency, and placing it at the top of the zone when he utilizes it, is a direct challenge to the onslaught of launch angle hitters. Evolving his approach to better attack hitters’ game plans, Hendricks found himself aligning his 2019 season statistical output with his impossibly consistent career.

That approach with his four-seamer remained evident last night. While he only threw it 12 times (~12 percent of his pitches, as opposed to 20.5 percent last season) seven of those pitches were at the top-or-above the zone, per Brooks Baseball. Throwing it high in the zone roughly 60 percent of the time is in line with 2019’s output, and suggests we’ll continue to see him utilize it as an eye-changing weapon moving forward. It may seem counter-intuitive, yet that’s precisely what we’ve come to expect with Hendricks.

We also witnessed the continued reliance on his curve. He dug into the breaking ball well 11 times (~11 percent) last evening, eight of which against lefties. That pitch was particularly effective as he paired it with the four-seamer (10 of 12 offerings were to lefties) to confuse the bevy of Brewers opposite-handed hitters.

Even with increased usage of his two secondary pitches, Hendricks established dominance with his sinker and change. Throwing 47 sinkers last night (31 of which to righties), and mixing-in his change with frequency (33 pitches total, 23 of which to lefties) it’s clear that Hendricks had a game plan of pitching-to-contact against righties while confounding lefties with the entirety of his repertoire.

Last night’s effort produced a 61.9 percent ground ball rate, a number well above his career average (47.6). The sinker contributed to this more than any other pitch, as Brewers hitters averaged a launch angle of -17 against his main fastball offering.

Certainly last night’s gem is a bit of an aberration statistically, but what we witnessed was the epitome of what makes Hendricks so damn good: he misses barrels and induces weak contact with obscene command, complimenting his ability to breakdown hitters and exploit their weaknesses.

What we saw last night is much of what we’ll see this season: an increased reliance on his four-seam and curve while primarily relying on his sinker and change. Whether the game plan of last night continues — sinkers to righties, curve and four-seam expansion to lefties — remains to be seen, but we know that Hendricks has an uncanny ability to exploit the weaknesses of a lineup. It’s certainly believable he’ll evolve his pitch usage on a game-to-game basis while continuing the overall trajectory we’ve seen dating back to last season.

It’s common, perhaps because it’s too obvious, to make comparisons to the legendary Greg Maddux. Thinking about that comparison, I’m reminded of the Punch Brothers song ‘Movement and Location’, which renowned mandolinist Chris Thile wrote in honor of Maddux. Calling him one of the greatest artists of our time is a distinct honor coming from, well, one of the greatest artists of our time. It’s also a reminder of how pitching is truly performance art.

Kyle Hendricks reminded us all on Opening Day that pitching is, indeed, an art form.

All stats courtesy of Fangraphs, Statcast, Baseball Reference, and Brooks Baseball

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