Kyle Hendricks Overcoming Slow Start with Increased Fastball Velocity

Kyle Hendricks carried the momentum from an excellent May into a gem against the Rockies in his last start. Seven innings of six-hit, three-run ball resulted in a 6-3 win for the Cubs as Hendricks recorded just his fourth career game with at least 10 strikeouts.

The right-hander has now reached that plateau twice this season, striking out 11 Diamondbacks on April 19. The two remaining occasions transpired in a 2016 season that saw Hendricks set his career-best 22.8% strikeout rate. For good measure, he posted a 2.13 ERA and finished third in the National League Cy Young voting as the Cubs made their run toward the World Series.

Hendricks has often drawn comparisons to Greg Maddux for his ability to locate pitches and keep hitters off-balance with a nasty changeup. That being said, I was surprised to learn that Hendricks averaged 91.3 mph on this four-seam fastball when he broke into the league back in 2014. At that time, he also mixed in a cutter while sitting in the upper 80’s with his sinker.

Over the years, Hendricks’ four-seam fastball velocity waned, dropping over one tick by 2016 and another four a year later. By the 2017 campaign, his fastball velo was down to 86.3 mph and his sinker had dropped just slightly lower.

Still in his mid-to-late 20’s, there’s no way these dips could be attributed to age. Rather, it could have been a conscience effort on his part to decrease the stress on his right arm after pitching deep into the postseason in 2016 and setting career highs in innings pitched in both 2015 and 2016. Additionally, there could have been thoughts about improving his already stellar command as Hendricks made a legitimate push to throw more changeups.

The 2017 season saw Hendricks post the highest walk rate of his career (7.0%) across just 139.2 innings as he missed time with injury, yet another factor to consider in his velocity dip. Nevertheless, Hendricks pitched well in ’17, posting a 3.03 ERA with 21.6% strikeout rate that was well in line with the two previous seasons. Back to full health in 2018, he led the Cubs pitching staff with 199 innings pitched.

That consistent performance prompted the Cubs to sign Hendricks to a $63 million extension prior to the start of the season, but something looked off as he got out of the gate. In five April starts, his four-seam averaged 86.5 mph while his sinker clocked in at 86 mph. Both pitches lacked their typical spin rate and hitters were able to tee off on both offerings.

Hendricks allowed 37 hits, a .366 wOBA, and a hard contact rate north of 40 percent across those five starts (25.1 IP). He had a particularly difficult time in the early stages of games, leading some to wonder aloud whether using an “opener” might help. Then came May, and with it a new version of Hendricks. Or perhaps it was an old version.

He kicked off the month by emulating the player who whom he’s compared, tossing a “Maddux” — complete-game shutout under 100 pitches — against the Cardinals. In that outing, Hendricks topped out at a blazing 88.3 mph with his four-seam fastball, followed closely by his 87.9 mph sinker. His total average velocity for the outing was near 87 mph, signaling that perhaps better velo equals better results.

Now more than a month removed from that start, we can see that increased velo has indeed yielded better overall results. Hendricks finished the month of May averaging 87.7 mph on his four-seam and 87.4 mph on his sinker. Those respective increases of 1.2 and 1.4 were accompanied by about 30 more revolutions per minute in May compared to April.

As a result, opposing batters recorded a combined wOBA of .242 on those two pitches in seven May starts, leading to a sharp turnaround for the right-hander. Narrowly missing NL Pitcher of the Month honors to Hyun-Jin Ryu of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Hendricks posted a 1.81 ERA across 44.2 innings. His 37 strikeouts resulted in a 22% strikeout rate, while his 3% walk rate was more than cut in half.

Since April, Hendricks owns a 2.09 ERA, allowing only 34 hits and six walks versus 47 punchouts in 51.2 innings. A run of walk-less innings has him sporting a 4.4% mark for the season, a career-best if it holds. At the same time, he is currently sitting at a 22.5% strikeout rate that is trending closer to a high-water mark.

Hendricks has credited his improved performance to a more aggressive mindset, one result of which may be throwing a little harder. One start into June, Hendricks is trending almost two ticks better with both of his fastball offerings. After beginning the season in the 86 mph range, he was at 88 during that Rockies start.

It’s important to note that one start is a really small sample size, but the month-over-month increase in Hendricks’ fastball velocity has been clear .

The increased velo and spin are turning Hendricks’ fastball into an elite swing-and-miss pitch. April saw him record a whiff rate of 11.52% on his four-seamer and sinker combined. That increased to 23.02% and month later and was at 32.27% in his lone June outing. We’ll need to keep monitoring this trend to see how it holds, but, again, everything checks out so far.

Though Hendricks’ overall fastball velocity is in line with previous seasons, we can see how incremental increases have helped him rebound from a slow start. Already worth 2.2 fWAR on the season, Hendricks owns a staff-best 3.16 ERA and has once again pitched like a front-line starter and has a shot to make his first All-Star team.

With around 20 starts remaining this season, we shall see if Hendricks continues upping his velocity or if he has plateaued at this point. Either way, we have seen 90 flash on the gun lately and, quite frankly, I dig that.

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