If you knew in March that the Chicago Cubs would have the lowest starting rotation ERA in the majors in August (2.87), it would be assumed Jake Arrieta or Jon Lester led the charge. Maybe even John Lackey. But it is Kyle Hendricks who is leading the squad with a sparkling 2.19 ERA, ranking third among all pitchers in the majors.
Some may make the case that Hendricks’s success is because of sheer luck. After all, his 3.61 expected FIP is 1.42 points higher than his ERA, his batting average on balls in play is an incredibly low .249, and his 80.8 percent left-on-base rate is 5.5 points higher than his career 75.2 percent mark. However, this argument overlooks one important element of Hendricks’s dominance: his batted-ball profile.
With every ball hit into play, Baseball Info Solutions determines if the batter achieved soft, medium or hard contact. Intuitively, we know it’s better to induce more soft contact than hard, and those who can consistently prevent batters from striking the ball with authority will return a lower BABIP than those who often allow well struck balls. We also have data that reinforces this notion, with the average BABIP of hard hit balls around .700, and softly hit balls near .150. Hendricks is the best in the majors in inducing poorly hit balls with a marvelous soft contact rate of 25.6 percent, making him just one of two pitchers (Tanner Roark) in the majors with a higher soft contact rate than a hard contact rate (24.1 percent rate).
Hendricks doesn’t seem to overpower hitters as his sinker averages a meager 87.5 mph, a velocity normally reserved for talented high school pitchers. There is clearly something under-the-hood that is helping Hendricks deceive hitters constantly and it doesn’t boil down to luck.
The answer may lie in his revamped delivery. In 2016, Hendricks made a major adjustment as he minimized the variance of his pitch’s release point. As I discussed previously with Zack Greinke, keeping a consistent release point with all of your pitches makes it difficult for batters to identify which pitch is heading their way, reducing the amount of time batters can properly adjust to a breaking pitch or a change-up. In Hendricks’s career before 2016, this is what his various release points looked like:
Compare that with his 2016 plot displaying his release points from this season:
Notice how the concentration of pitches has narrowed dramatically in 2016. Earlier in his career, his release point was wider horizontally, giving a larger range for batters to identify which pitch was coming their way. Each pitch Hendricks throws this season – his sinker, curveball or change-up – comes from the same release point, preventing batters from determining the pitch’s movement and velocity until much deeper in the ball’s path to the plate.
This added consistency has done wonders for his change-up’s effectiveness. Despite having similar movement on the pitch, Hendricks has lowered his batting average against the pitch in 2016 from last year’s .168 down to a marvelous .126. Slugging percentage is down more than 60 points, from .277 to .215, and he’s cut its line-drive rate from 26.4 percent to 18.5 percent. His change-up has already saved 17 runs in 2016, nearly double his 2015 mark (8.9 runs saved).
The key has been Hendricks’s ability to throw the change-up with identical spin, more vertical drop, and a slower velocity than his sinker, resulting in batters having trouble identifying the pitch from his hand in 2016, thus more weakly hit balls and fewer runs allowed.
Here is the same pitch across two seasons. First we have a laced double from Trevor Plouffe on an outside change-up in 2015:
Then we have the same pitch thrown to Juan Lagares in 2016 that resulted in an inning-ending double play:
There has clearly been an evolution in Hendricks’s delivery that has produced better outcomes despite featuring the same pitches.
The Cubs are primed to make a deep playoff run in 2016. Their offense is as threatening as any in the majors and their starting rotation is elite across the board. In October, when Chicago is looking for an ace to propel them to their first championship in 106 years, Hendricks, not Arrieta or Lester, may be their best bet to seal the deal.