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Too much of "The Professor": Kyle Hendricks working on simplifying

Jared Wyllys Avatar
June 2, 2022

For most pitchers, the stat line Kyle Hendricks put up against the Brewers on Wednesday night would be just fine. Three runs allowed in five innings is not great, but it’s a perfectly good start by modern pitching standards.

The problem is, the bar for Hendricks is much higher. Even more, Hendricks has been struggling to find that bar again for almost a season and a half now. There have been moments of his past brilliance this season, like his April 23 start against the Pirates and the almost complete game shutout against the Padres on May 9. But increasingly, with the way Hendricks pitches, it might be fair to wonder if his best days are behind him if he and the Cubs can’t figure out what’s going on.

Depending on who you ask, there are slightly different diagnoses, but one common thread is that “The Professor” might be guilty of overthinking things on the mound.

“He’s a thinker out there,” manager David Ross said. “He does a lot of homework, studies a lot of video on hitters, and sometimes I think we can simplify that a little bit. I trust Kyle. I trust him a lot from what I’ve seen him do, but I think sometimes you can almost outthink yourself a little bit.”

The good news is that Hendricks and his manager are on the same page.

“I know exactly what he’s saying,” Hendricks said. “We talk a lot. Just from the relationship we’ve had in the past, he knows me so well.”

If overthinking is the big picture problem, Hendricks seems to have a handle on the more granular detail. He said he has struggled with his approach against hitters, choosing to try and pitch to their weaknesses rather than his strengths. Doing that can have an impact on how Hendricks is preparing for his starts, something that Willson Contreras pointed out.

“It’s more of gameplanning, more often than execution because a lot of times he executes and still gets hit,” Contreras said.

For Hendricks to better pitch to his strengths rather than the opposing hitters’ weaknesses, Ross said he needs to keep working on his pitch selection.

“I think pitch usage has been an issue at some times with making sure he throws his changeup a lot,” Ross said. “It’s a really good pitch, one of the best in the game, and also using his curveball in the right spots. Every once in a while that gets off track maybe a game or two.”

Against the Brewers on Wednesday, Hendricks threw 79 pitches with an almost perfect three-way split between his four-seam fastball, sinker and changeup. Hendricks went to his curveball only a handful of times.

In his career, Hendricks has used his changeup as his main secondary pitch, and with good reason. Like Ross said, it’s a good pitch. Batters have managed to hit just .203 against Hendricks’ changeup since his 2014 debut. In general, Hendricks is using his changeup this year at a rate on par with what he has done in his career, but the main change is how often he is throwing his fastball and sinker. The former has seen a significant increase in 2022. His career average fastball use has been about 18% of the time, but in 2022, Hendricks is throwing his four-seamer at about a 30% clip. This is a major uptick from even 2021, when Hendricks threw his fastball 17.9% of the time.

The problem there is that Hendricks’ fastball gets hit for power. Though opposing hitters have posted just a .235 average against it this year, nine of the 15 home runs Hendricks has allowed in 2022 have come against his fastball. Batters are slugging .677 against it, which is over 200 points higher than his sinker and changeup.

Ross said that Hendricks needs to work on the angle of his fastball so that it gets more sinking action in the strike zone. Part of the reason batters are teeing off on Hendricks’ four-seam is not that it tops out in the upper 80s most of the time, but instead because it lingers too long in the sweet spot.

“More depth than flatness across the zone,” Ross said, describing what Hendricks needs to look for with his fastball.

Hendricks’ increase in fastball use this year might be a product of overthinking, and of him trying to pitch to what he thinks will work against opposing hitters, rather than what will work according to his own strengths. Perhaps as a result of his conversations with Ross about trying to simplify his approach on the mound, Hendricks has increased his changeup use over his last few starts.

“I rely so much on trying to find weaknesses in the hitters sometimes that I go away from what I do best,” Hendricks said. “So it’s more just realizing the right spots to throw the right pitches. The right spots to use my curveball, when to use my fastball and where. Where to be stubborn with my changeup, just those kinds of things. Just staying true to myself and more on my strengths.”

Hendricks’ somewhat early exit on Wednesday night could also be a product of an overall change in philosophy about how long starting pitchers should be staying in games. Across the league, they are getting pulled earlier. That the Cubs have a solid bullpen likely factors in the decision as well.

On Wednesday, Ross was able to go to five different relievers after Hendricks’ night was done, and they combined for five scoreless innings while allowing only three Milwaukee baserunners. This season, the Cubs bullpen has been worth 1.7 wins above replacement, per Fangraphs, which ranks in the top ten in the league.

Hendricks has shown flashes of what he can still do this season, changes in pitching philosophy notwithstanding. Against the Padres earlier this month, he was an out shy of a vintage Hendricks performance. In order to see more of that, Hendricks needs to keep his gameplanning simple and move away from his fastball in favor of his changeup.

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