clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Cubs pitchers are giving up a lot of hard contact in 2019

New, comments

An early look at the Cubs starting pitching.

MLB: Spring Training-Los Angeles Dodgers at Chicago Cubs
Cole Hamels reacts after giving up a home run in spring training
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The Cubs have not gotten off to the best possible start in 2019. This, you surely know.

In good news, they appear to have fixed whatever was broken with their offense at the end of 2018. After all, they’ve scored a National League Central leading 72 runs through the first 10 games of 2019. However, the pitching has been less than stellar, giving up a National League Central leading 71 runs in that same span. Most articles so far have rightly focused on the bullpen. That’s understandable, after all, multiple losses in games where the team has scored 10 runs will cause that sort of evaluation. However, today I want to take a closer look at the Cubs starting pitching because there is a different problem lurking behind their numbers.

Two of the Cubs’ five starters are being hit hard. Actually, that doesn’t really cover what I’m trying to say here at all. Two of the Cubs five starters are being absolutely demolished by opposing hitters, let’s take a closer look below.

Barrels

Statcast data is available at baseball savant and it’s a wealth of information about players. These are the people tracking things like exit velocity, sprint speed and, one of my favorite stats, barrels. Barrels are balls that are hit perfectly. It’s a combination of exit velocity and launch angle, and signifies a sort of ideal zone of contact for a hitter. Statcast defines barrels as follows:

The Barrel classification is assigned to batted-ball events whose comparable hit types (in terms of exit velocity and launch angle) have led to a minimum .500 batting average and 1.500 slugging percentage since Statcast was implemented Major League wide in 2015.

Think of these as perfectly struck baseballs. They might become home runs. they might become outs, but they are hit about as well as the baseball possibly be hit. At the risk of being accused of gratuitous Willson Contreras footage, this is a barrel [VIDEO].

And here’s what it looks like in Statcast form:

Now, as much as I love watching barrels when the Cubs are hitting, one of the signs of a good pitcher is avoiding that type of contact. In fact, from 2014-2018 I think it will surprise no one that one of the pitchers who has been pretty good at limiting barrels in the major leagues is none other than Kyle Hendricks, as you can see below:

Kyle Hendricks Barrels by Year
Statcast - Baseball Savant

I’m sure you can spot the outlier on that chart as well as I can. Through two starts in 2019 Hendricks just doesn’t look like himself and if you found yourself thinking “wow, it looks like he’s getting hit really hard,” well, you were right:

Pitchers with the most barrels per batted ball event

Last Name First Name BBE Launch Angle Sweet Spot % Max EV Avg EV FB/LD EV GB EV EV 95+ EV 95% Barrels Barrel % Barrel/PA
Last Name First Name BBE Launch Angle Sweet Spot % Max EV Avg EV FB/LD EV GB EV EV 95+ EV 95% Barrels Barrel % Barrel/PA
Santana Ervin 17 15.6 47.1 110.2 94.7 96.2 90.9 10 58.8 4 23.5 19.0
Holland Derek 35 15.6 37.1 112.3 91.2 97.3 80.6 19 54.3 8 22.9 12.3
Yacabonis Jimmy 18 12.0 38.9 114.6 86.4 96.4 76.5 7 38.9 4 22.2 17.4
Hendricks Kyle 19 11.7 47.4 112.5 88.7 94.4 81.1 8 42.1 4 21.1 15.4
Chirinos Yonny 16 14.9 25.0 109.7 85.2 97.0 80.1 7 43.8 3 18.8 13.6
Vargas Jason 27 16.4 44.4 109.9 87.2 93.3 78.1 11 40.7 5 18.5 16.1
Hamels Cole 17 20.4 35.3 112.0 94.3 96.5 93.5 8 47.1 3 17.6 12.5
Castro Miguel 17 1.3 23.5 111.4 94.5 102.2 91.3 10 58.8 3 17.6 13.0
Chen Wei-Yin 17 18.7 47.1 105.7 89.9 94.0 85.5 8 47.1 3 17.6 10.3
Carrasco Carlos 18 26.4 38.9 111.6 95.4 103.9 90.3 11 61.1 3 16.7 13.0
Most barrels per batted ball event 2019 Statcast - Baseball Savant

The chart above is sorted for the percent of barrels per batted ball event for pitchers with at least 15 batted balls in 2019. In other words, it’s my attempt to limit this to starters with at least two starts under their belts. While the numbers for Kyle Hendricks are alarming, the company he’s keeping is also a bit terrifying. Two of the Cubs five starters are in the top 10 in terms of barrel percent. Cole Hamels is also giving up an enormous amount of hard contact and that doesn’t bode well for 2019:

Cole Hamels barrels by year
Statcast - Baseball Savant

Below I’ll look at four possible contributing factors to the shockingly high barrel rates Cubs’ starters are posting in 2019.

The strike zone

Arguing balls and strikes is usually a futile exercise and I’m not looking to highlight how blown calls have impacted particular games. However, one thing Hendricks and Hamels have in common is that they are finesse pitchers who rely heavily on locating their pitches perfectly. The maximum velocity fastball either of them is capable of dropping during a given start is about 92 MPH, suffice to say they aren’t blowing stuff past batters. The parameters of the strike zone on a given night are going to impact finesse pitchers more than the Noah Syndergaards of the world who can reach back for a 98 MPH fastball when he needs it.

We can get an idea of where each pitcher is locating a ball by looking at their pitch location for each start so far. Take a look at the balls and strikes called in each outing for Hendricks:

Hendricks pitches v. Braves
Statcast - Baseball Savant
Hendricks pitches v. Brewers
Statcast - Baseball Savant

Now let’s take a look at the same maps for Hamels:

Hamels pitches v. Rangers
Statcast - Baseball Savant
Hamels pitches v. Brewers
Statcast - Baseball Savant

Pitch location

Two things jumped out at me in the above maps and it’s different for each pitcher. Kyle Hendricks appears to be getting an accurate strike zone called, but he’s throwing more balls higher in the zone. That’s a departure from previous years where he’s tended to stay down and on the corners to induce more ground ball contact. Here is one of Hendricks’ better starts against the Diamondbacks last September where Hendricks pitched 8⅔ innings with the following line: 3H 1R 1ER 1BB 8K:

Hendricks pitches v. Diamondbacks 2018
Statcast - Baseball Savant

Hamels is having a different problem. He’s throwing balls in generally the same place but he’s not getting a large number of calls. That is forcing him into the zone where he’s giving up hard contact like this disastrous pitch against Delino DeShields [VIDEO].

Catchers/framing

For Hamels, at least, that’s a lot of blown calls, some of which are close and some of which are less close. One thing that’s important to note, however, is that at least in Hamels’ starts, this isn’t a problem of Contreras’ framing. Victor Caratini has caught both of Hamels’ starts and Contreras has caught Hendricks. It is possible that both of the Cubs’ young catchers are struggling with framing (and the early epidemic of catchers interference seems to indicate that’s true).

Regardless, while the Cubs’ catchers may be part of the solution here, Hamels and Hendricks do better with a more expansive zone on the low corners. Since the front office hasn’t seemed interested in adding catching help, they’ll need to work on pitch placement another way.

Velocity

Hendricks is throwing the ball slower in 2019 than in 2018, however, I don’t think this is cause for alarm. I remember writing about this at the start of last season as well. Like Lester, Kyle seems to warm up over the course of the season and their lower velocity to start 2019 is in line with their lower velocity in 2018.

Hendricks velocity by pitch type by year
Brooks Baseball

Hamels’ velocity looks pretty much identical to his last three major league seasons:

Hamels velocity by pitch type by year
Brooks Baseball

Takeaways

Admittedly, these are small sample sizes and should be expected to even out over the course of a 162-game season. My sincere hope is that the hard contact that Hendricks and Hamels are giving up is more of a fluke than a trend, but it’s worth keeping an eye on as the weather gets warmer and hitters heat up. It could be a long season with the wind blowing out at Wrigley if Hamels and Hendricks continue to give up barrels at these rates.