The recap to Sunday’s game was headlined “What’s wrong with Kyle Hendricks?”, though in reality, the outing he had against the Pirates wasn’t that bad overall. While there were several hard-hit outs, many of the hits he gave up were of the seeing-eye variety on soft contact. Weak contact is Kyle’s game, and he’s done that well enough in three of his seven starts this season:
Kyle’s three good starts: 19 innings, 1.42 ERA, 1.052 WHIP, three walks, 18 strikeouts, three HR
Kyle’s four bad starts: 15⅔ innings, 12.06 ERA, 2.106 WHIP, seven walks, 12 strikeouts, eight HR
That’s the difference between a Cy Young candidate... and a DFA candidate.
What’s going on here?
There are several possibilities.
The first is that this isn’t new for Kyle. In April 2021 — excluding Sunday’s start — he posted a 7.54 ERA and 1.765 WHIP. In five starts in April 2019, he posted a 5.33 ERA and 1.776 WHIP, before settling down and having a good season. After April 2019, he had a 3.15 ERA and 1.022 WHIP in 25 starts. It is perhaps not a coincidence, then, that Kyle had a 2.88 ERA and 0.996 WHIP in the 12 starts he made in 2020 — no April!
But what is it about April? Is it the cold weather?
I looked at all of Kyle’s starts where the game-time temperature was below 50 degrees. There have been 12 such games in Hendricks’ career. ERA? 2.66 in 67⅔ innings.
So that’s not it, in fact, as you can see above, over the course of his career Hendricks has actually been somewhat better in cold-weather games (all of which have been in April or May) than in other games. Career-wise, April is Kyle’s worst month — 4.78 ERA, 1.365 WHIP in 28 career starts, though he’s been almost as bad in June (4.63 ERA, 1.334 WHIP in 21 career starts). So it can’t be the weather.
It was suggested in the comments to my game recap that the new baseballs, which were made supposedly to decrease the distance on fly balls and reduce the number of home runs, could be at fault.
This is possible, to be sure, although at the moment Hendricks leads the major leagues in home runs allowed with 11. Again, there’s a big split between his good starts this year and the bad ones — just three homers allowed in 19 innings in the three good outings, eight in 15⅔ in the bad starts.
It could be that Hendricks takes a while to get his “feel” on the mound. In the seven first innings he’s thrown this year, he has a 19.29 (!) ERA and 2.857 WHIP. Seven of the 11 homers he’s given up have been in the first inning.
In all other innings in 2021 (27⅔ innings total): 2.92 ERA, 1.446 WHIP, four home runs. The WHIP is a bit high, the other numbers are closer to his career norms. So is it an issue of how he’s doing his warmup sessions? It probably isn’t the Wrigley bullpen, because all three of Kyle’s good outings this year have been at home (but then, three of the bad ones also have been at Wrigley).
The first-inning issue isn’t new, either. It happened in 2018 as well, when Kyle posted a 6.82 ERA and 1.242 WHIP in the first inning and a 2.77 ERA and 1.127 WHIP in all other innings. For his career, Hendricks has a 4.77 ERA and 1.265 WHIP in the first inning and a 2.91 ERA and 1.096 WHIP after the first inning.
In my view — and admittedly, I am simply a writer trying to make sense of this with no inside knowledge — it appears to be something about having the “feel” for the ball that Kyle isn’t able to get early in games, or perhaps something with the new baseball, or both. Hendricks has success when he has pinpoint control, command and location, and it’s possible that all three of these things are being affected by the new ball or not being comfortable on the mound in the first inning.
I don’t have answers here. I hope the Cubs coaching staff can come up with some, because the team needs Hendricks to be the guy he’s been for the previous seven seasons going forward.