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What’s going on with Kyle Hendricks?

He’s been a Cubs ace for years... but not lately.

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Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

From the time he was called up to the Cubs from the minor leagues in July 2014 through the end of the 2020 season, Kyle Hendricks pitched like the proverbial clockwork. You knew you could expect six or seven solid innings, maybe two or three earned runs allowed, sometimes fewer, lots of ground ball outs and if he had his changeup working, several strikeouts as well.

Beginning in 2021, though, that changed. Kyle was hit hard in April 2021, posting a 7.54 ERA and allowing 10 home runs in 22⅔ innings.

He did recover somewhat in 2021. In a 17-start stretch from May through July, he posted a 2.89 ERA and 1.170 WHIP, with just 18 walks in 106 innings, looking like old Kyle again. But in August and September 2021, he was terrible again, with a 7.39 ERA in 10 starts and nine home runs in 52⅓ innings.

This pattern has continued in 2022. Of Kyle’s 11 starts, four can be considered good-to-excellent — but three have been awful, with the rest in between.

Now, there’s this:

Even if Kyle does make the Sunday, June 12 start against the Yankees, that’s 11 days in between starts, the longest break he’s had in his MLB career (apart from 2017, when he spent some time on the then-disabled list).

So what’s going on here? First, let’s take a look at Kyle’s pitch selection charts from 2021 and 2022.

Statcast
Statcast

There’s not much difference in velocity there, though he’s used his four-seamer more this year than last. What about 2019, the last full season where Kyle did well?

Statcast

That one looks almost identical to 2021. So it can’t really be his pitch selection or velocity. I will note that Hendricks’ K rate has declined consistently from his first year in the major leagues, when he was striking out 8.4 per nine innings. This year it’s down to 5.7 per nine innings, which is pretty low for a modern starter. Meanwhile, his walk rate is up, a bit, to 2.9 per nine innings, compared to a career total of 2.0 per nine innings prior to 2022.

He’s also allowing home runs at a higher rate than before 2021. The 11 homers he has given up so far this year put him on pace to allow about 30 this year, pretty much the same as last year when he gave up 31.

Let me split up Kyle’s career starts another way. Indulge me here, if you will.

Pre-2021 Cubs selloff: 197 appearances (196 starts), 3.18 ERA, 3.70 FIP, 126 home runs allowed
Post-2021 Cubs selloff: 21 starts, 111 innings, 6.24 ERA, 5.49 FIP, 20 home runs allowed

That’s about six full seasons’ worth of starts pre-selloff, so the home run rate has gone up. As noted, the HR pace for this year is about 30, where pre-selloff it was about 21 per year.

What’s different about the Cubs now than pre-selloff?

That’s right, defense. A pitch-to-contact guy like Hendricks relies on solid defense behind him and the Cubs haven’t really had that since they traded away Anthony Rizzo and Javier Báez, in particular. The 2016 World Series champion Cubs might have been the second-best defensive team in major league history, per this National Review article. In my view, it’s not a coincidence that Hendricks’ best season ERA — 2.13 — was posted that year.

Now, this doesn’t explain the lowered K rate and elevated home run rate. That, I really don’t have an explanation for, other than Hendricks relies on pinpoint location for his pitches and if he doesn’t get it, the result can be either a walk or a player mashing a baseball out of the ballpark. It doesn’t help, most likely, that MLB keeps messing with the baseball, as has been documented here about last season and here just a month or so ago. This article quotes Hendricks on his issues after he allowed four home runs to the Diamondbacks last month:

But he relied on his fastball more than usual against Arizona on Friday. Hendricks threw 49 four-seam fastballs — a career high — which proved to be trouble. Five hits and three homers allowed were all via the four-seam fastball. The biggest factor in those pitches leading to five D-backs runs: location.

“I missed up, and those are the ones they put good swings on,” Hendricks said.

David Ross added this:

“He just didn’t have a good feel for his secondary [pitches] or didn’t throw enough,” Ross said. “A lot of fastballs just off. I probably would have liked to see him use a curveball a little bit more early on in that first inning.”

I’d agree with that conclusion: Location is what made Hendricks successful, as well as having an airtight defense behind him. It might be a while before he gets the latter back, so let’s hope he can figure out how to locate the way he was before 2021.

Kyle Hendricks has long been my favorite Cub, I like the way he always looks the same on the mound and is able (or was, before last year) to succeed without the 95 mile per hour velocity of most modern pitchers. With his velocity basically the same as it’s always been, if Kyle can figure things out he can absolutely be part of Jed Hoyer’s “Next Great Cubs Team.” I don’t have the answers, but Kyle is a really smart guy and I believe he can, and will, figure it out.

I’m looking forward to his next start, whether it’s this weekend against the Yankees or next week at Wrigley Field.